Sara Stevenson is a librarian at O. Henry Middle School in Austin. She is retiring at the end of the school year.

She wrote this tribute to the two substitute teachers who died in the massacre at Santa Fe High School in Texas.

Substitute Teacher Martyrs

After each school shooting, I usually have to wait a couple of days before I can read about the victims. Once they are personalized and named, the force of the tragedy strikes another blow. In this latest mass shooting at Santa Fe High School, I noticed that two of the fatalities were not just teachers, but substitute teachers.

Substitute teachers are our unsung heroes. In Austin ISD, substitute teachers make between $75 and $85 per day of service, the latter if they are Texas certified teachers. (Long-term substitute commitments receive an additional $20 after twenty consecutive days). Still, the typical rate is $12 per hour. This compares to an average of $9 per hour for beginning workers at McDonalds.

I went to high school in the 1970s, and I’m still ashamed at how we treated one of our more famous substitute teachers: Mr. Story. He was a retired teacher who wore a suit with a Goodbye Mr. Chips cap and rode his bicycle to school. Times were a’changin’, and Mr. Story was far from cool, so we ignored him, talked to our classmates, and didn’t take him seriously. We snickered when he got angry.

Classroom management is difficult, both a subtle art and practice that takes a career to master, but the regular teacher has the great advantage of setting the tone, the perimeters, and, over time, building relationships with her students. The substitute teacher often enters hostile territory, where children trade names with their peers, pretending to be each other, and often treat the guest teacher disrespectfully. And it’s not just the students. In some schools both staff and faculty treat the substitutes disparagingly, ignoring them in the lunchroom or faculty lounge.

With so many teachers being women of child-bearing age, hiring strong, effective, and committed substitute teachers is especially important during the minimum six weeks’ maternity leave, a sixth of the entire school year. Many substitute teachers are retired teachers who need the extra funds. Austin ISD is one of only twenty Texas school districts which contributes to both the Teacher Retirement System and Social Security. 40% of teachers nationwide depend solely upon their TRS pension. In Texas, retired teachers often go many years before seeing a cost-of-living increase.

Other substitutes are prospective teachers, wisely practicing and “shopping” for a school they would like to work in permanently. Still, I worry that the demanding and often frustrating, sometimes humiliating, experience of subbing will discourage them from the teacher career path, especially in Austin where the unemployment rate is now a low 2.8%.

Substitute teachers are truly the forgotten force of the education world, and these two martyrs, Cynthia Tisdale and Ann Perkins, lost their lives so that the instructional day could continue in the regular teacher’s absence.

I look at their photos in the newspaper today and read:

Anne Perkins, a substitute teacher known as “Grandma Perkins” to her students.

Cynthia Tisdale, a substitute teacher, mother of three and grandmother of eight children.

They lost their lives in the service of educating young people on the lowest rung of the teacher appreciation ladder. These women were needlessly martyred because our elected officials refuse to deal with the epidemic of gun violence in our society.