Substitute teacher Leslie Polson in a Woodburn High School PE class on Sept. 27, 2021 (Courtesy/Leslie Polson)

Leslie Polson has taught in Oregon classrooms for four decades, but last year, she ended up chopping vegetables.

Polson, a Salem substitute teacher, serves as president of the Oregon Substitute Teachers Association.

She said last year, when most districts in the state held classes online, was a difficult one for her profession. Previously, teachers relied on substitutes when they were sick or otherwise out for the day, but with online classes, it was more common for teachers to simply cancel live classes.

Work for Polson and other substitutes dwindled. To make ends meet, she took a job doing food preparation in the Woodburn School District, helping prepare to-go meals for students who were attending classes online.

“People were very frustrated about not working. I know some that were able to get unemployment and are now transitioning back into teaching, but there were lots of people that got other jobs because they couldn’t depend on substitute teaching,” Polson said.

She said those pandemic disruptions are one reason Oregon is now facing an acute shortage of substitute teachers.

That’s prompted the state’s Teacher Standards and Practices Commission to offer a new emergency substitute teacher license this fall. Districts or educational service districts would sponsor a candidate and pay for the license, which doesn’t require a bachelor’s degree or advance training.

Polson said she’s concerned about the move to allow more people with no teaching background to substitute teach in Oregon.

“The concern is that if you have people that are learning while they're doing and they may not work under the supervision of licensed people, that you have an uneven performance. Some people may be great and they may be have educators in their family, while others may not,” she said.

Polson has a master’s degree and teaching certificate. She studied art and wanted to become an art teacher, but her entering the field in the 1980s coincided with large cuts to Oregon school funding. Knowing a full-time position teaching art was unlikely, she began substitute teaching and has kept at it since while working other odd jobs to supplement her income.

The association’s goal is to make sure substitute teaching is professional. Since its inception, it has repeatedly lobbied against temporary licenses and other legislation requiring lesser qualifications for substitutes, according to its website.

“We are really wanting to maintain the professionalism of substitute teaching and make sure when teachers leave, they can leave a lesson plan where learning continues,” Polson said. Because Oregon's school year is already short, "it’s really important active teaching goes on through all the time schools are in.”

Polson’s association selected her this year as substitute teacher of the year, citing the work she did during the pandemic to support other substitutes and teach in bilingual classrooms where students were new to school and spoke neither English nor Spanish.

She’ll be honored at its annual conference later this month.

As Oregon schools moved to online classes, Polson led trainings for other substitutes on virtual tools like Zoom and Canvas, an online school management system.

“I had some people not knowing how to use the mic and not knowing how to use the camera,” she said.

The teacher who nominated Polson for the award described her as “unique, able to challenge students to communicate despite language differences, professional, supportive, accepting, kind, admired by the students and gifted with educational spirit,” according to an award announcement from the association.

Polson was born in Colombia and now lives by North Salem High School.

She mostly teaches in small districts around Salem and particularly enjoys working in bilingual schools and programs where she can meet students whose families come from all over the world.

“It’s like traveling and you don’t go anywhere,” she said.

Polson said the public, and sometimes other teachers, view substitutes as lesser educators.

She works with all grade levels and said she enjoys being able to deliver lesson plans when they’re left for her. Often, she said, especially in high school, that doesn’t happen.

“You don’t really do much teaching, you just are there to make sure they stay off their phones,” she said.

Especially teaching in small districts, Polson said she gets to know kids well and often works with the same students for years.

“You know the kids from the time they’re little because you go from one school to another,” she said. “You get to know them and watch them grow up.”

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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