LOVEVILLE – Jason Kramer scrunches his 6-foot frame into a tiny wooden chair, as a group of playful four-year-olds serve him plastic roasted chicken, plastic cupcakes and a plastic grilled cheese sandwich.
“You didn’t cut it up or anything,” Kramer enthuses after one student hands him a chicken wing.
It may have been Kramer’s day off from classes at the College of Southern Maryland, but that doesn’t mean he was not in school.
Kramer is one of hundreds of college students who moonlight as substitute teachers in Maryland. Although some of the students are themselves just a couple years out of high school, some school officials view them as great resources for substitute-starved schools.
“It is harder to find qualified substitutes with college degrees because of limited resources,” said Karla Laws, substitute coordinator for Talbot County schools.
“We are always in need … it’s considered part-time, temporary employment, so turnover rate is always high,” added Laws, who estimates that college students make up about 14 percent of Talbot’s substitute teaching pool.
In St. Mary’s County, where Kramer, 20, lives and works, about 10 percent of the system’s substitute teachers are college students, said Richard Smith, human resource supervisor for the school system. Although many counties are not sure of the exact number of college student subs, officials agree they make up a significant portion.
For instance, Elizabeth Huber, substitute personnel coordinator for Frederick County Public Schools, said she hired close to 70 college students this year.
State law requires school employees to pass a criminal background check and be at least 18 years old. But there are no statewide education minimums for substitute teachers.
Most counties require a high school degree – or degree equivalence – to substitute. Some school systems, such as Howard County’s, also require some college credits.
Substitute teachers must have a high school diploma to work in St. Mary’s County. Like most counties, a substitute teacher without a bachelor’s degree is paid slightly less than more qualified applicants. For teachers with degrees, pay bumps up from $50 to $60 a day.
Each substitute teacher has to participate in a two-day training session – focusing on classroom management and instruction – before he or she enters a classroom, Smith said. Substitute teachers undergo a similar program in Cecil County.
Kramer, a sophomore education major at the College of Southern Maryland, completed the program about a year ago and he said he tries to work twice a week.
He also had to observe two classrooms for a couple hours before he could teach. He said once he started teaching, he noticed there is “a big difference” between what he learned in class and observed during the training.
“Little things, like walking to a classroom, are so much harder than they sound,” he said.
Kramer said he loves it when elementary students wave to him like he’s “an everyday teacher.” He said he decided to substitute so he could “interact with kids” – an opportunity he would have missed if he stayed in his college classroom.
Janet Fowler, assistant principal at Benjamin Banneker Elementary School where Kramer taught a pre-kindergarten class last week, said it would “be a dreadful thing” to deny students the opportunity to work in a classroom because of their age.
If the college student fails, “you can always say ‘no’ the next time,” she added.
Principal Maureen Montgomery met Kramer when she taught him in middle school. She said he is very comfortable with kids and “likes what he is doing.”
When his students are working or playing independently, Kramer strolls around the classroom with his hands in the pockets of his khaki trousers, stopping to help open a glue stick or to ask a student about the firefighter hat he is wearing.
During playtime, students vied for Kramer’s attention: One girl grabbed his hand to show him a painting, just as some cooks in the play kitchen served him a plate of plastic food.
“I’ll be back in a little bit, okay?” he told the young cooks.
Kramer said he thinks he relates to kids because he understands “where [students] are coming from.”
Elementary school students don’t seem to notice his youth, Kramer said, but it is very obvious when he substitutes in two of the area high schools because he has taught friends.
“It’s fine because [my friends] know they don’t have any special privileges,” he said. “They know I’m a sub and it’s a job.”
Montgomery said she hopes the students want to keep their jobs – she thinks that by hiring college students, she is “tapping into” the next generation of teachers.
Kramer said he plans to teach math for fourth or fifth graders. But Kramer still can’t get used to being called “Mr. Kramer.” “The nametag helps … to remember I’m not a Jason,” he said.