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Empowering Education: Nurturing a Dedicated Substitute Teaching Force through an Employee-First Approach

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Executive Summary

Substitute teachers are essential for the continuity of learning in K-12 public schools. However, many school districts face challenges in recruiting and retaining qualified and committed substitute teachers. Many barriers, including the steep and varied state requirements for becoming a substitute, may deter individuals from entering the substitute teacher pool. Others, such as the absence of a targeted substitute teacher training program, may prevent individuals from staying in the pool even after they have fulfilled the requirements. This white paper proposes that adopting an employee first mindset, which prioritizes the needs and interests of employees, can help school districts overcome these challenges, improve their substitute teaching workforce, and minimize disruptions to student learning.

The Non-Instructional Staff Supply Shortage

In recent years, districts across the nation have struggled to fill non-instructional staff positions, like facilities workers, tutors, and bus drivers. Data from the Frontline Research and Learning Institute suggests that a diminished supply of non-instructional staff candidates has and continues to cause this strain. An analysis of over 271,000 job postings created between January 1, 2019 and June 30, 2022 and over 3 million applications found a continuous decrease of applicants per non-instructional job posting. Figure 1 illustrates this trend. It shows that the average number of applications per job posting decreased by 44% from May 2019 to May 2022. On average, each job posting received 18 applications in May 2019 and 2020 but only 10 in May of 2022.

Figure 1 – Average Number of Applications Per Job Posting Per District from 2019-2022

Average Applications Per Job Posting by Month Chart

Diminished supply can lead to unfilled positions, requiring existing staff to take on additional responsibilities and work. Extended periods of increased demands on school staff can result in decreased job satisfaction and turnover.

The Substitute Teacher Shortage

Data from the Institute suggests that during the 2022-23 school year, approximately 14 million teacher absences went unfilled in US school districts, leading many to conclude that there is a dire substitute teacher shortage. For the average US school district that amounts to approximately 600 teacher absences per month.

Mirroring the instructional staff shortage, a logical assumption is that a diminished supply of substitute teacher candidates is the cause of this problem. However, the data suggests otherwise. Though supply varies by geographical region, data from the Institute shows that the national pool of available substitutes is currently at its largest, at 1.4 million workers. Table 1 displays the size of regional substitute pools. At a ratio of .64, the Mid Atlantic region’s pool was the largest. This suggests that in this region there were approximately two substitutes per three teachers. On the other hand, the South region’s pool was the smallest at a ratio of .33, or about one substitute per three teachers.

Table 1 – Size of Regional Substitute Teacher Pools During the 2022-23 School Year


Mid Atlantic

West (MT)


Central (MO)



Size of Sub Pool (Subs:Worker)







The Local Teacher Shortage

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The Local Teacher Shortage: An Investigation Into Varying Degrees of Labor Shortages by Region

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Barriers to Substitute Teacher Entry

While there is no nationally prescribed set of requirements for individuals who wish to become substitute teachers, state departments of education typically decide what knowledge and credentials candidates must possess. Many states, however, delegate some or all requirement determinations to districts. Though the governing body differs from state to state, most substitutes across the nation are required to meet some combination of education, skill, and background requirements and many are required to pay a fee before they enter a classroom. Table 2 presents the requirements for one district in North Carolina and all districts within the state of California.

Table 2 – Substitute Teacher Requirements for a North Carolina District and California

North Carolina Local Education Agency-determined requirements. Requirements vary.

  • High school diploma or equivalent
  • Two years post high school graduation to substitute in grades K-6; four years to substitute in grades 7 and beyond
  • Clear background check
  • Board of Education approval

California State-determined requirements

  • Substitute Teaching Permit
  • Approved online application
  • Bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited college or university
  • Application processing fee: $100/annually
  • Live scan fingerprints
  • Proof of basic skills through one of the following:
    • B or + on reading, writing, and math coursework
    • 500+ on SAT reading and 550+ on SAT math
    • 23+ on ACT reading and 22+ on ACT math
    • Pass the California Basic Educational Skill Test (CBEST)
    • Pass the California Subject Examinations for Teachers (CSET) Multiple Subjects plus Writing Skills Examination
    • Pass the California State University Early Assessment Program (English and math sections)
    • 3+ on the Advanced Placement English, Statistics, or Calculus exams
    • Pass a basic skills examination from another state

It is likely that the more stringent a district’s or state’s requirements are, the more difficult and less likely it will be for individuals to become substitute teachers. States that delegate substitute teaching requirements to districts may also see fewer workers in the job market as the requirements may be harder to locate and less clearly delineated.

