Students at John B. Wright Elementary in central Tucson twiddle their thumbs and Chuck Eaton approves.

The twirling of thumbs, 10 times forward then 10 times backward, is one of the signature classroom management strategies Eaton honed during 12 years working as a substitute teacher.

“I like how the first row is twirling their thumbs,” he says. “Why are we twirling our thumbs?”

The fifth-graders know the answer. They’re preparing for the big thumb wrestling championship against Eaton. “That’s right. Mr. Eaton does this all the time. That’s why my thumbs are so strong and I never lose,” he says.      

Currently employed on a year-to-year contract to serve as the school’s physical education teacher, Eaton, 59, has helped students get back the stamina they need to learn after the COVID-19 pandemic. This is critical given the nationwide focus on recovery from a decline in basic reading and math, as well as student behavior and well-being, caused by the pandemic.

Eaton is one of nearly 300 Tucson Unified School District employees hired with federal funds to support this learning-loss recovery in TUSD, Tucson’s largest school district. He represents the important role long-term substitute teachers play in staffing schools during a teacher shortage in the pandemic.

Students don’t have the stamina

Every student at Wright receives weekly PE instruction from Eaton, thanks to funding from the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund.

How to take action

  • To direct a portion of your income to Wright Elementary or another TUSD school’s efforts through Arizona’s Tax Credit program, find more information here.

Principal Brenda Encinas said that when it came to emergency relief funding, PE was a priority for her school’s COVID-19 recovery plan to develop “the socio-emotional learning, that stamina that the kids didn’t have.”

Second-grade teacher Samantha Ramos, who has worked at Wright for 12 years, agrees. After so much time learning online from home, “Our students are very inactive,” she said. “They get tired a lot easier.”

Eaton recognizes the decline in student development. “First of all, they haven’t had that interaction with other kids. Second of all, the exercise. Exercise in general,” he said. “They’ve never dribbled a basketball before. They can’t catch a ball.”

During his PE session, fifth-grader Ferris Ahmed says he likes how Eaton “makes us run and get our energy out, cuz we’re stuck in class a lot.” Ahmed slipped off his shoes to perform backflips, waiting his weekly turn to race across the school field.

An unfunded mandate

The Arizona Department of Education and TUSD provide guidelines to elementary schools for 90 minutes of physical activity per week. However, PE positions are not funded by the state at the elementary school level.

“The expectation is that when we don’t have a paid position, the teachers go out there and teach those physical structured recess activities,” said Encinas. Having a PE teacher gets the kids physical activity and provides classroom teachers with more time to collaborate and plan their instruction, she said.

For Wright Elementary, 4311 E. Linden St., this benefit is critical to student success and teacher retention. Wright serves neighborhoods where 75% of the homes are rentals, says Encinas. The families whose students attend Wright are “highly mobile,” she said, often subject to evictions. Most students are eligible for free or reduced lunch. Through community partnerships and donations, the school supports the basic needs of attendees by providing school uniforms, food bank services, and even legal help, she said. Students at the school represent 20 different languages spoken at home.

“We have wonderful teachers. They work very hard to make sure our students progress and grow despite our challenges,” she said. “Because of the students’ growth in their state testing and our programs that we offer, the school became an A+ school of excellence two years ago,” Encinas said. “And we have to apply again. We’re just working hard to make sure that we keep that status.”

Ramos feels this urgency. “Our expectation is that by the end of second grade, they can read 90 words,” she said. “Right now, I have some that are reading eight words.”

When her students are in Eaton’s PE class, Ramos gets 35 minutes each week to plan instruction. Every other week, the schedule of supplemental activities funded by the federal grant allows the entire second grade team to meet.

Seeing the school’s 400-plus students every week is not easy. Of Eaton, she said, “he’s one of the most amazing people because … most teachers will do K-2 one week and third to fifth the next but he said ‘No, I will see everybody.’ I’m so grateful for the 35 minutes, because he has agreed to keep them every week,” she said.

Chuck Eaton is a long-term substitute teacher at John B. Wright Elementary in central Tucson. He’s teaching PE and helping students get back the stamina they lost during pandemic school closures. Credit: Courtesy of Tucson Unified School District

‘A natural teacher’

Encinas said that when she first posted the PE position at Wright, “no one was applying.” She finally found and made an offer to a certified teacher, “but at the last minute, she backed out.” 

Eaton was willing to make a commitment.

Eaton has worked as a long-term substitute at the school since 2017. In that time, his long-term assignments have included substituting for kindergarten through fourth-grade classes at Wright. After schools closed in March 2020, he filled in for a fourth-grade teacher, teaching via Zoom. When Gov. Ducey mandated that Arizona schools reopen, he was among the first teachers to return to in-person instruction at Wright.

