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Teacher Absences & Subs

A Roadmap to Substitute Engagement

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Building Accountability Into Substitute Teaching

A first-rate substitute program doesn’t happen by accident. It takes work, planning and — just as importantly — stepping into the shoes of your substitutes themselves.

I’ve talked before about the importance of recognizing substitutes as educators through pay structures and growth opportunities, sharing your broader vision with them, intentionally bringing them into your organization’s community and creating a physical environment that sets them up for success. Now it’s time to tackle some of the nuts and bolts and talk about the importance of structure: putting processes and procedures in place to lend direction and accountability to substitute teaching.

Among other things, this includes substitute teacher job descriptions, responsibilities and processes that should be followed, the rewards for doing so and the accountability structure if guidelines aren’t followed.

  Accountability is a good thing.

It would be easy to shy away from this. Many districts are struggling to find enough substitutes. “What if requiring my substitutes to follow our procedures prevents them from wanting to work in our district?” But I believe you’ll find that the opposite is true.

Just as they benefit from clear directions when they show up at a school for the first time (“Where do I park? Where do I report to when I arrive?”), knowing what the district requires of them is as important to substitutes as it is to your other employees. We’ve all had times when we’ve done something one way, then are told, “No, it should be done like this instead.” That’s an awkward feeling — and it can be even more acute for substitutes who already face uncomfortable and unfamiliar situations every day. But you can alleviate much of this by clearly spelling out what’s expected of your substitutes.

 Structure helps your district solve issues and achieve goals.

If your district has a shortage of qualified substitutes, for example, think through what processes you can put into place to address it — such as requiring your substitutes to work a minimum number of days. At Clarksville-Montgomery School System, we required our substitutes to work 10 days out of their first 30. In doing so, we showed that we believed substitute teaching was important, and were able to ensure teacher absences would be filled.

 Structure helps your substitutes achieve their goals.

Clear expectations — and the benefits of meeting those expectations — will mean higher motivation and engagement among your substitutes.

In our school system, substitutes started off with a probationary status and were issued a laminated ID badge. By working for 10 out of their first 30 days, they advanced to full substitute status, received higher placement (and a better chance of getting jobs) in the absence management system — and received an official plastic ID badge with a photo. That seems like a small thing, but you’d be surprised how many substitutes wanted that badge, and worked to get it.

 Take it seriously.

what you do mattersBeyond communicating the rewards of meeting expectations, school districts also need to be clear about what happens when they’re not met. This builds credibility and viability in the process, encourages your employees to take the expectations seriously and shows them that substitute teaching is important to the educational mission of your district.

Take, for example, a district that requires substitutes to work one day a month, or one day a semester. Is that really showing pride in the process? Does that really communicate that you value your substitutes and believe what they do is important? When we required substitutes to work 10 out of their first 30 days, it said, “We believe what you do matters.”

Again, this isn’t always easy to do, because you might fear that it causes substitutes to look elsewhere for work. But establishing this structure, even though it feels negative at first, can be the very thing that gives your substitutes a positive perception of the role of substitute teaching. Think about your favorite teacher from high school, or your favorite professor in college — more likely than not, you’re picturing a teacher who was challenging and had high expectations for her students.

 Communicate clearly.

How many times can I say it? Use your website, your information packet you send to substitutes, your substitute orientation sessions — any way you can — to make sure your substitutes understand the structure you’ve put into place.

Just as importantly, communicate with your schools about this. Without them, these structures you’ve worked so carefully to create are just theoretical. They need to be talked about and lived out at the school level to be effective.

What happens if your substitutes show up at a school for the first time, carrying their laminated probationary ID badges? If the front office doesn’t know about that policy, they probably won’t let them in (and rightly so).

Enacting these policies, procedures and processes may seem like small steps to take. But don’t view them simply as bureaucratic items to check off your list. They’re important parts of a roadmap to help your district achieve its educational goals, and to enable your substitutes to move toward higher engagement and a better career.