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Substitute Teacher Engagement Matters – Here’s How To Boost It

February 23, 2024   •   Insights

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Maren Madalyn, contributing writer for Red Rover.

Early in my career, I worked as a mental health counselor in a K–3 special education classroom — a particularly unique setting that wove together behavior supports, family therapy, and academic learning. Our kids needed consistency and structure to meet both academic and behavioral goals.

And nothing impacted our kids more than the days when our beloved teacher, Ms. Hannah was absent.

One school year was especially difficult. Ms. Hannah was navigating personal situations that required her to take extended time away from work, rather than one or two days periodically. Our classroom cycled through no less than five ‘permanent’ substitute teachers just in the first trimester.

I understood why substitute teachers often elected not to return to our classroom. It was already an unfamiliar setup to most educators, and when our kids were struggling, their behaviors could be extraordinarily disruptive. Both our students and counselor team — myself included — felt worn down by the constant cycle of new teaching substitutes. Even Ms. Hannah stopped taking time off, at the expense of her personal situation, as she wanted to support the classroom to return to some sense of normal.

Then we found Mrs. Rosales.

A veteran special education teacher, Mrs. Rosales became a critical member of our team when we needed support the most. Despite the usual rough first day with our kids, Mrs. Rosales returned again and again to work with our classroom. Our counseling team jumped at every opportunity to support Mrs. Rosales however we could, recruiting the school principal and adjacent teachers as allies to sustain her engagement.

These efforts paid off. Our kids grew to trust Mrs. Rosales deeply as they got to know her,  restoring the momentum of learning in our classroom. This support also allowed Ms. Hannah to take time off as needed, so she could be more present when she returned to work. I was humbled when at the end of the school year Mrs. Rosales expressed that our classroom was her favorite to teach, citing our school’s support as essential to her success.

Mrs. Rosales’ story is a critical reminder for me about why substitute teacher engagement matters so much for student well-being and really the entire school community — now more than ever before.

Teacher Absenteeism and Substitute Shortages: Two Sides of the Same Challenge

As the education world continues emerging from the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools and districts are facing a number of crises. Chief among them is an ongoing substitute teacher shortage fueled in part by a rise in teacher absenteeism across the United States since 2022.

When teachers are not present or leave their jobs altogether, it impacts student learning and engagement in some way, shape, or form, regardless of the time of year when they leave or of which grade level they teach. Denise-Marie Ordway summarizes these consequences in The Journalist Resource

Teacher absences are most detrimental to students during the weeks leading up to end-of-year exams and on exam days… When teachers leave their jobs mid-year, their students show smaller gains in math and language arts than kids whose teachers stayed the whole academic year. Teacher departures are more harmful to elementary school students than middle school students.”

These consequences of teacher absenteeism are not evenly distributed across schools, either. A research study conducted in 2022 by MIT found that in a large, urban district in California teachers working in schools with a greater percentage of Black and Hispanic students missed more days of work on average than teachers at other schools with smaller populations of these student groups. These same schools, where teachers were absent more on average, also had the hardest time finding substitute teachers to fill in (Liu et al., 2022).

Substitute teachers are critical team players who aid school teams in combating the negative impacts of teacher absenteeism and ensuring equitable continuity of student learning. But when more teachers are absent than substitutes are available, schools and districts face difficult decisions as they try to sustain student learning. It’s this compounding effect that makes this substitute teacher shortage all the trickier.

But the number of available substitute teachers isn’t the only factor in this challenge. Substitute teacher engagement plays a huge role in a school’s success in finding and retaining qualified candidates for their coverage team. Oftentimes, substitutes’ engagement is what a school or district can most directly influence.

What Factors Affect Substitute Teacher Engagement?