Engagement: The Key to a Healthy Substitute Teacher Pool

The number of substitute teacher candidates is only one metric that influences the health of a district’s substitute teacher pool. Even more important than the number of substitutes available to work is the number of substitutes who actually work. According to national data from the Frontline Research and Learning Institute, less than half of available substitutes work at least one job in any given month. Figure 2 shows national trends in working substitute percentage for the 2020, 2021, 2022, and 2023 school years.

Figure 2 – Comparison of National Working Substitute Percentage from 2020-2023

Comparison of National Working Substitute Percentage from 2020-2021 Chart

Similar to the size of the substitute teacher pool, substitute teacher engagement varies regionally. Table 3 displays the working substitute teacher percentage in the six US regions during the 2022-23 school year.

Table 3 – Working Substitute Percentage by Region, 2022-23


Mid Atlantic






Working Sub Percentage







The Central region saw the highest engagement with more than half of substitutes actively accepting jobs, while substitutes in the Mid Atlantic region were the least engaged, with less than one third actively working that school year. Surprisingly, although the Mid Atlantic region had the largest pool of substitute teachers, it had the smallest working substitute percentage. This may suggest that recruiting engaged substitutes and maintaining engagement are essential practices.

Barriers to Substitute Teacher Retention

Limiting Work Days

As with entry, there are several factors that challenge substitute teacher engagement. As the cost of living in the United States continues to rise, financial stability and job security is more important now than ever. However, some states and districts have stipulations in place to cap the number of days that substitutes can work. For instance, though a high school diploma or equivalent is the minimum educational requirement in many locales, some like New York State, require substitutes to either hold a valid teaching certificate or to be actively pursuing one to work for more than 40 school days of the nearly 200-day school year. This may make substitute teaching a tenuous and unsustainable career option for those who meet the minimum educational requirements but are not interested in returning to school to start or finish a degree program.

School Culture

Substitute teachers are essential members of the school community, ensuring that classes continue to run smoothly when teachers are absent. Yet, several case studies analyzing substitute teachers’ experiences show that they often feel excluded, ignored, and invisible in the workplace (Driedger-Enns, 2014; Charteris et al., 2017). Substitute teachers who are not provided with access to amenities, like the staff room; credentials, like a computer or photocopier login; or school communications often feel isolated or detached from the school community. In 2021, the Institute surveyed almost 2,500 substitute teachers to see which factors influenced their decision to accept a job. The results, displayed in Table 4, show that school culture was the most important factor to respondents, even more than compensation.

Table 4 – What is Most Important to You When Accepting a Job? Rates for Each Response Option

Response Option

Culture of the school

Appropriate skills for the opening

Travel time/drive distance


None of the above, I take the first job available







Does Using a Mobile App Impact Substitute Fill Rates?

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Does Using a Mobile App Impact Substitute Fill Rates?

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Communication is an important aspect of school culture, and the modality used to communicate available jobs to substitute teachers can impact their engagement. A variety of modalities are available to districts, including word of mouth, phone, email, and mobile app. However, some evidence suggests that adopting a mobile app can positively impact engagement. Figure 3 displays data from the Institute which suggests that the proportion of substitutes using a mobile app to accept jobs positively impacts fill rates.

Figure 3 – Fill Rate by Proportion of Substitutes Who Have Adopted a Mobile App

Substitutes Who Have Adopted a Mobile App Chart

Note: The data is from over 4,000 organizations in which substitutes have been using a mobile app to select jobs from 2020 to 2021.

Substitute Teacher Training

Though induction and professional learning programs can prepare substitute teachers by providing them with knowledge of school context, policies, and pedagogical practices, they are rarely provided to substitutes and those that are tend to be brief and informal (Reupert et al., 2023). A study of early career substitute teachers found that nearly 70% had not attended any professional learning session (Uchida et al., 2020). Few states require substitutes to complete programs of study on classroom management, instructional strategies, or content knowledge though both substitute teachers and administrators acknowledge that training on these topics is needed (Charteris et al., 2017). Substitute teachers who enter the classroom feeling unprepared to manage its many demands are unlikely to have high levels of self-esteem, job satisfaction, and engagement.

