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Teacher Martha Phelps hugs Bella Head, a student whom she's worked with for four years, at this year's high school graduation ceremony.

No substitute for experience with this teacher

Martha Phelps knows that substitute teachers aren’t always respected. But she also knows what a tough and demanding job it can be.

Phelps, an Ashland resident and longtime educator in the Rogue Valley, has lived up to the challenge and recently learned that she has been named as one of two recipients of the 2018 Oregon State Substitute Teacher of the Year award.

Phelps earned her undergraduate degree in English literature at the University of Oregon. She then went on to earn her master’s in education from the University of Washington. Those few years spent away from home were enough to draw her back to Southern Oregon.

She took her first education position at McLoughlin Middle School in 1986 and stayed with the Medford School District for 16 years, weaving in and out of different grade levels and often working with at-risk youth.

“It was very rewarding,” Phelps said. “Sometimes the kids that have a harder time learning and a harder time attending class … when they make changes, when they experience success, you can really feel it.”

Her father was a professor for many years at now-Southern Oregon University and her mother was a kindergarten teacher. Although she never planned on being an educator herself, she said it felt natural after growing up with daily dinner conversations revolving around education.

In 2000, she decided to take a break to focus on her family. During that break from full-time teaching, she worked with a non-profit organization developing outdoor art programs for children.

Around the time her daughter was in middle school, about five years ago, she decided summer camps and weekend workshops weren’t enough. So, she started subbing. Now, she mostly substitutes for teachers in a wide array of subjects at the high school, but occasionally will substitute at middle schools in the valley.

The award comes from the Oregon Substitute Teacher Association (OSTA). In a letter Phelps sent in after her nomination, she said, “Substitute teaching allowed me to return to traditional classrooms in a way I hadn’t tried before."

She added that teachers also “know that it is not a job for the faint-hearted.”

She said as a student, she was rough on her substitute teachers and realized that she had little respect for subs who acted more like babysitters than educators. That has influenced one of her core values in teaching.

“Whether in a classroom for an hour, a day or a long-term assignment, I am committed to pedagogue and youth mentorship rather than being a placeholder while the ‘regular instructor’ is away,” Phelps said.

She said she her relationship with her students is her favorite part of the job, partly because she gets to know them in a different setting than their regular teachers.

“At the secondary level, some teens more easily make connection to adults who aren’t assigning homework or grades; they want someone to talk with, who will respect and listen to them and be a positive person in their changing lives,” Phelps said.

Unknowingly to Phelps, Ashland High Principle Erika Bare and Athletic Director Karl Kemper, nominated her for the award.

In his nomination letter, Kemper called Phelps the school’s “Swiss Army Knife” because of her diversity and willingness to take on challenges.

“She has taught every subject on our campus in the short term, while taking on long-term assignments in Mandarin Chinese, Physical Education, Special Education, Language Arts, and Culinary Arts,” Kemper wrote. “Martha is not viewed as a ‘guest’ teacher when she is on our campus almost daily. Rather, she is a vital member of our school community who we know we can rely on to deliver excellent service to our student population, without exception.”

Phelps is an advocate for schools having a regular pool of substitutes because it benefits everyone when the students know and trust the substitute teacher. It’s also important for the sub to know the layout of the campus, safety protocols, bell schedules, extra curriculum and to be familiar with the staff.

“In what other business in the world is a guest handed someone’s office keys, given permission to use that person’s desk and supplies, entrusted with helping their “mission” make progress and asked to take care of their most prized clients?” Phelps asked.

She said one of her favorite experiences from the past year was taking on a long-term role as a culinary instructor. Phelps said she loves to cook, but had no experience teaching others how to cook, so taught herself a few days before each lesson.

“That subbing assignment was rewarding for me because I was able to engage with students in different styles of learning, try new things every day, get hands on and dough-covered right next to them, and laugh a lot,” Phelps said.

“So much of being a good substitute teacher is having the confidence to take any lesson that someone has left you and actually follow it, or not find a lesson because the person had to leave in an emergency and be able to spontaneously put together something that’s worthwhile for the kids,” Phelps said.

Lisa Ludwikowski from Shaw, Oregon was the other recipient of the award this year. They both will receive their awards Saturday, Oct. 20, at OSTA’s annual conference in Salem.

Contact Daily Tidings reporter Caitlin Fowlkes at cfowlkes@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4496. Follow her on Twitter @cfowlkes6.

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