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7 Ways to Overcome the COVID-19 Substitute Teacher Shortage

Jim O'Halloran

Insights | March 16, 2021

Great substitute teachers are becoming a rare commodity.

Last March, the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered many elementary, middle, and high schools across the nation, magnifying a problem that many school districts were already facing: a major shortage of substitute teachers

According to the EdWeek Research Center, the current fill rate stands at 54 percent, leading to more than 100,000 unfilled absences per day, with no sign of slowing down. As districts toy with the idea of returning to in-person classrooms, the need for substitute teachers will inevitably increase, creating a growing demand for qualified part-time educators who feel comfortable teaching in person regularly, or at least some of the time. 

But is the risk worth the reward? Many substitute teachers may not think so. A lack of pay or incentives, poor student behavior, chaotic sub placement practices, potential health risks, and uncertainty around safety regulations are preventing substitute teachers from stepping back into the classroom, leaving many school districts short-staffed.

Not sure how to fix your substitute teacher shortage? Here are a few things you can do to attract the best substitute teachers for your students, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

1. Offer more pay and incentives

Some school districts are increasing daily stipends by as much as 50-75 percent to attract qualified candidates. A Nebraska school district is even offering subs an extra $150 of incentive pay if they agree to work a minimum number of days per month. 

Additional monetary bonuses can also increase a sub’s desire to stick with a district. Some administrators are offering bonuses of $150-300 if a sub agrees to work 20 days per semester. As more permanent teachers opt to stay home, this can be enormously beneficial and convenient.

Not all incentives are monetary. Showing gratitude and appreciation to a sub can also go a long way. Being a substitute teacher isn’t easy—recognizing and rewarding a teacher’s accomplishments may encourage them to stick around. 

2. Lower requirements for subs

To combat the substitute teacher shortage, more school districts are lowering educational standards for subs, now requiring only a four- or two-year degree that may not be limited to just the field of education.

Some states are even accepting substitutes with just high school diplomas. With 178,000 students, Georgia’s Gwinnett County Public Schools is one of the largest districts in the nation. The district is now accepting substitute teachers with high school diplomas and a certain number of college credits. This new policy opens the door to bringing in first- and second-year college students with education majors.

3. Encourage teacher collaboration

Some schools are asking their permanent teaching staff to fill in for other teachers during their preparation periods, lessening the overall need for subs. These schools are even offering extra vacation days, unused sick days, and personal leave to compensate these teachers for their dedication and time. 

Although this has historically been a clunky process in absence management systems, modern absence and substitute management systems have made it quick and easy to provide class coverage.

Struggling with a Substitute Shortage Because of COVID-19? Learn how modern  tools can increase your fill rates >>

4. Plan, plan, plan

Planning ahead for potential teacher absences can prevent future headaches. One negative experience—a vague, confusing, or less-than-detailed teaching itinerary; a disorganized seating chart; or an unclear lesson plan—can discourage even the most enthusiastic subs, making them less likely to return to your district.

Make sure your permanent teachers have prepared the necessary information for incoming subs, including:

  • Detailed lesson plans
  • Accurate seating charts
  • Attendance logs
  • Guidance on the subject matter
  • Teaching guides or templates

This organization and preparedness will make a substitute teacher’s job much easier, especially if they’re teaching a particularly difficult, advanced, or complex course. It’s truly helpful to subs and can drastically improve the sub's experience and student learning as well.

5. Make a great first impression

School administrators should also remember that making a great first impression is vital to attracting qualified and loyal subs in the midst of the substitute teacher shortage.

Before a substitute teacher applies to work at your district, they are likely to search the internet for your website, reviews, and social media accounts. Here are a few key things to consider, from the lens of a substitute:

  • Are there numerous positive online reviews from teachers, students, parents, and staff? 
  • Do the posted photos of your school district accurately represent the core of its personality, values, and character? 
  • How quick and easy is the hiring process? 
  • Are the application and interview stages fast, or are they bogged down with unnecessary paperwork, complicated procedures, and stringent qualification standards?

It’s important to make a potential candidate feel as if their efforts and talents matter. The more appreciated and empowered they feel, the more likely they are to stay.

6. Offer in-depth substitute training and support

The school districts that are successfully coping with the substitute teacher shortage have one thing in common: They provide adequate training for subs and teacher replacements. This in-depth instruction arms subs with the right skills and information to achieve classroom management success. Staffing administrators often overlook the importance of comprehensive sub training—fewer than 10 percent of districts currently offer training beyond a basic introduction to standard regulations and procedures.

Substitute training benefits both the school and the students, significantly increasing the likelihood that employees will remain at the school. Complaints about substitute teachers also drop by about 50 percent.

Because each school district can be vastly different from the next, school administrators and permanent faculty members should have a say in deciding which training protocols best fit their classrooms.

The Substitute Teacher Training Institute at Utah State University (STEDI) believes that effective training should address the following aspects of today’s sub shortage:

  • Effective classroom management: Accurate seating charts, curriculum guides, and guided lesson plans make a sub’s job easier.
  • Emergency training: In-depth safety and emergency drills drive down the risk of potential lawsuits and prioritize the safety of students.
  • Behavioral and ethical standards: Permanent faculty members and administrators frequently complain about unprofessional conduct from subs.
  • Advanced teaching techniques: Student learning can suffer under a substitute teacher who isn’t prepared. Developing a “bag of tricks” can elevate a sub’s teaching skills from average to exceptional.

7. Provide extra information to put subs at ease

Providing details and expectations for substitutes is even more important for putting them at ease during the COVID-19 pandemic: 

  • Are they expected to teach remotely, in the classroom, or through a combination of both?
  • What are the health protocols in your building?
  • What are the details of the school, classroom, and assignment?
  • How will they know where to go when they arrive?

Communicating clear guidelines can make potential educators feel valued, making them more likely to accept assignments and stay with your district, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. It can be helpful to create a guide that details the layout of the school, any critical rules or regulations, class start and end times, and any important locations such as the teacher’s lounge, restrooms, and cafeteria.

The substitute should also have the ability to immediately access and navigate the district’s student information system to view student assignment details, class schedules, seating charts, and more. Signing up and logging in should be a quick and easy process, and offering a free mobile app and text messaging can do wonders in attracting and engaging loyal subs.

It’s important to remember that a substitute teacher’s first day on the job can be just as nerve-wracking as a student’s. Substitute teachers are a crucial aspect of education. Encourage them to return to your district with incentives such as more pay, a great first impression, and support. By putting more effort into the temporary recruiting process, you’ll attract more passionate and talented substitute teachers who will invest in your students.

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