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The Substitute Teacher Shortage: Is This the “New Normal?”

July 20, 2023   •   Insights

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In the case of K-12 school staffing, a state of disequilibrium has become the standard for many hard-hit districts. Demand has far outstripped supply, forcing school officials to scramble for effective solutions to provide stability and continuity of quality instruction to students.

Rates of teacher attrition and absenteeism, which spiked during the pandemic, have not yet returned to normal levels. This, in turn, has increased the demand for substitute teachers. But often, qualified substitutes are hard to find and retain.

The ongoing shortage of both regular teachers and substitutes has serious implications for everyone in the school community: other staff members who have to cover classes, administrators who have to engage in staff juggling acts, students, and families.

While the substitute shortage varies among states and districts, reports suggest that high-need schools are hit the hardest. “Less advantaged schools systematically exhibit lower rates of substitute coverage compared with peer institutions,” Jing Lui writes in More Than Shortages: The Unequal Distribution of Substitute Teaching.

And a quick solution is not on the horizon yet. “School district leaders expect the demand for substitute teachers will grow over the next few years,” states this January 2023 report, The substitute teacher shortage: Research reveals why it warrants more news coverage. “One big reason: As Baby Boomer educators retire, they are replaced by younger educators, many of whom will start families, requiring them to sometimes take parental leave and time off to care for sick children.”

How Are Districts Managing?

In the dearth of quality substitutes, schools have been forced to resort to measures such as bringing in less-than-qualified individuals, cramming multiple classrooms together, or even shuttering the school temporarily.

These tactics aren’t ideal. “They combined two other classes with mine, having over 100 students in the auditorium. I was able to take attendance that period, that’s it. When this coverage happens, there isn’t much learning happening,” remarked one teacher in this report.

“We’re constantly robbing Peter to pay Paul to keep an adult in the classroom,” said Katrina McCombs, superintendent of the Camden City School District in New Jersey, in an NSBA report. “It’s a challenge and a juggling act, and it’s taking away from the actual intent we have for these positions. But we’re persisting. We’re persisting.”

But is this really “the new normal?” If so, it’s not one that school leaders have the luxury to just accept—like McCombs, they must persist. What’s causing the substitute scarcity, and what can we do to address the issue?

Why Substitute Teachers Stay Away

Some key factors that drive subs away from schools include long commutes, lack of support from administration and other staff, the perceived safety of the surrounding neighborhood, lack of benefits, lack of a steady income, and low pay—although higher pay alone won’t necessarily mitigate dismal working conditions.

Of all the disincentives, however, student misbehavior may top the list. Students, especially teenagers, tend to take substitutes less seriously and use their presence as an excuse to slack off or, worse, to harass and disrespect them.

87 percent of public schools in 2022 reported a negative trend in student behavior and social-emotional development, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. “Specifically, respondents attributed increased incidents of classroom disruptions from student misconduct (56 percent), rowdiness outside of the classroom (49 percent), acts of disrespect towards teachers and staff (48 percent), and prohibited use of electronic devices (42 percent) to the COVID-19 pandemic and its lingering effects.”

Writes one regular substitute teacher in a Facebook group dedicated to AZ substitute teachers, “The kids missed two years of social and emotional learning during a critical period. Not to mention staffing issues! We don't have enough support or permanent staff to create stability. The school culture and structures need to support good behavior. Very few schools do it successfully.”

What Can School Leaders Do?

Provide Support: Offer the necessary support and resources to ensure that all subs have a successful day in the classroom. Respect them, and they’ll come back. Suzanne Ketchum, who has been a substitute teacher at the Milford School District in Delaware for three years, says that one of the challenges she faces is “not knowing where I fit in and who to go to for questions.” One thing school leaders can do, she suggests, is to create an environment that welcomes subs. Provide a handbook with guidelines. Assign other school employees to act as mentors. Also, it’s important to enforce consequences for students who disrespect substitute teachers. Ensuring accountability requires that someone is checking in on the sub and listening to their concerns.

Consider Pay Raises and Benefits: Pay does matter. Evaluate your pay rates for substitutes, taking into account the cost of living in your area. Districts that took this step include Douglas County (CO), Austin ISD (TX), Billings (MT), and Fulton County (GA), which all increased substitute teacher pay by 50% or more during the pandemic. “A less prevalent strategy deployed by districts, but one which might have a greater impact than even these substantial raises, was to make substitute teachers eligible for health benefits,” suggests the National Council on Teacher Quality.

Assign Long-Term Subs: San Diego County Schools tackled its substitute teacher shortage by creating a new position at every school: a “Resident Visiting Teacher,” or a substitute who shows up at the school every day and is always on standby. Assigning long-term substitute teachers for the entire school year allows them to support regular teachers by leading small group learning sessions or covering the classroom during a PD session. If needed to fill an absence, they’ll already be prepared, be familiar with the students, and will have built some key skills to make them more effective instructors.

Implement Apprenticeship Programs: Teaching apprenticeships are now recognized by the Department of Labor and qualify for federal funding, and 17 states thus far have launched registered teacher apprenticeship programs, reports PBS NewsHour in May 2023. Aspiring teachers can build skills and earn a degree while spending hands-on, paid time in the classroom. Removing financial barriers creates equitable opportunities for anyone who has a passion to become a teacher, grows the talent pool, and also provides on-the-spot substitute coverage. Tabitha Branum, Superintendent for Richardson Independent School District (TX), says that “the fact that these apprentices are now substitutes for us one day a week, the relief of those teachers in that building who know that I might be off this week, but that apprentice is going to be in my classroom, they can really take the day off and not worry.” The National Center for Grow Your Own, a nonprofit organization working to expand the teacher workforce, helps states and districts to establish apprenticeship programs.

Commit ESSER II Funds: In December 2021, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona sent a letter to school districts recommending that “states and districts can use ARP funds to recruit and train high-quality substitute teachers”—which falls under allowable uses for the funds. This White House Fact Sheet reports that Gaston County Schools in North Carolina, for example, added “an additional teacher and a temporary employee per school to decrease class sizes, help manage workloads and provide classroom coverage in each of its 54 schools using ARP ESSER funding.” However, districts need to act quickly to secure remaining funding. ESSER II, funded at $54.3 billion, has an obligation deadline of Sept. 30, 2023—the date when the funds are committed via a contract with a vendor or services.

The substitute teacher shortage may indeed be the “new normal" for the time being, but with creative strategies and dedicated attention from school leaders, we can collectively begin to reverse the trend and support all our teachers and the students they serve.

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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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