With the country still in the throes of a teacher shortage, it’s more imperative than ever that district and school leaders take proactive steps to recruit and retain a pool of quality substitute teachers—a vital force that keeps schools running smoothly and ensures continuity of instruction for students. Statistics show that in April 2023, approximately 59,000 United States teachers and other educational staff quit their jobs—around the same amount as those who walked away in February 2020, during the height of the pandemic. And even in fully-staffed schools, teacher absences can create an increased demand for subs.
In order to better understand what draws substitute teachers to the profession and the challenges they face, Red Rover began conducting an annual survey three years ago. (Read our 2021 summary and our 2022 summary.) Once again, in 2023, we reached out to substitute teachers to gauge their top priorities, concerns, and factors that influence their decision to accept or decline opportunities. This year, we received nearly 4,000 survey responses, covering topics such as areas in which substitutes desire more training, how they prefer to find out about available openings, their intentions to continue as subs, and ways schools can better support them.
In addition, we gave our survey respondents this open-ended prompt: “If a friend told you they were thinking about substitute teaching, what would you tell them? What advice would you give them?”
Despite the challenges of being a sub, many cited the rewards of being a substitute teacher, the joy of being around young people, and the ability to truly make a difference. We’ve highlighted several of these anecdotal responses within our key takeaways below.
Nearly half of the respondents (43.6%) are in their first year of substitute teaching. This presents an excellent opportunity to nurture their enthusiasm, offer support, and ensure that these educators will want to remain subs for the long term. An additional 27.5% have been subs for 1-3 years, while the remaining percentage have been subs for more than four years.
18% have been subs for longer than six years, indicating that there is a healthy cadre of substitutes out there who have decided to embrace subbing, possibly for the long haul. Finding ways to increase this loyal percentage is a smart move for school leaders; the longer substitute teachers commit, the more they grow their skills and confidence. Substitute teachers who return to the same district repeatedly get to cement relationships with the students and staff and are more likely to be regarded as full team members instead of one-off visitors.
The survey delivered some encouraging news: The majority of respondents plan to continue substitute teaching rather than pursuing other gigs exclusively or abandoning education. An additional 16.6% hope to transition into a different role in education, such as by obtaining certification to become full-time teachers.
Respondents come to subbing from a variety of backgrounds: retirees from teaching or another profession, parents in the district, college students, and more. 33.3% aren’t exclusively substitutes; they work multiple part-time jobs.
The more school leaders can do to provide support and continuity, the more likely it is that potential subs will make teaching a priority—perhaps eschewing less-rewarding gigs for the familiarity of a welcoming school district. Consider tactics such as having subs in regularly as paid classroom teachers’ aides, especially if they have ambitions to pursue a teaching degree.
When taking into account all the factors that go into play when they consider taking a job, substitutes ranked “feeling like I am making a difference” at the top, followed closely by “control over my schedule,” flexibility, and pay. “Making a difference” also ranked the highest in our 2022 survey.
“It's a job filled with joy, knowing you're making a difference,” writes one survey respondent in her first year of being a sub. “Don’t let the hard days determine your true feelings,” writes another. “You’re making a difference in the lives of students, and that is amazing.”
Many substitute teachers we surveyed laud the flexibility of the job, especially for those who may be caring for young children or other family members.
“It’s a great part-time job because of its flexibility,” writes one survey respondent, who has been a substitute for more than six years. She adds: “It is rewarding in that you can interact with students of all ages and hopefully make them feel good about themselves.”
“It’s great because it’s very flexible. You can choose when and where and how much you want to work,” writes a first-year substitute teacher, who is also a parent in the district where she works.
The inherent flexibility of the job also means that would-be subs need to stay on top of potential openings and be ready to jump if they see an opening that appeals to them. It also means that subs are always free to say no to an opportunity, which behooves school and district leaders to entice subs by treating them with respect, providing support, and always being communicative.
Flexibility also applies to the actual time spent on the job; subs need to be quick thinking, stay on their toes, and be ready for some unexpected curveballs, suggest many survey respondents.
