DOWNTOWN — While teaching special education students with various communication deficiencies, Vincent Bernota recalls one of the most significant moments in his career as a substitute.
The game was hangman, and the secret word was “computer science.” With only a few letters left before “game over,” a student punched out his guess on his computer. Just like that, the game was won and the imaginary man was saved from sudden death.
This moment was particularly significant because this student could only communicate by typing on his special computer connected to his wheelchair.
“It was just a joy that I got through to this (student),” said Bernota, a substitute teacher in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District for over a decade.
This was just one of many inspiring experiences that led Bernota to organize an informal dinner last Friday evening, Nov. 20, honoring substitute teachers during the National Education Association’s Substitute Educators Day, part of the 88th annual NEA American education week.
A dozen fellow substitute teachers, full-time teachers, and supporters gathered on the patio at Panera Bread restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard and Fifth Street to eat, swap stories, and to relax after a week of work and stress.
“This was a golden opportunity to join colleagues across California and the country and celebrate the great job that the substitute educators are doing,” Bernota said.
At the start of the evening, Bernota briefly addressed the intimate gathering, emphasizing that the purpose of Substitute Educators Day was not only to emphasize their importance and to increase the respect for substitute educators, but also to advocate for long-term substitutes to receive appropriate health and wage benefits.
However, Santa Monica-Malibu Classroom Teachers Association President Harry Keiley, who represents over 100 substitute teachers in the district, said that immediate changes concerning benefits should not be expected.
“In this economic climate, it is unrealistic to talk about enhancements of any types,” Keiley said. “In the long run, we want to make changes and advancements and to make sure our needs (are) salved. We want to make sure we are respected.”
These substitutes not only desire appropriate recognition and respect from their professional peers, but also respect from the many students who take them for granted.
“When the [regular] teacher is not there, [students feel they] don’t have to work as hard. If the substitute is too strict, students can give attitude back,” said Verrall Fowler, an 11th grader at Santa Monica High School.
Josh Dick, who mainly substitutes at John Adams Middle School, is quite familiar with having to deal with uncooperative students.
While teaching an eighth grade class, one of Dick’s students had to be escorted to the office by school personnel after ignoring a referral that was prompted by the student’s disruptive behavior.
“[He] started running around and throwing things. I asked him to go and gave him a referral, but he didn’t go to the office,” Dick said.
Despite these trying moments in the classroom, Dick, who has been substituting for four years, still finds fulfillment and motivation in those students that are willing to take direction.
“I like teaching them, and I genuinely enjoy their energy,” Dick said.
In addition, Dick continues to teach because he feels that substituting fits perfectly into his current lifestyle as an aspiring musician.
For many like Dick, the flexible schedule that substitute teaching allows has been one of the main draws.
Sue Belonis, a former stock broker, turned to substitute teaching in the SMMUSD to allow her more time with her daughter.
“[As a stock broker], I left at 5 in the morning and would return at 10 at night,” she said.
As a substitute, Belonis was now able to better manage her family life, while channeling her experience in math and her enthusiasm for science into a job that aided students.
Despite their various backgrounds, specialties, and reasons for entering this profession, each substitute has to make sure they perform the fundamental task of following the lesson plan set by the regular teacher.
“The job of a substitute teacher is to continue the job that the regular teacher is doing,” said Bernota. “We are like the second team off the bench. Every championship team needs a strong bench.”