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More valuable than ever during pandemic, RSS celebrates its substitute teachers

SALISBURY — This week, Rowan-Salisbury Schools is celebrating its substitute teachers, who have been particularly valuable during a pandemic that’s brought more absences than usual because of sickness and quarantines.

As part of that celebration, the district is peppering its social media accounts with photos and stories about the substitutes.

RSS started off the year with staffing problems. Teachers are already in demand in every school district, but two weeks into the school year the district was experiencing more than 200 staff absences every day. The district’s substitute provider was only able to fill about half of the absences each day.

The previous week’s substitute fill rate was 42%, though this week saw some improvement at 52%.

The result is teachers and substitutes have to cover additional classes and the district resorted to sending central office staff to schools to help fill in.

Three years ago, Janie Lesley became a substitute teacher  because she was looking for a way to still be of service to the community.

“I looked at my old, wrinkled hands one day and I thought, ‘You know these things are good for something,’ ” Lesley said.

Lesley started her career as an office assistant with the county before going to culinary school. After she graduated, her career took an unexpected turn when she started working with food services at the Rowan County jail.

Working there was not where she intended to go with her culinary skills, but the business side of her education served her well for managing food costs. She used some of her fancier skills on occasion catering events for the Rowan Sheriff’s Office.

She spent a couple years living the retired life before deciding to get into education, and she loves every minute of it.

“You never know what the day is going to bring and I like that,” Lesley said.

Lesley said there have been some challenges during the pandemic. She has covered additional classes during what would normally be a planning period. During the previous year, she said the daily cleaning between classes became difficult to keep up with.

The pandemic has not discouraged her. Lesley says she is glad to be able to work every day, wears a mask and has been vaccinated.

“I’m just as safe here as I am anywhere else, I feel,” Lesley said.

Brenda Ellis started serving as a substitute because she was looking for a challenge. Suffice it to say she found it.

“Each child has a different personality, and you deal with a lot of different personalities every day,” Ellis said.

Her background is in the medical field and with group homes. She enjoyed working with children at the group home and communicating with the kids there.

During the previous year, she filled in for a first grade class whose teacher was on maternity leave for months. Now she is only serving as a long-term sub. When she started out, she was working in a dozen local schools. Over time she pared down the schools to only a handful she enjoyed.

Now, Ellis works exclusively with North Rowan Elementary School.

She said she has tried to not let the pandemic affect her because the kids still need to learn.

Ellis has seen two teachers go on leave who she is now substituting for. She said this is not necessarily a bad thing for her. It is a challenge, but it also keeps her busy.

Some people have decided the pandemic is an OK time to get into subbing. David Trexler started serving as a substitute during the 2020-2021 year in the midst of the pandemic.

Trexler was looking for a career change, and his wife is a teacher. He received an email from Kelly Services, the district’s sub provider, and decided to go for it.

He said the faculty at North Rowan Middle treated him as part of the team and not just a substitute.

“Many of the students during that year asked me if I would be coming back to teach them this school year,” Trexler said. “I really enjoy when students that I am not teaching this year see me out, they tell me how they miss having me as a teacher.”

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