Teacher Absences & Subs

Recruiting Substitute Teachers: A Data-informed Approach

10 min. read

Raise your hand if you think your district has enough substitute teachers. Now wave it all around.

The odds that you’re currently sitting at your desk, waving your hand in the air like you just don’t care, are slim to none. And chances are, your goal is to solve the problem by hiring more substitutes. But before you commit to a recruiting strategy, there’s something you should know.

Some of the most common substitute recruitment strategies are expensive and ineffective.

It’s the unspoken secret of the substitute management world, but the substitute shortage won’t be solved by spending more money on recruitment efforts. And yet, faced with a substitute shortage, many district administrators will begin advertising “Substitute Teachers Wanted!” through traditional channels — putting signs up on district property, running an ad in the local newspaper or even renting a billboard along a local highway.

You can spend all your funding on advertising to your community that you need more substitutes, but you’re unlikely to find more than a handful applicants. Those who are qualified to be substitutes know that substitute teaching is an option and are probably already aware of your district’s existence. After all, they live in your community.

So, these strategies aren’t the best use of a district’s limited resources. And given that budgets are tight, and funding for recruitment efforts can be even tighter, it’s important that every dollar spent leads to results.

So, if you’re struggling with a substitute shortage, what should you do?

Identify the real problem behind the substitute shortage.

If you’re trying to increase the size of your substitute pool, chances are it’s because you’re struggling to find people to come in and cover absences. But the real problem may not be the size of your substitute pool — it could be a fill rate issue. Or, it could be some combination of the two.

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Deeper Assessment: Treating the Problem, Not the Symptom

With the right data, you can diagnose the underlying cause of your district’s substitute shortage. All you need to do is consider the following metrics.

Teacher absenteeism

To state the obvious, more teacher absences will mean you need more substitutes to fill in. According to the Frontline Research & Learning Institute, employees requiring a substitute are absent an average of 11 times per school year.

If your employees are absent significantly more often, you may wish to focus on proactively managing leave rather than finding more substitutes. If this is the case, here are a few things to consider:

  • Your district’s leave policies may not be followed to the letter. This is more often the case in districts using paper-based processes to manage employee leave. Communicating district policies (and the need to comply with them) to campus administrators can help.
  • The issue may not be the number of teacher absences, but the timing. Identify high-absence days in your district and make clear why it’s important to limit the number of employees out at a time.
  • Professionally related absences have a greater impact on instructional time than you might expect. When scheduling professional learning opportunities, try staggering them to avoid sparking a crisis-level substitute shortage. Or, encourage professional learning that doesn’t take educators out of the classroom.

Substitute teacher engagement

Before using valuable resources to recruit more substitutes, take a closer look at your existing sub pool. Many districts don’t have a shortage of substitutes; they have a shortage of engaged substitutes. So, how do you know if this is the case in your district?

Start by calculating the percentage of substitutes on your list who are actively taking jobs in your district. Then, look at the substitutes who do accept jobs in your district, and calculate the how many days they work on average.

Tip: If your district uses Absence Management (part of Frontline Absence & Time), these metrics are automatically calculated in the system, and you can compare your organization’s results to national benchmarks or similar organizations in the Institute Report. If your district already uses Absence Management, log in to read more about the Institute Report in the Learning Center.

If you find that a large percentage of your substitute pool isn’t working, increasing engagement should be your first priority. If you ignore substitute retention in favor of recruitment, you’ll end up with a time-consuming revolving-door of hiring substitutes who take few or no jobs, then hiring even more to try and replace them. That’s not the best use of your time, and it’s expensive to continually recruit more applicants, hire them, train them on district policies and ensure that they’re entered into all of your systems.

So, it’s worth investing resources in retaining your current substitutes — after all, they’re already in your sub pool. There is a lot of competition for effective substitute teachers, so put yourself in their shoes and look for ways to provide your subs with a better experience. For example, can they easily find and accept jobs in your classrooms? Are they being hammered by multiple phone calls from secretaries or teachers — even if they’ve already accepted a job in the district?

