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What this Republican senator learned from over a decade of substitute teaching

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Substitute teaching is a particularly difficult job.

As Hayley Glatter writes in The Atlantic, "Substitutes are almost always put in sink-or-swim situations: They're with a class for a limited amount of time, lesson-plan-preparedness is often inconsistent, and students can be less than helpful in describing what they should be working on."

Nearly every state and the District of Columbia have reported a shortage of teachers. Spanish-speaking and special needs teachers are in particularly high demand. At the same time, student enrollments are projected to grow by 3 million in the next 10 years.

Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana has been substitute teaching for over a decade. He believes the practice not only helps schools meet a growing need, it provides him with invaluable insight into the realities local schools are facing.

"I have been doing it two, three, sometimes four times a year since [2003]," Kennedy, a Republican, told CNBC Make It. "The highest grade I've taught is the 11th grade, and the youngest I've taught is the 4th grade."

Kennedy became state treasurer of Louisiana in 1999. As treasurer, he often received questions from education experts and realized he needed to become better informed. "It occurred to me that not many of the folks in that room really knew what public schools were like today," he said.

When he called the East Baton Rouge School Parish and asked if they needed substitutes, administrators responded, "Yeah, badly." When he asked what he needed to do to be a substitute teacher, he was told, "have a college degree, and come to an orientation."

The ritual has taught Kennedy the struggles that teachers go through every day. "I went in pretty cocky," he admitted. "But the first thing you realize is how hard it is to be a teacher."

"Teachers today are expected to be so much more than just teachers. That wasn't the case when I was growing up," says Kennedy. "Teachers are expected to be teachers, psychiatrists, nurses, sociologists, psychologists, surrogate moms or dads, as the case may be."

John Kennedy
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John Kennedy

Kennedy found that being a kid in 2017 also has its unique challenges. "You also learn how hard and different it is to be a kid today. These kids are seeing things in the 6th grade that I never even dreamed about till I was an adult."

In a blog post he explains: "Most of us believe, or should believe, that every child can learn, given the opportunity, but try substitute teaching just once and you will see firsthand the socioeconomic issues that distract our kids from taking advantage of that opportunity."

"A lot of policymakers don't really understand what it's like to be a teacher in a public school in 2017," says Kennedy. "Thirty-five or 40 years ago we had one of the best elementary and secondary education systems in the world. We don't. Now we rank about the same as Slovakia, and Slovakians spend about half the money."

In order to restore the American education system, Kennedy says that more money needs to be put directly into classrooms: "I'm talking about the technology, you need the supplies, the teacher's salary, a decent environment," he says. "You're going to have to pay the teachers more."

"Teachers are expected to be teachers, psychiatrists, nurses, sociologists, psychologists, surrogate moms or dads." -John Kennedy, U.S. Senator, Louisiana 

Kennedy says that even in a state with a low cost of living like Louisiana, a fair starting salary for teachers is $75,000. Louisiana teachers currently make an average of $51,381.

Kennedy has run political campaigns as both a Republican and a Democrat, and supported President Donald Trump during the 2016 election. Since then, the Trump administration has proposed cutting $10.6 billion from education initiatives.

But the senator believes that more politicians should get a closer look at the current public education system, which is why he plans to introduce a resolution later this year requiring senators to volunteer in a public school once a year.

"Everybody who makes any kind of policy needs to substitute teach. But you've got to be a real teacher. You can't just go to a couple of classes with the regular teacher there," he says. "It is an incredibly hard job."

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