Damon Torgerson of Alludo Learning writes that the most common concerns among substitute teachers about their work include:

  • Difficult work for low pay
  • Lack of preparation
  • Lack of professional development
  • Unreliable, unsteady work
  • Lack of benefits

In some cases, the remnant effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on school climate also deter teachers from returning to teach at a particular site. In the MIT study, student misbehavior was most frequently cited as the reason substitutes avoid returning to some schools in the district. One substitute teacher who participated in the study described facing vulgar and violent language directed at peers and at me, throwing objects around the room and out the window,” while another cited that “None of them listened to anything I said.”

At best, when substitutes don’t fill in for teacher absences, it means school staff and classroom teachers present on campus must provide additional support on top of their regular responsibilities. At worst, schools are forced to close for the day if districts cannot find a way to cover staff shortages.

Districts have tested various incentive programs to boost substitute teacher engagement, even before the pandemic shut school doors. One program implemented by Chicago Public Schools demonstrated success in improving coverage equity and raising student achievement when the district approved a higher wage for substitutes (Kraft et al., 2022).

Wage increases are not the only means by which to increase substitute teacher engagement, especially as districts may not have the funding available to take this approach. Educators have many creative opportunities to nurture their substitute teachers’ engagement without breaking the bank.

4 Ways to Uplevel Your Substitute Teachers’ Engagement

Substitute teachers are essential extensions of the education team, and Red Rover is passionate about supporting our K–12 partners to in turn support these key players. We’ve compiled our favorite methods from the field for engaging substitute teachers to ensure students and the rest of the school community can thrive.

#1: Revitalize the Sub Binder

A great place to begin revitalizing substitute teacher engagement is by revisiting the fundamental practices used to onboard a new substitute teacher.

Many, but not all, schools have some kind of substitute teacher “binder,” a packet of documents that contains all the basic information they need about a school — like where to park, how to check into the front office, where their assigned classroom is located, and what to expect during a typical school day. In the best cases, substitutes also have access to lesson plans, student incentives, and other details about the specific classroom to which a substitute is assigned for the gig. One district in Texas even prepared a single, comprehensive document with all the core details included, easily printed or accessed online.

But these binders can quickly become dated, clunky, and even erroneous when not properly maintained alongside other school resources. Some campuses don’t have this information in one place, either, making it difficult to compile and share with substitute teachers. Further, substitutes may arrive at their assigned classroom armed with very little information about the students, curriculum, or other specific details that help them best step into the role.

Here are a few ways administrators and teachers alike can rethink the substitute binder:

  1. Audit your substitute teacher resources. Explore what information subs need, where the information lives, and the steps required to access that information. Is the information printed and available online? How many hard copies are available? Does the packet accurately reflect current school policies and practices? It’s most helpful to conduct this audit at the beginning of the school year, in parallel with any changes that may be introduced to relevant systems a substitute teacher might utilize.
  2. Prepare as early as possible. Administrators can encourage each teacher to start preparing now for future substitute teacher needs. Just as teachers take the time to set up their classrooms in anticipation of students, they can invest in building a substitute teacher plan in anticipation of future time off, regardless of the reason. Having a game plan well in advance makes it that much easier for both the classroom teacher and substitute if an absence comes up unexpectedly.
  3. Centralize, centralize, centralize. The fewer places a substitute has to navigate, the easier time they’ll have integrating into a new environment. K–12 workforce management solutions like Red Rover make it seamless for school teams to put together critical information for their substitute teachers. School administrators can build a School Profile page for substitutes with all the basic details about their campus. Teachers also use the solution to build their own Classroom Profile pages — complete with emergency lesson plans, unique student incentives, and more. 

Each of these small, but crucial steps prepares substitutes to transition smoothly into a classroom and school. Even returning substitute teachers can benefit from having the most updated information about a campus readily available at their fingertips. 

#2: Nurture Two-Way Communication With Substitutes

Open, two-way communication is essential to any partnership between people, and the collaboration between schools and substitutes is no exception. Many schools and districts concentrate on sending information to substitute teachers. It is important that educators receive information from their substitutes, too!

