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4 Reasons Our Substitutes Weren’t Working

Teacher Absences & Subs

Like most school districts, the substitute shortage has affected Elk River School District 728. Over the last three years, our district has struggled to fill all of its open jobs. This has resulted in a lot of problems.

The Problems of Unfilled Absences

If we can’t get a substitute to fill an absence, we have to parcel out the students in a variety of ways to other teachers who are on the job. Some teachers have had to give up their prep hour to cover a class. In the elementary schools, we sometimes have had to move kids into other classrooms, and those teachers would have to double up. When we do that, our teachers’ contract requires that we double up their pay. So we were seeing a huge cost increase, twice as much as it cost us for subs.

Even worse, shuffling these students around was potentially detrimental to the quality of their education, at least for those days. Our concerns included having underprepared teachers who were frustrated about doubling up, students unfamiliar with the teacher they had, and overcrowding in the classroom.

Obviously, something needed to be done. The more I looked at it, the more I realized that the problem wasn’t that we didn’t have enough subs on our call list. The issue was getting subs that are on the list to say “yes” to us.

Instead of trying to figure out why subs weren’t accepting jobs, some administrators simply made a lot of declarations, saying, “It’s about this, or it’s because of that.” But I realized that we were making those declarations while sitting here in the district office — and no one had actually asked a substitute.

No substitute had called me and told me the reasons they weren’t accepting jobs. I really wanted to know what it was about working for our district that was turning them off, and I felt we couldn’t declare reasons or offer solutions until we asked the people who were exhibiting the behavior. So we decided to survey our substitutes to learn more about their subbing habits and preferences.

The Survey & What We Learned

We launched a survey electronically to our entire substitute list using Survey Monkey. In the survey, we asked them questions like: How long have you been substituting? At what districts? Which districts do you sub for most? Are there certain teachers or certain shifts you prefer? Would you choose to accept a job at another district over ours? Why?

We had a great response to the survey — 60% of our substitutes participated. From the results, we determined four primary factors that affected our substitutes’ motivation to work in our district.

1. We Needed to Adjust Our Pay Rate & Schedule Structure

Prior to this year, we had a two-tiered pay rate schedule. Our substitutes could reach the second tier of pay after working 20 full days. The problem was that each year, they’d have to start over on the first tier, while in other districts with similar systems, and often slightly higher rates, they’d return for the new year with the same pay rate they had reached the year before. Naturally once a new year started, substitutes would prefer to work in districts where they had already achieved a higher rate of pay.

This year, we revised the whole pay system. I spoke with HR managers in our area and asked what they were paying. In order to be in line with what others are paying, we raised the rate for both of the original tiers of pay, and we added a third tier that substitutes could achieve. Also, provided substitutes continue to perform with the same quality they displayed the year before, substitutes will start a new year at the same tier they had reached the year before.

2.  We Needed to Train on Internal Curriculum and Technology

In our district, the technology used in each classroom is left to each teacher’s discretion. Many have elected to use tools, such as SMART Boards, to aide teaching. Some of our substitutes reported that they felt vulnerable or embarrassed when they entered a classroom with certain technology because the students often knew more about the technology than they did.

To address this problem, we plan to provide voluntary training during the summers on technology as well as best practices for substitutes to cover content areas other than their own licensed area.

3.  We Needed to Improve Our Communication & Expectations

Third, our substitutes reported a lapse in communication with the district and school staff, and they also told us that expectations throughout the district were not consistent. In one building they might get a lot of support and instructions, but in another building they may just be pointed to a room and then isolated and ignored until the end of the day. Additionally, they received little feedback from our staff on what they were doing well or could improve.

As a result, we’re working to define, document and implement a standard process for providing feedback to substitutes on their performance. We’re also developing a process for substitutes to provide feedback to teachers and administrators about the assignments they fulfill. We don’t just want to hear about when a substitute trips up; we want to provide encouragement based on positive feedback, and we want to know how well we’re accommodating them.

We also want to engage and appreciate our substitutes, and we want them to know what we expect. We expect that each substitute will consistently receive a comprehensive packet of instructions and information, no matter where in the district they are substituting. Also, we now provide new employee orientation for all new substitute teachers before they can accept assignments. We share information about the district, our mission statement and our standard performance expectations for substitutes.

4. We Needed To Give More Advance Notice

Finally, our substitutes reported that they want notice further in advance for available jobs. Using Aesop [now Frontline Absence & Time], we allow our different buildings and teachers to keep a list of preferred substitutes to work in their classrooms, based on substitute knowledge and past performance. However, we realized that we had made the window of time that other substitutes could see jobs far too small. By the time jobs became visible to them, they had already accepted jobs in other districts.

Now, we still allow our teachers to keep a preferred substitute list, but only for a very limited window of time. We encourage them to prearrange a job if they really need a specific substitute, and we now keep our visibility for all substitutes in Aesop as open as possible, so that substitutes can see and accept our jobs before making other plans.


If your district is struggling to attract substitutes, make sure you understand your population. Track absence metrics and build reports that show which substitutes are or aren’t working, and what types of jobs they’re accepting, so you can get a better understanding of your district and what substitutes are expecting.

You really need to open an avenue of communication with your staff and substitutes to address their needs. Engagement is important, and it’s a fine line because you want to meet their needs while ensuring they understand your expectations as well. But if done properly, the result will benefit everyone — supervised classrooms at the district and substitutes who are happy and prepared for their work.

Dolly Bina

In her role as the HR Manager for the 8th largest district in the state of Minnesota, Dolly Bina seeks to educate, inspire and empower diverse learners by meeting the employment needs of her district's employees and programs. She strives to influence others to perform their life's work and not simply hold a job.