Opinion

At a crossroads in my life, I became a substitute teacher in Kansas. Here’s what I learned.

September 29, 2022 3:33 am

Author Ashley Motley left her job and learned what it takes to become an emergency substitute teacher. She recommends all lawmakers and education lobbyists spend at least a few days in the shoes of a teacher. (Getty Images)

Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Ashley Motley is currently working as an emergency substitute teacher in Manhattan.

Last month, I left my communications position working for a statewide elected official. Experiencing the stress of a “big job” during an election year, I was actually learning what the Kansas teacher shortage means. I didn’t realize it at the time, though, and I still had much more to learn. Emotionally understanding and empathizing with teachers and administrators was even further away.

But let’s back up a moment. I have an 8-year-old daughter in third grade who is on an IEP plan, and a 3-year-old son who we just moved to the district’s public preschool program. My daughter has a rare genetic syndrome and was diagnosed as dyslexic about a year ago. Her school experience thus far has been a continuous mix of medical discovery, understanding learning disabilities, navigating special education in the midst of a global pandemic, and trying to piece together public and private resources. My son is completely “I’m-all-in-let’s-do-this-school-thing-skinned-knees-on-the-playground.” He moves fast and loud, is creative, and is highly inquisitive.

I have been thankful for the support of dedicated educators for the last three years as we have navigated my kids’ school experiences. So when I found myself needing to decide my next step, I decided to become an emergency substitute teacher.

The process first involves going through a Kansas Bureau of Investigation background check and paying for fingerprinting. My local police department helped me complete his process. Then I finished requesting my transcripts and completed the Kansas State Department of Education’s online application.

Once my license was processed — about a two-week wait — the final step was to go through the district’s orientation.

This involved gathering basically every identifying document I possess. And then there’s that one thing on the list of requirements I waited as long as possible to do: getting a tuberculosis skin test. With everything in hand, I went to orientation, did some more paperwork, and waited a couple of days for the district’s own background check to go through and my badge to be ready.

I have been thankful for the support of dedicated educators for the last three years as we have navigated my kids’ school experiences. So when I found myself needing to decide my next step, I decided to become an emergency substitute teacher.

– Ashley Motley

The evening after receiving my badge, I arrived on my neighbor’s doorstep with a bottle of crisp white wine in hand. She teaches fifth grade in our district and had agreed to sit me down and show how she prepared for subs in her classroom with an organized binder.

“Not everyone does this, but it is best practice,” she told me calmly. “Be ready for the handwritten lesson plans from teachers that weren’t planning to be gone.”

Her plans were exactly as you imagine, with a fun font, organized schedules and important notes about each of her students. She had constructed everything so carefully that one would need to know about each of her students’ personalities.

Her husband then walked in with Crumbl cookies. It was halfway into a gooey chocolate chip one that we found the soul of the conversation — that sparkling moment when I felt I had finally settled into my thoughts with a trusted friend and my reflections were vocalized.

“I’m afraid,” I said.

And I was — of failing a teacher who has prepared careful lessons or one that had to leave suddenly, of losing control of classroom management, of learning that I might not belong in a classroom. After sharing these fears, my friend smiled and quietly said: “You will fail. It’s going to happen. And it’s OK.”

She was right. Since that conversation, I have been with high schoolers learning language arts, middle schoolers learning basic math and preschoolers ready for story time. What I have learned is that to do it, to show up and be there for your students and the teachers around you, you block out the public debate about what public education should be. You put on a brave face and summon your calm voice for students.

Every time I am in a school, at least one teacher says: “Thank you for being here.”

My response is always the same back to them: “No, thank you for being here.”

It is a dangerous game for anyone to make decisions about education policy without stepping foot in a classroom. I encourage all lawmakers and education lobbyists to spend at least a few days in the shoes of those they represent. Teachers are there, waiting to share their experiences — which sometimes differ wildly from the headlines we read. All we have to do is listen.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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Ashley Motley
Ashley Motley

Ashley Motley is currently working as an emergency substitute teacher in Manhattan. She has returned to education after serving the greater part of past year as director of communications for the Kansas state treasurer. Ashley started her career in 2011, working within career services in higher education until the fall of 2021. She is now pondering a re-career as a K-12 teacher and enjoying the fall with her 8-year-old daughter, Evelyn; 3-year-old son, Sawyer; and husband, Ben.

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