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Ryann Hopp, 19, is a substitute teacher at Kinnick High School, from which he graduated last June. His tie and coffee mug denote authority.
Ryann Hopp, 19, is a substitute teacher at Kinnick High School, from which he graduated last June. His tie and coffee mug denote authority. ()

YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — When Ryan Hopp graduated last summer from Kinnick High School, he planned to continue on in school. He just didn’t think it would be in the same school. And he didn’t think he’d be the teacher.

But the 19-year-old, now known as Mr. Hopp, is one of Kinnick High School’s substitute teachers. He earns $87.50 each day he fills in for a sick, vacationing or otherwise absent teacher.

“When I first started, it was weird,” said Hopp. “I was seeing people in school that I’d been hanging out with.”

It’s an unusual arrangement, made possible by the shortage of substitute teachers for many Department of Defense schools in Japan — and in Hopp’s case, by the fact that the college in Florida he applied to appears to have lost his application, leaving him with some unexpected free time.

Hopp has a few college credits under his belt. That means he actually has more educational qualifications than Department of Defense Dependents Schools in the Pacific region require. Job vacancy ads for DODDS substitute teachers state that the “best qualified” candidate holds a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college, plus 18 semester hours of teacher training — but the reality, many times, is closer to the ad’s stated minimum qualification: a high school diploma.

The qualifications

It’s up to local school officials to decide what, within the DODDS qualifications range, will supply enough subs. The standard in Japan has been steadily decreasing, officials said.

The minimum requirement for subs in mainland Japan used to be 60 college credit hours, according to Ed Banka, personnel division chief for DODDS Pacific. That dropped to 30, then to 15, and finally, last school year, to zero.

If nothing else, it has made for consistency: All schools in the Pacific now have the same requirement, Banka said. Korea, as well as Iwakuni and Okinawa in Japan, have long required only a high school diploma, he said; that’s because historically, remote areas have the hardest time finding subs.

And Banka said a high school diploma, specified on the DODDS Web site, is not, in fact, required. A GED credential, for those who left high school before graduation but later passed a General Education Development test, is viewed by the government as equivalent to a diploma. The ad was in error, Banka said, and should be changed.

According to the DODDS personnel database in Washington, D.C., 38 substitute teachers on the rolls for Yokosuka’s five schools had earned no more than a high school diploma or GED. That’s more than a third of the total of 105 subs and the same number as subs who had earned a bachelor’s degree or higher. Twenty-nine subs had earned some college credits, although how many credits was not specified.

Banka said there was no way to differentiate between subs with a high school diploma and those with a GED.

He also cautioned that some of the subs listed as having earned only a high school diploma or GED might actually have had further studies but were not listed as such because they didn’t provide college transcripts. He said he thought that number was negligible, however.

The erosion of educational credentials troubles some educators. “We’ve lowered the bar as low as we can,” said Jim Journey, Ikego Elementary principal. And Journey said he really, really needs more subs. “We need ’em,” he said. “We need ’em bad.”

Finding teachers

Recruiting substitute teachers for overseas schools serving military families presents special difficulties, however, perhaps especially in Japan.

The base population is highly mobile, with servicemembers and their spouses, who comprise almost the total substitute teacher population, arriving and leaving again, often in two years or less.

And in Japan, more lucrative ways to make money exist for those motivated to do so.

Repeatedly mentioned as the biggest competitor for subs is the lure of teaching English to Japanese people.

“I can teach an English class from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m., have a nice tea with the Japanese ladies and probably make $50, tax-free, and get lunch out of it,” Journey said. “Or be with second-graders all day and be used and abused.”

Less frequently mentioned was modeling opportunities presented to some Americans living in Japan.

Other factors also play a role, officials said. Only U.S. citizens with DODDS sponsorship qualify to sub, limiting the pool primarily to military members’ spouses or other family members.

Then there’s the paperwork. The application form is lengthy and can be daunting. “I picked up my packet in May. I filled it out in August,” said Sharon Soileau, who subs at all the Yokosuka schools.

Once the form is sent in to the personnel office on Okinawa, it can take a month, or two or longer, to be returned, school officials say — although the personnel office points out that the turn-around time is shorter if the form is correctly and completely filled out. In any event, by then, someone intent on finding a job probably already did.

“Part of it is the system is broken,” Journey said. “Part of it is we don’t have a lot of applicants.”

Elementary schools like Journey’s generally are hit hardest because young children tend to pass around viruses. “During flu season, it’s not uncommon at all to have five or six people out a day,” Journey said.

