Finding and retaining qualified substitute teachers has often presented a challenge for many school districts—one that has grown more acute in recent years due to the lingering effects of the pandemic on the education sector.
Many factors—including seasonal illness and time off for professional development—can result in teacher absences. However, bigger shifts in the education landscape—including a greater number of teachers leaving the profession due to low pay, political and academic pressures, and stress—have made the need for substitutes even more urgent. “The pandemic exacerbated a preexisting and long-standing shortage of teachers,” concludes a report from The Economic Policy Institute.
Staff shortages have bled into the substitute workforce as well; there aren’t always enough qualified substitutes ready, willing, and able to step in. As of 2022, 78 percent of district leaders reported a “moderate” to “considerable” shortage of substitute teachers, according to a Rand Research Report.
Substitutes are vital to the smooth functioning of a school system. Any gap in substitute coverage can result in other staff scrambling to cover multiple classrooms, students left unsupervised, and valuable instructional time being lost. How can school leaders ensure that they have quality coverage?
One key way is to respect, support, and reward your substitute teachers. By fostering a culture that values substitutes, a school district will have greater power to both attract and retain them. Here are 5 often overlooked ways in which to apply this principle and increase your substitute fill rates:
Substitutes do more than simply fill shoes. High-quality substitutes can add immense value to the school community. Because they must be flexible and nimble, substitutes can be great role models for adapting quickly to change—both for school staff as well as students. Substitute teachers bring fresh perspectives, diverse experiences, and multiple talents to their jobs. Don’t let them be unsung heroes: Give them the kudos they deserve! Even simple gestures such as thank-you notes, an ego-boosting conversation in the hallway, or public recognition let substitutes know that you recognize their value, making them more inclined to return the next time you have an opening.
Half the battle lies in not just attracting and recruiting excellent subs, but in retaining them. This may seem simple, but being a great listener and communicator can go a long way. Treat the substitute as you would a valued guest. Creating a positive work environment can help to build loyalty and encourage them to return to the district in the future. Give them a map of the school; tell them how to find the teacher’s lounge and the cafeteria. Show them exactly where to park. If the substitute had to be called in at the last minute due to an emergency and needs extra time to commute to the school, consider how you might be able to accommodate them. Could you delay their start time by having someone else cover the first period? Next time, that sub will be less likely to panic and turn down an opening.
Providing professional development opportunities for substitute teachers can help them feel more confident and prepared when stepping into the classroom. This can include online courses and training modules on classroom management, lesson planning, and other essential skills. Ideally, arrange for face-to-face interactions with a mentor or experienced teacher who can help substitutes navigate the school's policies and procedures, answer questions, and provide feedback on their performance. Substitutes who receive professional support are more likely to persist in their work, improve their instructional skills, and embrace substitute teaching as a rewarding career—all effective keys to boosting your fill rates.
No substitute wants to walk into a new classroom and discover that materials are missing, key technology is locked away in a closet, and no backup instructions have been left. Frankly, some students are likely to take advantage of this type of chaos, potentially making the substitute’s day miserable. Every teacher knows that they will eventually need to take an unplanned day off. Therefore, have teachers set aside some time in advance to create a “substitute shelf” (virtual or otherwise) with some skill-building activities and evergreen resources that a sub can use in a pinch. On that shelf, include a “cheat sheet” of tips, such as a direct line to the IT Director and a list of where key items are located. This won’t fix every situation, but at least the substitute won’t be flying blind. When substitutes are set up for success, they’ll feel positively about the experience, and will want to return. This is a win-win formula that will help improve your fill rates.
Beyond creating a positive and supportive work environment, you may want to consider financial incentives. According to Preferences, Inequities, and Incentives in the Substitute Teacher Labor Market, a 2022 report published by the Annenberg Institute, “Chicago Public Schools implemented a targeted bonus program designed to reduce unfilled teacher absences in largely segregated Black schools with historically low substitute coverage rates.” The report concluded that “incentive pay substantially improved coverage equity and raised student achievement.” The amount of the bonus doesn’t necessarily have to be substantial. For example: In an effort to promote retention and bump up their lagging fill rates, Fairfax County Schools in Virginia voted in 2022 to allocate a portion of unused budget from the prior fiscal year toward bonuses for all school personnel, including a one-time $250–500 payment for eligible substitutes. In the 2022–23 school year, Guilford County Schools in North Carolina offered a $1,000 monthly bonus to eligible substitute teachers. Bonuses, in conjunction with the other factors listed above, are a tangible way to show appreciation and boost your fill rates.
Creating a school culture that rewards, supports, and uplifts substitute teachers can help to attract and retain them, building a sense of loyalty that will encourage them to return to the district in the future. This philosophy can go a long way toward improving your fill rates, ultimately benefiting students and the school district as a whole. “[Substitutes] have the choice whether or not to return to your school,” writes Elizabeth Brown, principal of Ocali Charter High School in Ocala, Florida. “Inevitably, they will choose the school where they feel welcomed and supported….”
Want more insights into substitute management and mitigating the effects of substitute teacher shortages? Download our guide, Combating the Substitute Teacher Shortage with Strategic Substitute Management, and keep your eyes on our blog for key updates!
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