“Some people say that there are natural teachers,” said Encinas. “He is a natural teacher.”

That perception underscores Eaton’s self-guided development. After 16 years in telecommunications for the Navy, Eaton worked for more than a decade in the private telecommunications industry. His career included a sales applications role based in Tustin, California.

He got his introduction to education promoting an auto-dialer called Phone Master, used in the 1990s by school districts across the United States to notify parents of their children’s school absences. He said he visited almost every school district in the United States, assessing needs and training staff to use the product.

On an assignment in the Catalina Foothills School District, Chuck Eaton met May, the woman who is now his wife. He relocated to Tucson to pursue their relationship seriously.

After they married, May and Chuck wanted more time together but Chuck was rarely home due to heavy sales travel. He completed a bachelor’s degree in business administration at Northern Arizona University as a non-traditional student in 2007. They agreed he’d pursue a teaching certification through Pima Community College in order to transition to a more grounded career as an educator.

When May’s mother’s house burned down and she came to live with the Eatons, his plans changed. “With Alzheimer’s or dementia, people sometimes respond better to others than to their own kids. She responded well to me, so the family decided I’d take care of her,” Eaton said.

Plans for teaching certification on hold, Eaton began working as a daily substitute. The flexibility allowed him to attend to his mother-in-law while also gaining experience in his chosen field.

Early in his substitute teaching career he says, “I went online, and looked up ‘how to become a better substitute.’” The search led him to resources developed by the Substitute Teaching Institute at Utah State University, now operated as His training came with audio CDs covering tips and tricks for classroom management.

Eaton’s teaching style also developed through trial and error. Having no children of his own, Eaton was nervous to accept his first long-term assignment in a kindergarten class. He was concerned about his preparation to cover the curriculum but soon realized his biggest challenge would be in managing the classroom.

When keeping tables clean became an issue, another teacher suggested using shaving cream. He looked up a YouTube video to learn how, then spent his own money to purchase shaving cream. One can for each child.

The students emptied entire cans not only on the desktop, but throughout the classroom. He and the cleaning personnel worked until 10:30 p.m. to remove the excess from furniture and rugs. “That was the best-smelling hallway in the school for a long time,” he said.

Eaton wears a US Navy signet ring that he says serves as a daily reminder of honor, courage and commitment. “I try to use those core values to teach,” he said. Citing his military experience, he said, “I have a loud voice and I speak authoritatively.” But he knows the students also respond to his sense of fun.

Encinas put it this way: “He’s very good at giving directions, setting expectations, and he jokes around with them. It’s that relationship building too. … It’s them understanding why he’s there, knowing that he cares for them, because he does.”

Long-term substitute teacher Chuck Eaton helps John B. Wright Elementary students strengthen their core muscles in his PE class. Credit: Abra McAndrews

For example, to strengthen their abdominal muscles, he has students in his PE class lie on their backs and move their arms and legs like a bug. They hop to their feet to begin jumping jacks when Eaton pretends to cover them with bug spray.

Eaton is a “Jeopardy!” fan; students in classes where he has substituted remember him for his adaptation of the televised game show “Are you Smarter than a 5th Grader?” He combines insistence on what he calls “learning position”— hands folded, sitting up straight, quiet unless called on — with incentives and prizes to encourage student engagement in the content.

“At the time, I would take about 10% of my income and I would have a backpack full of prizes,” he said. “One of the schools I was at, they said, ‘well you spent a lot of your own money,’ and I said, ‘I tell you, for the amount of money we make as subs, my sanity is a lot better off having them do this than me having a chaotic day.’”

Ramos values Eaton’s capacity to minimize chaos. He substituted long-term for her class three times over the past five years, when Ramos married and gave birth to her two young children.  “He’s familiar with how to deal with behavioral issues. And so it’s always nice to call on him and know the class is going to be in good hands,” she said. “He has been with me through all of my big milestones.”

Long-term subs help with teacher shortage

Ramos said she worries about her students when requesting a personal day for doctor’s appointments or to care for a sick child. “Because we have such a sub shortage, we get people who are right out of college and have never done it before,” she said. “Nowadays, with so many behavioral issues, they’re not prepared.”

When a school cannot identify a substitute to cover a teacher’s request for a personal or sick day, Ramos said the class splits among other classes in the same grade. If a class maxes out at 30 students, some will be assigned to another grade for the day. “You hate asking, because it puts stress on other teachers,” she said.

Christopher McNeely, interim executive director of human resources, said TUSD has faced a shortage of both certified and substitute teachers in recent school years. According to data McNeely provided, in August 2021 more than 10% of teaching positions were not staffed, a total of 257 positions. In comparison, in August 2019 only 4% of teaching positions were vacant.

