The Education of Brother Mac

Torthel McClodden taught at one of the worst high schools in the city and loved it. Now they don't want him back.

For the past year, he told me, he'd been teaching biology. Seeing nothing in his background regarding that subject, I ask what he knows of biology. "I don't know a damn thing about biology," he says.

Brother Mac did what all substitute teachers do when they find themselves teaching subjects they know nothing about -- they cram the textbook, they ask the experienced teachers for help, they wing it. The district's substitute pool has about 725 people. On any given day, more than 300 substitute teachers are working in public-school classrooms all over the city. By definition, none of them is qualified to teach. All have at least 60 college credit hours, the only requirement necessary to teach (besides passing a police-record check). They are not certified full-time teachers because they either don't have a college degree and the requisite courses or haven't passed the state certification test.

Brother Mac outside Beaumont High School, where he can't teach anymore
Jennifer Silverberg
Brother Mac outside Beaumont High School, where he can't teach anymore
Brother Mac says the students at Beaumont were "as motivated as you showed concern for their lives."
Jennifer Silverberg
Brother Mac says the students at Beaumont were "as motivated as you showed concern for their lives."

And yet about 300 of them are, like Brother Mac, considered "permanent" or "long-term" substitutes. Some have been teaching the same subject at the same school full time, every day, all school year long. Some have been teaching for six, eight, 10 years. The rest of the names in the pool are people who work on and off, a day or few days at a time.

Before last fall, substitutes got just $62 a day for teaching. If they worked for 25 days straight, on the 26th consecutive day their pay jumped to $132.50 a day, retroactive to the first day. Long-term subs were allowed one sick day a month and time off for family funerals. In August, the district changed the pay-and-benefits policy. The starting sub pay was increased to $85 from $62, with the same $132.50 a day after 25 consecutive days, but the retroactive provision was taken away. Sick days and bereavement time were also eliminated. In effect, the changes improved pay for short-term subs but penalized the long-term subs.

On the face of it, it makes little sense to reduce benefits for the substitutes who teach all year long -- especially in a district that, on any given day, has 300 or more full-time certified-teacher vacancies it cannot fill.

David Flieg oversees a small staff facing a gargantuan task. As head of personnel for the St. Louis Public Schools, he is on a relentless mission to lure and hire certified teachers -- and to retain the teachers already here. The district, which has about 100 schools and about 3,800 teaching positions, is always short 250-350 teachers. It's a never-ending battle for Flieg. Even as he struggles to fill vacancies, more are created each day when teachers retire or leave for better jobs. Last year, nearly 240 teachers left the district or retired.

Flieg uses all the standard recruitment practices: ads in local niche publications (he added foreign-language publications to his list this year), ads on the Internet, two career fairs each year to sign up teachers on the spot pending certification, reaching out to third-year college students with a bargain -- get your fourth year of tuition paid if you teach for three years in the city schools after graduation. He is also putting together, with help from local developers and banks, a $15,000 loan program to help teachers make the down payments on their first homes; if they work three years in the district, the $15,000 will be forgiven.

Statewide, there is no shortage of qualified teachers, but many change careers rather than take a job in the St. Louis district. Besides the usual bias against city schools (crime, inadequate academic resources, etc.), the starting pay for teachers (about $26,000 now) lags behind that in suburban districts. In its desperation, the district sent a two-person team last year to South Africa to recruit teachers; the privately financed trip netted a dozen math and science teachers.

Flieg says he will try anything as long as he thinks it will work. "We're leaving no stone unturned," he says. "We're not letting anybody get away. Anybody who shows interest in the St. Louis Public Schools, we're gonna grab them the best we can. It's like the all-state basketball player -- if he shows any interest in Mizzou, that new coach down there, (Quin) Snyder, he's going to be at his house, talking to his parents, going out to the school -- that's what we do."

A lifelong St. Louisan, Flieg started teaching in the city schools in the mid-'60s; he went on to become principal and then into administration, supervising elementary principals, and now serves as head of personnel overseeing a 28-person department, only one of whom is a full-time recruiter. The Chicago Public Schools, for instance, have a 300-person human-resources department, covering about 600 schools, or about 50 staff members for every 100 schools. Flieg has 28 people to cover the city's 100 schools.

But Flieg is quick to note that the district is short of money, and he is quick to defend his higher-ups. "We don't have extra money to spare," he says. "Our money, as best as we can, we put it into teacher salaries. So I have to make do with what I have."

The recruitment effort -- the financial incentives, the career fairs -- is directed at finding new teachers. None of it is directed at the existing group of 700-plus substitute teachers, especially the 300 or so who are long-term or permanent substitutes. After all, these are people already teaching in the schools -- doing a satisfactory job, according to the principals -- and yet they aren't qualified to teach what they are teaching. But the district sets aside virtually no money to get these substitutes -- the Brother Macs of the world -- to finish college and get certified. No district money is allocated to pay their tuition if they choose to pursue certification.

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