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The Substitute Teacher Shortage

As a nation, we’re short on substitutes. From California, to Kansas and the Carolinas, school districts struggle to fill absences with qualified substitute teachers. The shortage - which was already an issue before the pandemic - has only worsened as schools grapple with a labor shortage and many substitutes may be wary of returning to in-person instruction.

This puts many schools in a difficult position. When no substitute can be found, often other teachers must give up their planning periods or consolidate classes. And sometimes, administrators themselves find themselves filling in as a substitute — as if they weren’t already busy enough!

So, what’s behind the substitute shortage?


The National Substitute Teacher Shortage

If there was one singular cause for the lack of substitute teachers, it would be simple to come up with a one-size-fits-all solution. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. It’s a tangled combination of many factors, all coming together to cause school district leaders across the country a lot of stress.

  • COVID-related concerns may prevent substitutes, many of whom are older, from wanting to return to school buildings.
  • Teacher shortages make it easier for out-of-work educators to find full-time positions.
  • Substitute teaching is not seen as a prestigious profession.
  • Low pay and a lack of benefits (e.g. health insurance) dissuades qualified people from substitute teaching, especially as wages rise in other sectors and competition for workers increases as many industries face staffing shortages.
  • State and local laws may make it difficult or impossible for retired teachers to work as substitutes while still collecting retirement benefits.
  • Fewer new teachers graduating from teacher prep programs limits the pool of newly-minted educators who work as substitutes before finding full-time teaching work.
All of these factors come together to mean one thing: there aren’t enough substitute teachers to go around.


Substitute Teacher Shortages within the School District

The Retention Problem

Even within a district with plenty of substitutes applying for jobs, fill rates can still be a problem. That’s because it’s still a challenge for many school districts to engage and retain substitutes.

Data from the Frontline Research & Learning Institute shows that on average, about half of all substitutes aren’t taking any jobs during the school year. During the 2017-18 school year, 49% of substitutes didn’t work at all, and those who did take jobs worked an average of 33 days, or a little less than once a week. These low numbers aren’t driven by a lack of jobs, either — with an average fill rate of 82%, there were plenty of jobs waiting to be claimed.

What about your district? Do you have visibility into how often your substitutes work, or which substitutes have stepped back and no longer takes jobs? Once you have that data, you can create a strategy to re-engage non-working substitutes and bring them back to the classroom. Consider finding ways to more actively welcome them into the school community, provide training to help them become more effective educators and ensure that absent teachers leave enough resources for substitutes to make a difference in the classroom.


Want to improve your substitute teacher retention rates? Take a holistic approach to substitute management that focuses on treating substitutes like the educators they are. Learn how with our eBook, Changing Perceptions: Substitutes as Educators

Differences in Fill Rates Across the School District

Within a single school system, it’s unlikely that every school has identical fill rates.

  • Substitutes may prefer to work in certain buildings, and avoid others, based on school culture and whether or not they feel welcomed.
  • Some school cultures may have a more laissez-faire approach to absenteeism, leading to relatively more absences that need to be filled.
  • Certain schools may be closer to where substitutes live.
  • Teachers in a particular school may be more conscientious about reporting absences in advance and including thorough lesson plans, helping substitutes feel prepared for the day.

Do you know how absence and fill rate patterns differ between your schools? With both district- and school-level data, you can see where your substitute program may be falling short, and take action to ensure that every classroom is filled with a qualified substitute.


Learn how to take a data-driven approach to solving substitute shortages at the school-level with our white paper: Deeper Assessment: Treating the Problem, Not the Symptom


The Substitute Engagement Challenge

While discussing the substitute shortage and fill rates, you can’t leave out substitute engagement. Data from the Frontline Research & Learning Institute shows a strong correlation between substitute engagement and absence fill rates.

To boost substitute engagement, you can use resources, but you can also make it easier for substitutes to look for, view, and accept open positions at your district. Offering them more time ahead of the date they’re needed is a great way to start. Frontline Absence & Time’s mobile app does just that. With the app, subs receive push notifications directly to their device about open vacancies. They can also use the app to search for and accept jobs.

And of course, when you use a system like Frontline Absence & Time, you decrease the amount of time it takes for a teacher to request an absence, have an administrator approve the absence, and then kick off the search for a substitute.

It might be tempting to overthink substitute engagement, but sometimes it’s the little things — like making it easy to accept a job — that can make an impact.


Managing Substitute Shortages: A Case Study

As part of their strategy to focus on strong instructional practices in the classroom, Atlanta Public Schools provides intensive, targeted professional development for their educators.

But district leaders discovered that the initiative was taking teachers out of the classroom, leaving schools vulnerable to low fill rates and contributing to substitute shortages. By gaining visibility into their absence and substitute trends and comparing their data to national benchmarks, Atlanta Public Schools was able to create a collaborative, data-driven strategy and continue providing a high level of professional development.

 See How They Did It, Step-by-Step



Frontline Absence & Time

Part of Frontline’s human capital management suite 

You can overcome the substitute shortage. Frontline Absence & Time saves you time by managing employee absences online and finding substitutes, while providing you with actionable insights.

  • See how your district’s absence and substitute data stacks up against national and state benchmarks from the Frontline Research & Learning Institute
  • Increase teacher accountability with real-time reporting
  • Make it easy for subs to search for and accept jobs they’re qualified for
  • Attach documents such as lesson plans or notes to help substitutes prepare
  • Go paperless with online absence forms, sign-in sheets, approval forms and more
  • Easily send substitute hours to payroll — no more manually entering data
  • Allow subs to view and accept open jobs through the mobile app