Here are a few ways that schools can cultivate bidirectional communication with their substitutes, benefiting both parties:

  1. Check in about expectations. Substitutes should know as early as possible what will be expected of them during a gig. In addition to baking these guidelines into substitute resources like a binder or School Profile page, administrators can hold extra space for questions and clarifications on that substitute’s first day on the job. Classroom visits are a common way to create this space; administrators should communicate in advance the purpose of these visits as supportive and not evaluative.
  2. Practice active listening. Active listening generally means focusing on a speaker, understanding their message, and responding thoughtfully. It’s a key communication tool for building trust and reciprocity between people. Administrators and teachers alike can practice this skill to open doors for substitutes to share their experiences, questions, and even feedback with the school. Both parties benefit from engaging in active listening practices.
  3. Leverage digital tools. Digital tools like Red Rover support quick and easy touchpoints between school districts and their substitute teachers through channels other than in-person meetings, phone calls, or emails. This can be critical for time-sensitive information flow. As an example, Red Rover allows administrators to send real-time notifications via text to substitutes about schedule changes — information that may be lost in an email. Digital tools also work well to collect information from substitutes. Administrators can try sending in-text surveys to their substitute pools to source quick input on policies or experiences, making it easier to iterate with incremental changes.

By nurturing multiple channels of communication, school and district administrators build a foundation of trust and collaboration with substitutes, both of which are key to maintaining their engagement.

#3: Cultivate a Culture of Collaboration Among Substitutes and Teachers Alike

Collaboration can often be an antidote during tough times. Teachers on the full-time team may be used to partnering together to prepare lessons, share feedback, or simply support one another emotionally. But rarely do substitute teachers have the opportunity to collaborate with other educators during their time on campus.

Creating systems that welcome substitute teachers into collaboration with other staff is a wonderful way to boost substitute engagement and satisfaction, which in turn makes it more appealing for substitutes to return to a school campus in the future. As Torgerson explains, “Providing permanent and substitute teachers with opportunities to collaborate with one another and school staff can support everybody in the system and lead to better student outcomes.”

The Network for Educator Effectiveness offers a few ways that school teams can encourage collaboration and support that include substitutes:

  • Develop a buddy system, pairing teachers with substitutes who agree to check in on each other’s days and support one another.
  • Explore opportunities for professional development for substitutes, creating systems such as a “network” of substitutes or mentorship programs designed to share best practices and resources among them.
  • Focus on student relationships, especially nurturing substitute teacher connections to students who already have a positive relationship with the primary classroom teacher.

#4: Make Logistics As Seamless As Possible

Even when all the above suggestions are in place, schools may still face challenges with retaining substitute teachers if the basic workflows and processes they must follow are clunky. Something as simple as a scheduling snafu or an erroneous paycheck creates friction, which can negatively impact a substitute teacher’s desire to return to the same classroom or campus.

Here again, K–12 workforce solutions like Red Rover are catalytic to simplifying the whole process.

For administrators, Red Rover offers both teacher absence management and substitute teacher scheduling all in one integrated solution. Its schedule optimization technology automatically fills every absence based on substitute teacher availability. It can even assist with fill rates for support staff and partial schedules. The solution also allows schools to save “favorite” substitutes to aid in filling absences.

On the other side of the solution, substitute teachers can download and use Red Rover’s app for free. In the app, substitutes set their availability, view upcoming jobs and important details, and fill absences all in one place — greatly simplifying their day-to-day gig coordination.

The less attention a substitute teacher or an administrator has to give to these basic workforce processes, the more time both parties can devote to supporting students and educators respectively!

Looking for more tips and resources about engaging substitute teachers? Take a look at these suggestions from WeAreTeachers.

Engage Substitutes Today, Empower Learning Tomorrow

Engaging substitute teachers is as essential as engaging the students they serve. Even in the midst of this substitute teacher shortage, schools and districts can take small but powerful steps forward to welcome substitutes into their family and cultivate their engagement. Red Rover can help remove the most common logistical barriers to substitute teacher engagement and delight your most critical teaching assets. Click the link below to see what modern absence management looks like for K–12 organizations.

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