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Why Substitutes Work in Your District (or Not) – and What You Can Do About It

Teacher Absences & Subs

Ever feel the pinch of not having enough substitutes to fill in for absent teachers? You’re not alone.

Substitute shortages continue to be a top concern for school districts across the country, and there are plenty of theories why: teacher shortages make it easier for new educators to find full-time jobs, or wages are too low to make substitute teaching an attractive choice, or people have moved into other careers as the economy has recovered.

But data from the Frontline Research & Learning Institute suggests that the issue might not be simply a shortage of substitute teachers in the pool — instead, perhaps our current substitute teachers just aren’t working enough. Our annual report on national employee absence and substitute data shows during the 2016-17 school year, 46% of substitutes didn’t work at all, and those who did worked an average of 33.3 days. But fill rates that year averaged 84.3%, indicating that there’s still work to be done in finding enough substitutes to cover employee absences.


Our annual report on national employee absence and substitute data shows during the 2016-17 school year, 46% of substitutes didn’t work at all, and those who did worked an average of 33.3 days


So, what influences substitutes’ decision-making process when taking jobs? To find out, the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University used Frontline Education’s data to explore substitute teacher preparation and working patterns in greater depth.

The study’s data sources included:

  • Human resources data from 2014 to 2017, including over 1.5 million substitutes from over 6,000 K-12 organizations
  • A survey of over 5,000 substitutes from over 2,000 organizations and fifty administrators

What affects how often substitutes work?

First, let’s look at what correlates with taking more substitute teaching jobs:

  • Shorter commute times
  • Availability of work
  • A desire to work in their community or be near their children

It makes sense that having more available jobs means substitutes accept more work, and that those with shorter commute times take more jobs — after all, most people would prefer not to have a very long commute.

We also found that substitutes who teach as a primary source of income work more than those who teach to earn extra money on the side, and that substitutes with strong preferences for specific subjects were more selective and accepted fewer positions.

How do substitutes choose where to work? (Hint: it’s not what you might think!)

At the district level:

With many substitutes working in multiple school districts, you might be wondering what compels them to choose one district over another. When we asked substitutes and administrators about the values that made substitutes want to work for a particular district, both substitutes and administrators cited availability of work as a leading reason to work in a district.

Reasons for absences

But that’s the only top reason they agreed on.

In addition to availability of work, substitutes reported that district culture (48%), pay (33%), and administrative support (29%) were important in selecting a district. In contrast, a much higher percentage of administrators (62%) believed that pay was a top influencing factor for substitutes in selecting a district, and a lower percentage of administrators believed that district culture (38%) and administrative support (12%) were top factors for substitutes.

That begs the question: does every district leader fully recognize the importance of school culture and administrative support when it comes to recruiting and retaining substitutes?

Maybe not. Only 8% of organizations surveyed provided substitutes with ongoing feedback, and 10% offered professional development. Another 36% of organizations reported providing no support to substitutes.

At the school level:

If you have an employee absence management system that gives you access to your district’s absence data, you may have noticed that some schools have higher fill rates than others. That might not only be due to lower absence rates: substitutes tend to prefer specific schools based on certain characteristics.

Reasons for Subs not showing up

As we’ve seen before, short commute times and locality are a major influence — substitutes prefer to work locally and in their own communities. But school culture also plays a role, coming in third on the list of reasons substitutes prefer certain schools. Welcoming substitutes into the school community can help encourage more substitutes to work in schools with low fill rates.

What about providing training for substitute teachers?

While substitutes and administrators alike agreed that training for substitutes is important, our findings suggest that substitute training and preparation has not been fully utilized in the vast majority of districts.

According to the survey, 45% of substitute teachers reported receiving no training at all, and only 7% reported participating in district orientation training. Moreover, the majority of administrators reported that the amount of job skills training was inadequate and that they were dissatisfied with the current format of the training.

A district which invests in its substitutes through professional development opportunities is likely one with a positive, supportive culture, which we have identified as a strong influence on substitute decision-making.

What does this mean for school administrators?

Administrators can encourage substitutes to take more jobs in order to raise fill rates in several ways.

  1. Take stock of your district and school culture — how are substitutes welcomed into the community? Fostering a supportive culture across every level of the organization will attract more substitutes and inspire them to take jobs in your classrooms.
  2. Provide more administrative support to substitute teachers. Chances are, you don’t need to hire more staff — just look for areas where you can streamline inefficient processes and reclaim time.
  3. Invest in providing support to substitute teachers, and consider providing ongoing feedback, professional development or other substitute training opportunities.
  4. Encourage teachers to report absences as far in advance as possible. Longer lead times have a positive effect on position acceptance, and substitutes appreciate having thorough lesson plans.
  5. Target your recruiting efforts to be as local as possible, and draw a connection between substitute teaching and working with the community.
  6. Finally, if your budget allows, consider your district’s substitute wages. Pay isn’t the top reason why substitutes choose to work in a particular district, but higher wages are still an effective incentive — especially if neighboring school districts already pay more.
Like research and insights like this? Check out the Frontline Recruiting & Learning Institute for more data on employee absences and substitute activity.

Annie GrunwellAnnie Grunwell

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 teacher shortage and best practices in human capital management.