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'More than a warm body': Schools try long-term solutions to substitute teacher shortage

Over the past few months, Nathan Roberts has witnessed dozens of substitute teachers stumble through their first days at Penny Creek Elementary School.

He’s watched them circle the parking lot outside, wondering whether to leave their car in a visitor or employee spot. He’s encountered subs in the hallway, looking for the library or a place to make copies of classwork. And he’s noticed when they struggle to remember a kid’s name while taking attendance or praising students for good work.

Roberts is a substitute, too, but by now he knows his way around campus. Unlike the other subs — many of them parent volunteers or people looking for a little extra work — he’s a full-time, salaried employee with health benefits and a long-term contract with Everett Public Schools, north of Seattle. In January, the school district hired Roberts and about two dozen other “floaters” as part of a broader effort to improve the quality of substitute teaching and alleviate a staffing crunch that grew dire during this winter’s COVID-19 surge.

“Instead of trying to find a sub every single morning, or bringing in administration, I can step in for the entire week and give those kids some consistency,” Roberts said. “It’s so much better when I actually know the kid’s name and a little bit about their learning style or how to help when they’re struggling.”

Teachers will continue to get sick and miss class even as the coronavirus goes from pandemic to endemic, and older, retired educators — who in normal times regularly serve as subs — might still be wary of stepping onto campuses depending on masking or vaccination mandates. Principals, meanwhile, face increasing competition for temporary workers from the growing gig economy and an abundance of jobs in other fields.

The federal government provided billions of dollars to help schools recover from COVID, and some tapped that money for temporary stipends to attract new substitutes. But the stakes to find more permanent solutions are high.

“Teachers will continue to be absent, so we need to have a smarter way to cover those absences,” said Jessie Weiser, director of capacity building with Substantial Classrooms, a national nonprofit that works with school districts to improve the substitute experience. “Substitute teachers are an essential part of education. They’re not just a Plan B or an afterthought.”

When Omicron hit the U.S. in December, policymakers and education leaders took desperate measures to shore up the pool of eligible substitutes. School district administrators dusted off their teaching certificates to step in for absent educators. Some states tried to entice state employees and police officers into schools. And at least one governor called on National Guard members to volunteer as warm bodies in the front of classrooms.

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Several states that previously required substitutes to have a bachelor’s degree lowered that threshold and now allow candidates with only a high school diploma to apply for emergency certification. That has raised questions about the quality of learning that students receive, especially at a time when disadvantaged students need even more help to make up instruction disrupted by the pandemic.

Carole Basile, dean of Arizona State University’s teachers college, criticized lowering the bar for temporary teachers. Her state allows substitutes with only high school diplomas to receive emergency certification and recently doubled to two years the length of those emergency licenses. 

“A lot of substitutes only need a high school diploma and know very little about education,” Basile said. “That’s a crapshoot, really, for kids.”

Other places are offering pay bumps to substitutes. Around 60 percent of large school districts surveyed by the National Council on Teacher Quality, an advocacy group, increased pay for subs during the pandemic. The survey found substitutes on average got a raise of 18.5 percent — which the council described as “an unprecedented increase” in the past decade.

And a few districts, including Everett, provided health benefits to subs. That made a difference for Roberts, who had access to both health coverage and a retirement account from his first day as a floater.

“With subbing, you [usually] don’t get those benefits. You kind of have to take care of yourself,” Roberts said. “Having health insurance is a big deal during a pandemic.”

Weiser, with Substantial Classrooms, said it’s important for school leaders to consider what would make taking over a classroom for a full day more attractive than other, more flexible short-term gigs like driving for a ride-sharing service or delivering meals. Benefits may be one answer.

“How can we [schools] design jobs that are full-time, site-based, benefited roles that give people the stability that they may be craving … and attract a different group of people?” Weiser asked.

The Everett district’s decision to hire floaters and offer them benefits was part of a broader strategy born out of crisis. Last fall, in the district, nearly half of teacher absences went unfilled, compared with 26 percent in fall 2019. Administrators, principals, librarians and other staff members regularly covered those classrooms. Teachers collected extra stipends to sacrifice their planning periods to cover for a missing colleague. “Now hiring” signs outside the schools advertised critical job openings, including custodians, nurses and substitutes.

The district of 20,000 students — where 42 percent come from low-income households, 21 percent are Hispanic and 5 percent are Black — eventually had to resort to hiring substitutes who had only emergency certification. (In Washington state, districts can apply to hire emergency substitutes who have a bachelor’s degree but no formal education training.)