By this October, the number of vacancies was down to 143, including 88 general education and 55 special education vacancies.

McNeely said, “The vacancies are predominantly covered by long-term substitutes employed for a full semester or year.” 

Eaton recognizes the challenge that college graduates face when considering living wages and substitute teaching. “The pay isn’t that great,” he said. “What would be the benefit?”

“We have a limited pool. We try to be at the top end of that,” McNeely said about substitute pay.  Over the last 18 months, the district has twice increased substitute teacher pay, from just over $100 a day to the current $175 daily rate. Substitutes who agree to placements at the six hardest-to-fill sites now receive $200 per day.

The district was able to fill 91% of substitute teaching requests for the last week of September, McNeely said. Compared to fill rates that dipped to 70% during the previous academic year, McNeely described these figures as “a celebration.”

He attributes this improvement in teacher vacancies and substitute fill rates to increased pay and a new stipend initiative. All TUSD employees, including daily substitutes who work at least 45 days during the semester, are eligible for three $2,500 payments over the next year. The first was paid this December, and two more in June and December 2023.

For Encinas, what matters is that teachers join her school community for the right reasons, as Eaton has. “Like a lot of teachers say, ‘I’m not in it for the money. I’m here for the kids,’” she said. “We welcome anyone who wants to come and work with our kids and truly care for them like he does.”

Eaton wishes PE teachers were a permanent position in TUSD “I think elementary schools should have PE incorporated,” he said.       

However, the PE teacher role at Wright and most of the roles hired by the schools to combat the impact of COVID-19, are not secure for next year and beyond.

Encinas said, “We’ll keep that position as long as we can.”  She intends to research other grants and may look to tax credit donations to fund the position, she said.

Short time, big impact         

Spending time consistently at Wright, Eaton said, allows him to appreciate the impact that a teacher can have in even a short time. “What’s nice about this school is that I’ve seen the growth of the kids.”

And that growth has lasting effects for the students, like a middle schooler Eaton ran into when out for a meal with May and her friends, who shared with Eaton their memories of his games and stories.

“I went ‘Oh wow, I did make an impact.’ It just amazes me that for such a short period of time, kids remember.”        

Someday, however, he looks forward to more flexibility. Chuck and May want to revisit travel plans that were interrupted by the pandemic. “I like the freedom of choosing when I work,” he says.

For now, Asya Leistikow gets the message. The fifth-grader has known Eaton since he substituted for her second grade class. She estimates she’s had “about 800 classes” with him. “He likes good behavior, and helping kids with PE so if they want to play sports in high school they’ll be ready for it.” She remembers that he playfully snuck up behind her and startled her once. She said the moment stuck with her because “it says that I fit in with him, when he makes me laugh like that.”

Building a pipeline of new substitute teachers

Christopher McNeely, interim executive director of human resources for TUSD, said flexibility is a draw for professional teachers who work as substitute teachers.

“They choose their own adventure,” because they’ve retired or want to work part time, he said. Many will return to full-time teaching in the future, he said.

Eaton is concerned that pressure to cover vacancies will affect student learning recovery and that Arizona has “lowered the standards even more” with legislation allowing people who have not yet earned bachelor’s degrees to teach that was signed into law by Gov. Doug Ducey in July.

Efforts to increase the pipeline of those qualified to teach are under consideration. For now, TUSD continues to hire substitutes with degrees to manage vacancies on top of teachers’ requests for time off.

McNeely said media reports on the SB1159 legislation have misunderstood the Arizona Department of Education’s implementation guidelines. For TUSD to employ people who do not have bachelor’s degrees on a teaching contract, he said “that requires a pathway to be established at the district.”

A few other Arizona districts have approval for these pathways that allow people enrolled in bachelor’s degree programs to teach unsupervised while completing classroom-based curriculum. The Arizona Department of Education lists the local Vail School District’s classroom-based alternative teacher preparation program among the options.

As for TUSD, McNeely said district leaders would like to create such a program in the future, but that the high cost of developing the two years of required curriculum is prohibitive right now. 

In the meantime, the district pays for preparation for substitute teachers who want to develop classroom management. McNeely said that the district reimburses substitutes for STEDI training. Daily substitutes can earn pay for district professional development days, previously offered only to classroom teachers and long-term substitutes.

McNeely said they hire about 15 substitutes per week. The district has hired more than 300 substitutes in the past 18 months, both long-term and daily, to build its pool. 

“We’re in a state of normalization this year,” McNeely said.

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Abra McAndrew writes true stories about education, work and communities in the Southwest from her home in Tucson, Arizona. In her day job at the University of Arizona, she leads teams to provide equitable...