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A Different Perspective on the Substitute Shortage

Teacher Absences & Subs

Substitute shortage is something we hear a lot about, and we probably accept it without giving it a second thought. But is there really a shortage of substitutes? It’s not as if there are a limited, predetermined number of substitutes to go around. I would argue instead that we have a shortage of people who choose to substitute.

The real problem: people don’t choose to substitute

Ask any group of kids what they want to be when they grow up. “A football player!” “A chef, because I like to eat!” “A veterinarian; I think my neighbor’s dog is cool!” How many students would say they want to be misunderstood or undervalued, or have great work go unrewarded? (You got it: not many.)

Yet consciously or unconsciously, that is the message we often communicate about substitute teaching.

Plenty of people out there are qualified to be substitute teachers. Yes, we have recruiting challenges. We have empty classrooms. We lose substitutes to other jobs. We do have a problem — but understanding what lies at the heart of it is the most important step toward solving it. Why are people choosing not to substitute? Understanding what lies at the heart of it is the most important step toward solving it. Why are people choosing not to substitute?

Substitutes are educators

A substitute teacher impacts multiple students’ educational journeys every day. Substitutes aren’t just babysitters; they’re educators. You may think, “Subs are only in the classroom for one day. That isn’t enough time to make a difference.” But how many times has one single word, one kind action, one enlightened thought changed your life? Imagine what can be done with an entire day! Substitutes can offer that one moment that makes a difference.

Taking the baton: continuity in the classroom

The full-time teacher has established a particular culture in the classroom. Taking the baton and lending continuity to that teacher’s hard work is an art.

Sometimes that baton is passed in a subject or grade outside the substitute’s area of expertise. Substitutes often walk into unfamiliar environments, with unfamiliar people. They discuss multiple subjects. They save the day in emergency situations. Many do so with grace and professionalism, and embrace the opportunity to impact educational journeys in the process.

Certainly this is something worth choosing to do.

Change the perception of substitute teaching

Substitute teaching is certainly not easy in many ways, and there are realities of the job we cannot change. We can, however, change the perceptions around substituting. We can help people see that it’s worth choosing. If the job of substitute teacher is not seen as an educator role worth support, recognition and encouragement in your district, change the job. Be the one who embraces the humanity and capability of the substitute teacher. Help others do the same.

If we don’t see the job as something worth doing, how will anyone else?

There are people in your district who choose to substitute. Ask them why. Learn where they live, what social groups they belong to and if they are telling others about the job. Ask them what would make the job better.

More than anything, tell them “Thank you!” Celebrate the fact that while everyone is talking about a “substitute shortage,” they still chose to substitute. Tell them that you appreciate their work in education. Then, tell everyone else about the great job and significant impact they are making each day. Retention will be your best recruiting tool for the new job of substituting.

It starts with you. Take a moment to remember why you chose Human Resources. For most, it probably had something to do with helping people. Despite the stress, the pressure — despite the job itself in some cases – you believed it was worth doing. As a child, you may not have dreamed about going into HR when you grew up. But somewhere along the way you found joy in supporting people, in helping them be better and stronger. Don’t lose sight of that.

You are uniquely positioned not only to help people who serve your district, but also to impact the educational journeys of thousands of students in the process. That’s impressive. That’s a job worth doing.

A sincere thank you to Patty Blanchard, Human Resources Director Technology and Support Services, Portland Public Schools, Oregon, for her collaboration on this message. 

Cydney Miller

Cydney is a Solutions Consulting Manager for Frontline Education, a leading provider of K-12 employee management software. Cydney most recently served as the HR Director at Clarksville-Montgomery County School System in Tennessee. She is committed to supporting school districts with their strategic human capital managementn needs, including staffing, HR and substitute fulfillment.