April 2016

What's behind the substitute shortage

by Zach DiSchiano

It’s no secret that the vast shortage of substitute teachers is plaguing school districts, but the reason for the deficit is a question not many have been able to answer with certainty. 
 
There are many key contributing factors to the shortage, ranging from legislative issues to emotional concerns. Regardless of reason, the shortage is real—a recent survey of district administrators by STEDI.org stated that nearly 50 percent of its respondents said they are facing a “somewhat” or “very severe” shortage of substitutes. 
 
Like most large-scale issues, there is more than just one cause for the trouble districts are facing today. Explaining the reason behind the substitute shortage is like figuring out why Austin traffic is so bad or how smartphones can be so smart yet only last a year—there’s one primary reason and many other small factors that have brought about the crisis.

Economic factors

The improving economy and subsequent competitive job market have lured current and prospective substitute teachers in search of a consistent income away from the job. The national unemployment rate, currently resting comfortably at 4.9 percent, is at a decade low, compared to where it was just six years ago at 9.8 percent. Substitute teaching positions are filled largely by people who are trying to pick up extra work to make ends meet, and in today’s economy, the number of people falling into that category is lower than usual.  
 
When the economy was struggling in 2011, there was one substitute for every 3.22 teachers. As the economy has recovered and the unemployment rate has decreased, that ratio has dropped. Now, districts average one substitute for every 5.98 teachers. This change is nearly impossible to endure without some difficulties, and each district handles the issue in its own way. Along with demands such as in-district meetings and professional development training that take teachers out of the classroom, the results are a greater demand for more substitutes.

Legislative issues

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) has raised concern that new benefit requirements would have a negative impact on the number of substitutes working in districts. The ACA requires districts to offer health insurance to substitute teachers working 130 hours or more per month. Districts were concerned about the added premium cost for covering employees they previously did not have to include in their benefits package and penalties for not providing affordable coverage. While some districts chose to set a cap on the number of hours substitutes could work each month, most districts decided that their need for quality substitutes outweighs spending the additional money.  

Solving the problem

A common way to cope with daily sub shortage involves combining classrooms, which typically has an impact on productivity and student engagement. A more desirable strategy is to reduce the need for substitutes by scheduling professional development training for teachers outside the school day or school year, sometimes at additional expense for the district.  

Changing perceptions

Districts also face the challenge of creating a work environment where substitute teachers are welcomed and respected. It is not uncommon for substitute teachers to be perceived as mere babysitters by students and fellow teachers. Yet many subs boast résumés similar to full-time teachers so being viewed as less important or not really a part of the team can be discouraging. According to STEDI.org, 75 percent of substitute teachers have a bachelor’s degree or higher and 40 percent have permanent teaching license. Eighty-two percent plan to stay in education and identify flexibility and working with students as the top two reasons for being a sub.
 
For years, Hays CISD has been defying the notion that substitute teachers are any less important to their districts than full-time educators. Tricia Griffith, the substitute coordinator at Hays CISD, has worked to create an environment where subs are respected and viewed as an integral part of their district’s success. Her efforts have culminated in an impressive fill rate for substitute teaching positions at all levels. During the 2015–2016 school year, fill rates averaged out to more than 92 percent between elementary, middle, and high schools. 
 
Referring to them as “guest teachers,” Hays CISD virtually eliminates the word “sub” and consequently all of its connotations, negative or otherwise. Group Facebook and Twitter accounts allow for a sense of community and acknowledgement among the guest teachers and effectively establishes a sense of belonging in the district. 
 
Between increasing substitute retention and decreasing teacher absenteeism, districts can take a significant shot at remedying the shortage. Sure, if the economy was in worse condition, substitute teachers would likely be more bountiful. But who wants to endure another recession? Fortunately, there are other ways to solve this dilemma, and the districts who address this challenge with creative methods will be in prime position to find the substitutes they need. 

Looking ahead

Emerging ideas for tackling substitute shortages center on recruiting young talent. There is certainly no lack of compassionate kids with the desire to become great educators and change lives, but becoming a substitute teacher is just not commonly thought of as the profession to pursue. However, if the actual job of being a sub was fundamentally changed, as one writer proposes, so too could the perception of substitute teaching as a career. 
 
Nancy Flanagan of Education Week suggests that districts should modify the entire substitute process by offering willing temps hybrid positions that would essentially make them part of the campus team for an entire semester. This would allow subs to work in the same building every day and familiarize themselves with the students  and the culture of the district and individual campuses. The new job would be full time, and, in the long run, more individuals might envision this as a plausible career option to pursue. 
 
Some Texas districts that are continually in need of subs already use this strategy and employ full-time substitutes known as “roving subs.” These rovers often cover long-term assignments and provide better quality instruction for students. As part of the campus team, these individuals are able to overcome challenges identified by substitutes, principals, classroom teachers, and students—lack of support in addressing student behavior, being perceived as professionals, and providing stimulating lessons and exciting fill-in activities. 
 
The substitute shortage brings districts even more pressure to maintain high fill rates. To combat this, districts should continue working to address the recruitment and retention of subs in creative and resourceful ways. Using the same methods moving forward is not going to guarantee the same results generated in the past. Whether it is focusing on teacher absenteeism or rethinking the entire culture of substitute teaching in your district, trying new strategies may be the best way to reduce the effects of the shortage.