It’s a good idea to survey your list of substitutes and ask why they choose to work in your district — or why they don’t. You may uncover that some schools have a reputation for being unwelcoming to substitutes, or that the district pays substitutes less than others in the area. In any case, the responses you receive should inform your strategy moving forward, so you can be sure that your efforts focus on initiatives that will have the greatest impact. For example, you may find that a modest pay increase for substitutes — or a pay bump for only the most loyal substitutes — could improve fill rates far more than spending more on recruitment efforts.

Teacher-sub ratio

Last, but certainly not least, examine your teacher-to-substitute ratio. The Frontline Research & Learning Institute has found a clear, consistent correlation between lower teacher-sub ratios and higher fill rates.

Source: The Frontline Research & Learning Institute. Data from the 2017-18 school year.

You can find your district’s ratio, along with customizable benchmarks, in Absence Management. If you don’t use our software, you can still find your district’s ratio, but it’ll require a little more effort. Take the total number of classroom teachers in your district who would require a substitute if they were absent and divide it by the total number of substitute teachers on your list.

For reference, the national average for this metric is about 1.85.

If you have a relatively low ratio of employees to substitutes, then your best course of action is most likely focusing on improving substitute engagement. But if your district’s ratio is relatively high, then it’s time to recruit more substitutes.

Here’s how to recruit more substitute teachers.

If you’ve looked at your district’s data and determined that you really do need to recruit more substitutes, rather than focus on engaging and retaining existing subs, what should you do?

You certainly can try putting an advertisement in the local paper, but as we’ve said before, you’re unlikely to reach a large pool of qualified applicants who weren’t already aware of your district. But it’s all about doing what works best for your district — if you’ve used traditional recruiting methods like newspaper ads in the past, and your data shows that it was a success, great! Keep doing what works for your district, but don’t be afraid to try new avenues, too.

The fact is, low unemployment and low substitute wages make it difficult to attract more substitutes, no matter how much you spend on recruitment. Instead, focus on building relationships and a strong reputation.

Focus on relationships.

The more local and community-based your efforts are, the better — it’s unlikely that qualified people will move to the area just to be a substitute teacher in your district.

If possible, reach out to retired educators in the area and ask them to consider coming back as substitutes. You may also find success in reaching out to the parents and families of current students — it can’t hurt to ask.

Or, get in touch with local universities to see if you can work out a partnership. If they have a school of education, that could be the perfect opportunity to build relationships with new teachers early in their careers. Even if your local college doesn’t have a teacher preparation program, you may still find students interested in working as substitutes when they don’t have class. And as a bonus, you might end up persuading a few to pursue a career in education.

Build a reputation as a good district to sub in.

Back to the topic of substitute engagement — remember that word gets around about schools’ working conditions. If substitutes enjoy being in your schools, they’ll tell other educators about their experience. And if they have a terrible experience subbing in your schools… they’ll definitely tell other educators about their experience.

Ensuring that substitutes are welcomed into the school community and appreciated for their hard work will help you build a reputation as being a great place to work, even as a substitute. Word-of-mouth can be a powerful tool for growing your substitute pool — and it’s free.

But you don’t have to take our word for it. At Spring Grove Area School District, a new initiative focused on providing phenomenal customer service to substitute teachers resulted in a threefold increase in the number of substitutes regularly taking jobs.

In addition to word-of-mouth, you may want to consider showing your appreciation for substitutes in a more public way. Whether you invite local media to celebrate your substitutes with you or devote some time to recognizing them on social media, you have the opportunity to show that they’re an integral part of the district.

Make it easy to become a substitute teacher.

Finally, remove as many barriers as possible from the application and hiring process. Obviously, there are some steps that are absolutely critical — like the background check. But if you require potential substitutes to jump through hoops and go through a manual, paper-based process, you might lose out on qualified candidates.

Your best option is to use the same applicant tracking system you use to hire teachers and other district employees. (We recommend Frontline Recruiting & Hiring, of course.) Allowing substitutes to apply online will help you build your applicant pool and save you hours of time sorting through resumes and applications. Likewise, the more you can automate the onboarding process, the easier it’ll be on your new substitutes — plus, spending fewer hours onboarding new hires is bound to be a relief to you, too.

Don’t forget that your application process may be the first interaction a potential substitute or employee has with your district, so make sure it leaves a great first impression. It’s all part of building a strong reputation as a district that’s easy to work for.

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Annie Grunwell

Annie 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.

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