Strategies to Increase Substitute Teacher Engagement

It is important to note that the substitute teacher workforce is heterogenous. Therefore, strategies to engage individuals in this work should also be varied. A systematic review of studies on substitute teachers explains:

There are different groups of substitute teachers, including those with different qualifications; those who opt to undertake substitute teaching roles and others who feel that they have no other choice; those who are new to substitute teaching; and those who have had many years of experience, including those who have retired and want to continue serving and/or supplementing their income; and finally, those who work in a small, selected number of schools, and those whose workplace is varied and/or unpredictable. Although all might be working as substitute teachers, their work conditions and subsequent professional needs vary (Reupert et al., 2023, p. 32).

One commonality of the individuals in this workforce is their want for flexible work, which is what likely attracted many to substitute teaching. However, Reupert et al., (2023) reminds that Flexibility needs to be understood from two perspectives: from that of schools, which need the ability to employ teachers for unexpected absences in a timely fashion; and that of teachers, some of whom might be drawn to substitute teaching because of lifestyle choices, such as caring for children (p. 30).

The strategies outlined here aim to provide substitutes with the flexibility that they seek while also boosting the engagement that districts need.

Rethinking Requirements

To address the health of their substitute teacher pools, some states are rethinking their requirements. Though a bachelor’s degree is often preferred, if not required, states like Missouri and Montana have decided to provide prospective substitutes with an alternative option. Using an online platform, substitute teacher candidates can instead complete a 20-hour program that addresses topics like professionalism, instruction, and classroom management. The state of Missouri launched an alternative route in 2022 and saw quick results. Eighteen-thousand substitutes earned certifications that year. Whereas, in 2019, 2020, and 2021, between 11,000 and 12,000 substitutes became certified, on average.

Providing Training

Providing professional learning that prepares substitute teachers to manage a classroom and support student learning may increase engagement. Professional learning opportunities can provide substitute teachers with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in the classroom and school setting. They can also foster a sense of belonging within the school community. Including substitute teachers in school and/or district professional development sessions will show them that they are valued members of the school community and reinforce that their work within the school is important.

Flexible Pay Benefits

Implementing a flexible pay option for substitute teachers can also increase engagement. By offering the choice of more frequent payment schedules such as daily or weekly, employers empower their hourly workforce with greater financial flexibility. Immediate financial reward may motivate employees to accept more work. Flexible pay serves as a safety net, allowing workers to quickly address unexpected expenses, reducing financial stress, and improving their overall well-being. A survey of workers who have opted into a flexible pay cycle reported that almost two thirds (65%) of respondents felt that their financial situations had improved. When employers provide such flexibility, it sends a clear message that they value their workers, cultivating loyalty and commitment. This can be a strategic advantage in the competitive job market, attracting and retaining talent who seek these benefits. Additionally, it opens a channel for ongoing communication, enabling employers to gather feedback and tailor pay options to individual preferences, enhancing the employer-employee relationship.

Adopting an Employee-First Mindset to Engage Substitute Teachers

Substitute teachers are essential for maintaining learning when teachers are absent. However, recruiting and retaining quality substitutes is an ongoing challenge. Adopting an employee-first mindset with strategies like rethinking burdensome requirements, providing training, integrating substitutes into the school community, and offering flexible pay can help engage substitutes. When substitutes feel recognized and supported, they are more likely to join a district and accept jobs in its schools. Focusing on the substitute experience will strengthen a district’s substitute pool, minimize disruptions, and support quality instruction.


  1. Charteris, J., Jenkins, K., Jones, M., & Bannister-Tyrrell, m. (2017). Discourse appropriation and category boundary work: Casual teachers in the market. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 38(4), 511-529.
  2. Driedger-Enns, L. M. (2014). Relational identity making on the professional landscape as a substitute teacher: Interruptions and continuities. Teacher Education Quarterly, 41(3), 87-103.
  3. Reupert, A., Sullivan, A., Tippett, N., White, S., Woodcock, S., Chen, L., & Simons, M. (2023). An exploration of the experiences of substitute teachers: A systematic review. Review of Educational Research, XX(X), 1-41.
  4. Uchida, M., Cavanagh, M., & Lane, R. (2020). Analysing the experiences of casual relief teachers in Australian primary schools using practice architecture theory. British Educational Research Journal, 46(6), 1401-1422.

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