Recruit and Retain: The Future of Education

What a Policy Maker Learns from a Day as a Substitute

There’s something to be said for experience. Senator Kennedy (Louisiana) has stated that one can learn more about being a teacher -- or about being a child today – from a day of substitute teaching than one can from 100 hours of congressional committee testimony.

He has some basis for making the statement, having been an occasional substitute teacher for a number of years and having continued to teach in the schools a couple times a year as a senator. The experience taught has him a lot about education, and it can teach teachers something about advocacy.

Challenging Misconceptions

Kennedy has sometimes been at odds with colleagues about education. Teachers, he has stated, need resources and authority to do their jobs. There is a lot that gets in the way of learning, he maintains. He has pushed back on the idea that teachers can “just maintain discipline”, stating that teachers today are expected to be a lot of things like social workers, psychologists, nurses, and surrogate parents. In a CBS Morning interview, he stated that teachers teach children as they find them. (One child, he recalled, had written that she wished her daddy would stopping taking her mother’s money and hitting her.)

Kennedy has put forth legislation to encourage elected officials to go out into the schools. Not a half hour civics lesson, he has said – the whole day, complete with lunch room or bus duty. He wrote a nonbinding resolution, meaning colleagues wouldn’t actually be obligated. His senate resolution passed in late 2017 ( A majority of senators concurred that yes, it was a good idea for to spend a day a year in the schools substituting – at least theoretically.

Kennedy can be seen in footage from 2018 suggesting to the then Secretary of Education that she substitute teach for a day in the public schools and get members of the Department of Education to do so. There’s a lot to appreciate, though teachers may question to what extent the issue is what “kids today” experience. Some teachers have knowledge of problems that went on in long-ago schools that were not addressed. That, too, may play a role in advocacy efforts.

The Pedagogy Issue

Kennedy may have spent less time emphasizing pedagogy and ‘craft’ than mental health and parenting. Still, there are some lessons to draw here, too.

Kennedy has also been an associate professor at the post-secondary level .He credits this with his colorful speaking style, joking that it was the way to ensure that law students were actually listening and not viewing pornographic materials on their devices while he was talking.

The need to capture attention may be greater than it was in the 1960s when many legislators began their ‘educational careers’ as students. But he oldest senators were in elementary school in the 1940s. Fast-paced technology affects brain wiring, and some say it’s been going on since Sesame Street days. But he oldest senators were in elementary school in the 1940s.

A substitute teacher is at an advantage if he or she knows some pedagogy. Pedagogical content knowledge is a step beyond pedagogy. Even a seasoned educator may be less adept at first grade math than middle school civics.

Questions to Consider: Misconceptions about Teaching

Kennedy’s recollections may give one pause. “They’re fifth graders,” he recounts being told by his colleagues, when he recounted his experiences substitute teaching, “How hard can it be?” (

Those who have taught at the upper elementary level may ponder what it is about that age that would make teaching easier. (Things have a way of happening in fifth grade classrooms…)

The idea that teaching should be relatively easy may reflect the idea that if one knows the content, it’s not much of a stretch to teach it. It was a belief that held primacy in the era of No Child Left Behind era when teachers became ‘highly qualified’ largely by knowing the content, and basic skills tests for teachers became commonplace. Part of the assumption was that children failed to learn the basics because their teachers hadn’t mastered them.

Basic skills testing is on the decline. Many governments are focusing on other areas of teacher development. But old saws about the failures of the educational system and the failures of teachers remain. They can still shape policy.


Senator Kennedy is not the only DC policymaker to put on his substitute hat. Representative Dusty Johnson (South Dakota), who had done some substituting many years earlier, recently returned for a day to teach middle school. Johnson stated that substituting increased his respect for teaching; he expressed something that a lot of people have felt at some point or another: that lawmakers like to “opine on things they have no real exposure to” (

So how cynical is a teacher to be when it comes to getting policy makers or the public to understand public school education?

Lawmakers’ struggles to get legislators to understand education can paint a bleak picture – or a promising one. On the one hand, lawmakers simply can’t understand education as well if they have not experienced it. On the other hand, Kennedy’s experiences, and the lessons he’s tried to bring back, demonstrate that opinions are not beyond being swayed by experience.

Teachers may have personal experiences to add. Kennedy has taught as low as fourth grade. Kindergarten and primary grade teachers arguably spend even more time switching out their hats.

Teachers may also want to hone their advocacy vocabulary. They may, for example, be aware of the difference between content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge but not be prepared to address the issue effectively with those outside education.

But ultimately, what many advocates are advocating is storytelling and a human touch.