Almost half of the substitutes surveyed said that their teaching practices would benefit from more training in trauma-informed teaching strategies (as well as training in other areas). This stands to reason, as subs are walking into schools where students may be struggling with anxiety, depression, and lingering traumatic stress. “Kids’ mental health is in crisis,” says the American Psychological Association in their 2023 Trends Report. And the “growing concerns about social media, mass violence, natural disasters, climate change, and political polarization—not to mention the normal ups and downs of childhood and adolescence—can feel insurmountable for those who work with kids.” Substitute teachers need the support to manage this as much as regular teachers, and perhaps more so—the substitute may have zero background knowledge about a troubled student, leaving them at a disadvantage.
The mental health and well-being of substitutes themselves are also important considerations. One survey respondent wrote, “It’s a very difficult job that is not given much training and support. You have to really be committed, or it can be extremely taxing.” In order to alleviate the struggles that many young people are facing while maintaining their own well-being, it is imperative that all teachers—including substitutes—have the resources and strategies they need to build resilience and find fulfillment in their jobs.
When accepting an assignment, almost half of respondents consider it “very important” that the school “reliably provides lesson plans.” Walking into a classroom to discover that the regular teacher hasn’t provided a backup plan or easy-to-implement instructional materials isn’t a pleasant experience for any sub. In some instances, they may have no one to ask for guidance but the students themselves.
This common gripe is echoed by one survey respondent, a retired teacher who has been a substitute for less than three years: “Most teachers put everything online for student's eyes only, do not provide a lesson plan, may not give students enough work to encompass a full block period, and do not expect you to teach anything in their class. You will often feel like a babysitter with no access to what the kids are doing or what the specific assignment is.”
Without any background information or adequate resources, the substitute cannot do their best work. This is harmful to everyone, the regular classroom teacher included.
Encourage classroom teachers to take a little extra time to plan ahead and prepare a stack of ready-made, evergreen lesson plans or provide access to supplemental materials that can be used for extension activities. Teachers can’t always predict when they will be absent, so it might not be possible for the sub to pick up exactly where they left off. But having “In Case of Emergency” materials ready to go, along with clear directions, equips the substitute teacher with an action plan. It also avoids the scenario of kids watching a movie during class time because “there’s nothing else to do.”
Substitutes can pay the courtesy back by leaving notes for the regular classroom teacher, who will appreciate the updates and feedback on what happened in their absence.
Our survey revealed that almost 30% of substitute teachers are parents in the district where they work, as opposed to 15% who are retired teachers. This statistic suggests that parents are keen to get more involved in local schools and to be influential factors in the education of their own children and their children’s peers. The inherent flexibility of the job may also be a key consideration.
Approximately 33% of respondents said that they work multiple part-time jobs.
An extremely small percentage (3%) of respondents prefer to hear about their assignments via automated phone calls—not surprising when you consider that the average American receives three aggravating robocalls every day. This statistic mirrors the results from our 2022 survey. Rather, the majority of substitutes we surveyed (64.6%) voted for mobile app notification as their preferred method for hearing about an opening, followed by pre-arranged communication directly from the school or teacher to ask if the substitute is available. Follow the preferred protocol, and you’ll increase your district’s fill rates more easily.
Overall, our annual survey once again made it clear that substitute teachers tend to be dedicated and passionate. They care about their students, and they want to make a difference. Many know they need to be persistent and open-minded, like one respondent who shares the advice: “Be open to assignments you don’t think you will like—you never know! Be friendly and do your best to get to know neighboring teachers. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Get to know kids’ names and do everything you can to make them feel safe with you—in many schools, stability is important!”
Substitutes also know that they have opted to embrace a challenging gig and that the territory comes with some pitfalls. In the words of one substitute in her first year: “You have to be flexible, fearless, and ready for anything that comes your way.” Let’s use these survey insights in the coming school year to ensure that what we send their way meets their needs and uplifts and inspires them.
Get the latest tips for K12 absence and substitute management delivered straight to your inbox!
Modern strategies for teacher absence and sub shortage challenges
Ways you can increase your district’s fill rates
Ideas for reaching today's "gig economy" substitutes
Insights | August 24, 2021
Red Rover builds best-in-class software solutions for mission-critical tasks in school workforce management. Join 900+ school districts in the Red Rover revolution today.
We send occasional emails jam-packed with strategies, events, and insights for K12 absence and substitute management delivered straight to your inbox!