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What Districts Can Do About the Substitute Teacher Shortage

Recruiting & Hiring

Everywhere you turn, there’s a new article about the substitute teacher shortage. There just aren’t enough substitute teachers to go around, and the problem has been pinned on everything from poor pay to low unemployment rates. Districts work hard to try to pump up their substitute pools — reaching out to news outlets, posting on social media and attending job fairs.

But even when they do find new substitutes, it seems like there’s never enough. Maybe solving the substitute shortage isn’t just about having more substitutes.

Data from the Frontline Research & Learning Institute shows over half of all substitutes just aren’t working in any given month — and that percentage is even higher for small districts. The question is, why aren’t substitutes working? It could be that they just don’t know where to start, or don’t feel confident taking jobs.

In that case, districts can take steps to address potential substitutes’ concerns and help promote substitute teaching — leading to better results from their recruitment efforts, higher fill rates and more engaged substitutes.

Understand the Struggles (and Rewards) of Substitute Teaching

It’s no secret that substitutes have it hard. Every day, they’re put into new situations with unfamiliar faces, and rarely have the chance to build a connection with the students they’re teaching.

One substitute described their experience like this:

“You know that scene in Fight Club where he concludes that the people he meets are single-serving friends? Subbing was like single-serving classroom management, single-serving relationships, single-serving emergency plans. It’s kind of like teaching, but everything is single-serving and thus a little different.”

For some, these short-term stints in different classrooms are perfect: prospective teachers get to experience a variety of classrooms and grade levels, to see where they might fit best as a full-time educator, and offer a way to learn how more experienced teachers work.

But for many people, that level of uncertainty can be nerve-wracking, especially if they are new to teaching. It’s especially difficult when you consider that substitutes often don’t receive any training before they begin. In fact, up to half of all substitutes did not receive any training from their school system before taking an assignment — not even a district orientation training. And of the substitutes who did receive some sort of training from the district, over seventy percent received a half-day or less of training.

So, it’s no wonder that Internet forums geared toward educators are filled to the brim with new substitutes begging for advice and encouragement.

“Tomorrow is my first day ever (!!!!) substitute teaching, and now I’m sort of realizing I don’t know what to do at all? I have very limited experience working with youth, and like zero classroom experience in general. I don’t know what grade I’ll be getting at all, either. But if any of you have any advice (as in what to do or what to definitely NOT do) that would be great.”

“I am testing the waters to see if I want to be a teacher, so I’m subbing for a year or so to see if I can handle it and or where I would like to teach. However, there was no formal training and I’m a little nervous and feel it’s a sink or swim situation.”

After spending some time in the classroom, though, many substitutes find the work to be rewarding. One substitute writes, I get so much joy out of what I do. I love connecting with students, helping them grow, actually teaching them when the lesson calls for it.”

Another substitute writes: I’ve been a sub for 2 years and love it! It’s made me change my career path to pursue teaching. I love the kids, love that I can try out different grades and subjects, and decide my own schedule (my district uses an online job program where we can see all available jobs and decide where/when we work).”

What about substitutes in your district?

Action Item:

Consider sending a survey to all your substitutes — including those not currently working — and ask them for feedback. You may want to ask about the challenges they face when substitute teaching, what they would like to see as training opportunities, and what they find most rewarding about their work.

Increase Retention by Supporting and Engaging Your Substitutes

Look at your own substitute pool. Are there many substitutes on the list who haven’t taken any jobs lately? If so, consider reaching out to them. When you engage with your substitutes, you may find that they are willing to take more jobs or provide some valuable feedback about why they aren’t working as much.

But don’t limit that outreach to substitutes who aren’t taking many jobs. Welcome substitutes into the school community and recognize (and celebrate) the work they do across the district. And don’t leave them out of the opportunities provided to your full-time educators: consider offering more substantial trainings for substitutes, too. Not only will they be more effective in the classroom and better support student learning, but they will see it as a sign that you’re invested in them and the work they do. In return, you’ll likely find that substitutes take more jobs in your schools and stick around for longer. Remember: less turnover means less effort needs to be spent on recruitment and onboarding.

The end result will be more effective, engaged substitutes taking more jobs in your district, leading to higher fill rates and improved student learning.

Use Your Substitute Retention Strategy for Recruitment

Once your substitutes are engaged and working more often, you hopefully won’t have to worry as much about finding more. But there will always be a need for more substitutes as people retire or find other work. So, when you do need to recruit, think about the message you are sending to prospective substitutes, and look for ways to attract more people to the job.

  • Promote substitute teaching as a rewarding job, and emphasize its strengths: it’s flexible enough to be a fantastic option for people who want to decide their own schedule and not commit to a full-time job or set schedule, and can be great experience for those who want to pursue a career in education
  • Tell your substitute story — publicly thank and recognize the substitutes in your district regularly to show that they are appreciated
  • Make it known that you will provide training for new substitutes to help them get ready for the classroom (and make sure that you follow through with coursework that covers both the compliance side, as well as classroom management techniques and information on working with students)

Annie GrunwellAnnie Buttner

Annie is a writer and part of the award-winning content team at Frontline Education. She's passionate about learning, exploring data and sharing knowledge. Her specialties include substitute management, the K-12 staffing shortage, and best practices in human capital management.