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The Real Substitute Teacher Shortage: A Lack of Engagement

Human Resources

It’s a story familiar to many school leaders: teachers are absent, and there aren’t enough substitute teachers to fill in. Classes are combined, other teachers give up their planning period, paraprofessionals or administrators are compelled to fill in. In any case, student learning is derailed, and other staff lose valuable time to plan and complete their own work. It’s not sustainable.

To combat the substitute teacher shortage, many districts have raised wages and advertised substitute teaching positions in an effort to bolster their sub pools. But data from the Frontline Research & Learning Institute suggests that the real problem isn’t that substitute pools are too small — and that means it’s an even bigger challenge for schools to tackle.

The Problem: Substitutes Aren’t Working

In the first half of this school year, teacher absences have remained relatively unchanged compared to the first semester of the 2017-18 school year. Yet fill rates are a little lower — and it’s not because schools have fewer substitutes to call. Instead, the percentage of non-working subs has risen, with 63 percent of substitutes not taking jobs in December. And those substitutes who do work aren’t taking more jobs to pick up the slack. In fact, in small urban school systems, substitutes worked nearly half as many days on average every month.

Percentage of Non-Working Substitutes

Clearly, the issue isn’t with the number of substitutes on districts’ lists — it’s getting those substitutes engaged and taking jobs.

How to Get Substitute Teachers to Take More Jobs

Many districts hope to incentivize substitute teachers to take more jobs by raising substitute wages. If your district pays substitutes significantly less than neighboring school systems, this is a good first step in becoming more competitive. However, money isn’t everything. Low pay has been a major influence on the substitute shortage for a long time, so raising rates now is more akin to finally catching up than getting ahead. And with the unemployment rate as low as it is, many substitute teachers are finding more stable employment and full-time positions, in both education and other fields.

It all comes back to substitute engagement. Data from the Frontline Research & Learning Institute has consistently shown that fill rates are highest in the middle of the week, so clearly there are substitutes out there to take jobs. Even this past December, Tuesdays had the highest fill rates, despite the fact that a quarter of all absences fell on those days. So, if you have professional learning or school activities that will take educators out of the classroom, schedule them for a Tuesday or Wednesday, or whichever weekday has the highest fill rates in your schools.

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Professionally Related Absences Report

While that’s a good short-term (and long-term) fix, it doesn’t get at the real heart of the problem, which is a lack of substitute engagement. That’s something you can improve by refocusing your strategy away from the logistics of substitute management (having administrative assistants call substitutes when teachers are absent or coordinating with teachers to give up their planning periods) and more toward fostering connections.

Substitutes, like anyone else, want to work where they are appreciated. So, reach out to substitutes who aren’t taking jobs and ask them to come back. Get in contact with those who are working regularly, too, and thank them for their hard work. Adding that personal touch will really make an impact.

Additional Resources on Engaging Substitutes

  • No Substitute for Customer Service: As Barbara Valencia at Spring Grove Area School District says, “When you have good customer service, people tend to return. It’s no different with subs.” See how a commitment to substitute engagement increased fill rates and helped recruit new substitute teachers.
  • The Truth Is… We Could Not Run Our Schools Without Our Substitutes: Discover concrete examples of how to show your substitute pool your appreciation in this guest post by Lynn Glickman, Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources at Community Consolidated School District 21.
  • Changing Perceptions: How do you overcome the substitute shortage by changing the perception of substitute teaching? What steps you can take to ensure that substitutes are eager to work in your schools and engaged in the classroom? Find out in this eBook, Changing Perceptions: Substitutes as Educators.

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.