Substitutes, Students Cope With Long Term Teacher Absences

Annie Nelson ’11
Features Editor 

With maternity leaves, illnesses and other personal reasons, teachers can be gone from the classroom for as much as a semester’s time. However, these absences are ameliorated by the presence of a qualified substitute teacher who can lead the class in the teacher’s stead.

“By contract and by federal law, teachers are entitled to leave for maternity and childbirth, elder care, illness, and caring for a sick relative,” Director of Human Resources for the Westport Public School system Marjorie Cion said.

In fact, according to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), eligible employees may take up to 12 work weeks off in any 12–month period within the cited circumstance.

This eligibility is defined by the FMLA as an employee who has been employed for at least a year and has worked at least 1,500 hours.

This spring, English teacher Barbara Robbins will be taking her second maternity leave in two and a half years.

Following April vacation, Robbins’ classes will resume, but with a new teacher – retired veteran of the Staples English department, Kathy Lea. Robbins and Lea, who are in a book club together, have already begun to prepare through e-mail correspondence.

“For me, it’s comfortable,” Lea said, in reference to her substitution, which comes almost five years after her formal retirement. “But the primary consideration is whether or not it works out for the students.”

Cion said that there is a “good list” of substitute teachers who are called on to fill in for long–term absences.

“Both the principal and the department chair interview for these replacement positions,” Cion said. “In most cases, the teacher will help us transition, which makes things easier for everyone.”

In Robbins’ case, she considers herself lucky that Lea was available to substitute. “I think that helps, knowing the climate of the school [as a retired teacher],” Robbins said. “I couldn’t feel more comfortable.”

Laura Finell ’10, who has Robbins this semester for her “Women in Literature” course, said she isn’t concerned because she will be leaving in May for her senior internship. However, she has had other experiences with long–term teacher absences.

In her freshman year at Staples, Finell had teacher Robin Sacilotto for math. However, like Robbins, Sacilotto also left halfway through the year on maternity leave and was replaced by a substitute shortly thereafter.

“[Having a new teacher] was definitely different and difficult to get used to,” Finell said. “I got used to it, but I’d say that some students [had more] difficulty adjusting.”

Emily Hanrahan ’11 has had a similar experience, except her teacher was gone for the majority of the first semester, rather than the second. In her Physics Honors class this year, Steve Roberts was absent for a significant period of time due to illness.

Dr. Nick Morgan, also a current physics teacher, replaced Roberts during this time. When it was time for Roberts’ return, he was gradually incorporated again into the classes, either sitting in or co–teaching with Morgan.

“It was weird to have a first day of school [again], three weeks into school,” Hanrahan said. “Now, Mr. Roberts gives us in–class help, while both [Roberts and Morgan] are available for outside assistance.”

While not all long–term substitutes are members of the department, Hanrahan said it was helpful that Morgan already had experience teaching physics. Lea agreed that there is also an advantage to the school district hiring teachers like her because she still has a lot of loyalty and affection to the community.

“When you have a younger staff, you are going to have families coming along, so there will be maternity leave,” Lea said. “[But when administration] is willing to actually hire back one of their own, so to speak, that actually is an expression of their concern for their students.”

Lea said she feels confident that in this circumstance, there will be a smooth transition for the students involved. After 36 years teaching in the Staples English department, she said, “I still think like an English teacher. It’s going to be fine for me to come back in.”