The shell game

When that happens, Journey might cover a class for part of the day, spelled by teachers on breaks, reading specialists and sometimes office staff. Or perhaps the music teacher will have to fill in, meaning no music class that day, or the library might be closed for part of the day as the librarian covers a class. “We do the best we can. It’s kind of like a big shell game,” Journey said.

Not all schools in Japan are equally affected. Yokota High School principal Richard Schleuter said he had no problem finding subs. “I have a list I call,” he said. “It hasn’t been a concern.”

While it is possible to be a great substitute teacher without formal education beyond high school — comedian Bill Cosby has a GED, the GED Web site says — generally, it’s not ideal to have subs who’ve had little schooling themselves, educators say.

Journey, for instance, said a couple of his subs are women with master’s degrees. “They’re still not necessarily teachers,” he said, “but they’ve been to school, they understand the value of school. If nothing else, they have more experience in the educational system.”

Soileau, who said she was “shocked” to learn she could sub without a college degree (she has some college credits), and who recently found herself discussing gerunds with middle-schoolers, said she thought subs should have some post high-school education. Otherwise, she said, “It’s too easy to become a baby sitter.”

U.S. standards vary

According to the Substitute Teaching Institute at Utah State University, many school districts in the United States also report difficulty finding good substitute teachers. Requirements for stateside subs vary, but at least 20 states require a bachelor’s degree. Many require trained, certificated teachers, others a bachelor’s degree with some credit hours in education. Some use their sub pool to determine who should be hired full time.

Still, half the states require only a high school diploma, according to the institute, which offers training for non-credentialed substitute teachers. The institute points out that sub days add up: By the time students graduate, they will have had a full year taught by subs, according to the institute.

DODDS teachers are required to have prepared three days of highly detailed, supposedly fool- proof lesson plans for guiding subs, to lessen the impact of their absence.

A Kinnick English teacher spent weeks preparing lesson plans to last throughout her maternity leave, said school principal Tari Wright, and the students are doing well. They’re reading “Romeo and Juliet” and “Inherit the Wind” with their long-term sub, Steven Means, who has a degree in marketing and worked for years in the insurance industry.

But knowing teaching techniques, classroom management, how to handle students and the subject matter at hand matters.

“The stronger the quality of subs you’ve got, the better education the kids are getting,” Journey said. “Two plus two is four, but why it’s four and why it’s always four, and how you can show that — that’s teaching.”

Jennifer Richardson, 22, recently started to sub at Ikego after deciding against Navy re-enlistment. She thought she’d sub a few days here and there while waiting for her husband to finish his tour of duty. But Ikego has needed Richardson, who earned 60 college credit hours while on active duty, every day since she started at the beginning of the year.

“I’ve had calls from Sullivan (Elementary) and Kinnick, but I said I was already working,” she said. Her sub experience has been good, she said, and it’s made her think about becoming a teacher.

Hopp also has been in demand at the high school, too, acting as a paid tutor when he’s not subbing. The former wrestler and B-plus student said that at first school officials were uncertain he’d be responsible. So he made a serious effort to project an air of authority. He carted around a coffee mug to class, kept his demeanor businesslike, dressed formally. “I wore nothing but suits and ties,” he said.

A natural leader

Pretty soon, being in charge of a classroom seemed more natural. To his surprise, he said, even his younger sister acted respectfully when he subbed in one of her classes. Other students also have accepted him as a teacher.

“I had him for government class,” said Nakita Jordan, a Kinnick senior. “He’s an exceptional substitute teacher. He lays down rules. If you ask him a question, he knows the answer. If he doesn’t, we look it up together.”

Dennis Rozzi, assistant superintendent for DODDS in South Korea, said he, too, employs a recent high school grad in his high school. “He only subs in music class. And he happens to be an excellent saxophone player,” Rozzi said.

But the sub supply in South Korea is not a problem, Rozzi said. While South Korea generally has a high turnover rate for its full-time teachers, with many transferring to other DODDS locations, Rozzi said, “We have a good supply of subs: dependent spouses of both sexes. Most of our subs are college educated, and we’ve even had state-certified teachers.”

South Korean DODDS schools may enjoy a larger sub pool in part, Rozzi said, because Seoul is a posting for senior officers and enlisted, and both they and their spouses generally are college graduates.

Frank O’Gara, a DODDS spokesman in Europe, said the number of subs there and their educational credentials vary. “Some years, you’ll have a boatload of teachers,” he said. “Other times, we’ll have a drought.”

School administrators have to work with what they have, O’Gara said. “You have to set up a hierarchy. When we had certified teachers, they were first, then we went to people with a college degree,” he said. “Then there are occasions — for us, the doors are going to open at 8 o’clock every morning, and an adult has to be in there.”

author headshot
Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
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