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The FASTA the Better

Three years ago a handful of people gathered over coffee in the living room of Shirley Kirsten '68 and discussed the status of substitute teachers in Fresno, California. With wages of just $65 a day and no health benefits, Shirley and her colleagues decided that substitute teachers needed to take action and organize. Their goal? To earn the respect, benefits, and wages to which they were entitled.

Th group's efforts resulted in the formation of an organization called FASTA, the Fresno Area Substitute Teachers Association, with a quirky motto: "The FASTA the Better." Attempts to organize some 700 substitute teachers were resisted by both the Fresno Unified School District and the Fresno Teachers Association, which represents 4,000 full-time teachers. "The district gave us a lot of difficulties," Shirley said. "They obviously didn't want us to organize." Despite the obstacles, FASTA succeeded in bargaining their daily pay up to $84 or $94 per day, depending on the assignment, though they still lack health benefits.

A freelance writer, concert pianist, and mother of six, Shirley began substitute teaching after her son's class went through four substitute math teachers in one year. As the daughter of a woman who once chained herself to a New York City hotel pillar to protest working conditions, the granddaughter of a man who helped organize garment district workers, and an Oberlin student during the turbulent late '60s, political activism has always surrounded and inspired Shirley.

Her efforts have not stopped at the local level. On July 14, Shirley delivered her political lesson plan to about 70 participants in the first National Conference for Substitute Teachers held in Washington, D.C.--largely a result of substitute teachers who had met via the Internet.

"We have been isolated for too long, and we now need to get together under one umbrella," Shirley said in the conference's keynote speech, "and that umbrella is that we demand respect and health benefits and due process."

Shirley's message and the larger conference come at a time of one of the most severe shortages of substitute teachers in memory. On any given day, up to 10 percent of the nation's classrooms are overseen by substitute teachers. The shortage has led some school districts to raise wages, but more often the requirements to sub have been lowered; in half the states, a high school diploma is all that's needed. Of approximately 800,000 substitute teachers nationwide, only about 2 percent belong to organized bargaining units. The national conference was the first step to changing the negative ways in which substitute teachers are regarded and has alerted national attention to a long overlooked problem.

One of the most important outcomes of the conference has been the newly formed National Substitute Teacher Alliance (NSTA) of which Shirley is president. With an executive board with representatives from 14 states, the alliance has adopted a Bill of Rights for Substitute Teachers based upon the model of the Michigan Professional Substitute Teachers' Association. The provisions include higher wages, access to due proccess, employer-provided health services, and unbaised consideration for contractual employment when available. As Shirley notes, the organization is about more than just receiving higher wages; it's about substitute teachers receiving the dignity and respect they have earned as professional educators.

Melissa Ray is a senior English major with a concentration in women's studies.