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In January, the district also upped its daily pay — from $200 to $250 — for all substitutes who worked on Mondays or Fridays, the most common days for teachers to call out. And it created an extra stipend for those who work at least 15 days every month until summer break. Still, that wasn’t enough once the highly contagious Omicron variant started spreading.

In the fall the superintendent charged a task force with overhauling the district’s approach to recruiting, placing and training substitutes. Its recommendations included limiting training that would require subs to fill in and reaching out to retired teachers, as well as hiring substitute floaters. Chad Golden, executive director of human resources, also added a position in his office dedicated to recruiting substitutes.

Golden said in March that the floater program had helped the district weather Omicron, but no decision had been made on whether to continue funding that program after the pandemic ebbs. Currently, the district is using federal COVID relief dollars to pay those substitutes, but Golden said the district’s general budget could cover the program in the future — if it helps improve coverage rates for absent teachers and school administrators report positive feedback.

As Everett waits to see if its efforts make a difference, the Central Falls School District in Rhode Island credits its survival during the Omicron surge to changes it made to substitute teaching six years ago.

Jay Midwood, chief of human capital for the district, recalled his thinking at the time.

“The role of the substitute teacher was obsolete,” he said. “It just wasn’t working anymore. The days of just getting a warm body or person in there just didn’t impact teaching or learning in the way we know our kids needed it to be.”

The district, meanwhile, wanted to go beyond ensuring that high-quality instruction continued in the absence of a certified teacher. Midwood hoped to create a stable corps of substitutes while preparing them to become teachers.

In 2016, the district launched a teaching fellowship program to provide yearlong contracts to about 30 aspiring teachers who are placed in its six schools. They can earn a higher daily rate than traditional substitutes, or put the extra amount toward health benefits. The district also provides individual coaching for the fellows and pays them a stipend to attend after-school training.

“We want them to see that they’re not just a fish swimming around and nobody knows who they are,” Midwood said. “We want them to know we’re investing in them.”

The fellowship is budget neutral: The district covers the extra pay for each fellow by diverting what it would have offered to teachers giving up their planning periods. Midwood credited the fellows for “keeping us above water” during the Omicron surge, when about 20 percent of the district’s staff on average were calling out each day.

The program has also succeeded in creating a pipeline of potential educators who live in the same neighborhoods as Central Falls families. (About 86 percent of the roughly 2,800 Central Falls students are economically disadvantaged, according to state data; 53 percent are Hispanic and 16 percent Black.) The district so far has hired 21 former fellows as full-time teachers, and another 20 have moved on to teach in neighboring districts.

Back in Washington state, Seattle Public Schools has also tried to use substitute teaching as a way to both fill immediate needs and train future teachers. Through its Academy for Rising Educators, launched in 2019, teachers-in-training take night and weekend classes at local colleges or universities to study for their certification and a guaranteed teaching placement in the city’s schools. In the meantime, they serve as substitutes: About 60 substitutes hired in January come from the academy or similar programs, according to The Seattle Times.

Southeast of Seattle, the growing Tahoma School District, like Everett, hired full-time, roving substitutes to help with its immediate crisis. Administrators there also filled in for absent teachers — and returned to the central office with lessons about the reality of substitute teaching in Tahoma schools.

It had been 16 years since Kimberly Allison, the district’s instructional technology coordinator, had been in the classroom as a teacher. And after subbing for a week last winter, she started to sympathize with substitutes who get a call at 7 a.m. to report to school by 8 a.m.

“What can we do to make this better?” she remembered asking herself. “How do we get them to want to come back? When you really start looking at the substitute experience, it’s pretty abysmal.”

Recently, the district set a cap on how many teachers can be out at once for mandatory training. It also sent templates of lesson plans that teachers can leave for their temporary replacements. Allison hopes that next year, the district might offer stipends for substitutes to take additional training on classroom management and basic instructional skills.

“We’ve had the best of intentions, but a lot of stuff just never came to fruition,” she said. “This crisis really helped catapult us in the right direction.”

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Roberts, 28, had started applying for full-time teaching jobs earlier that month after finishing a master’s degree in education at Western Governors University, an online college. He added Penny Creek to the top of his list.

“I would love to stay here if a position’s open,” he said. “Everyone’s really supportive and professional. I know the kids now. They’re easier to work with.”

This story about substitutes was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Before the pandemic, schools were unable to cover for absent teachers some 20 percent of the time.