Substitute Teacher Shortages

November 02, 2020 • Erin Kolecki and Patti Redding

Substitute Teacher Shortages

Educational entities across the nation are struggling to recruit and retain substitute teachers. And as schools are dealing with classroom quarantines, enhanced teacher shortages, and other unexpected effects of the pandemic, having a quality roster of trained substitutes is more important than ever.

Nimble human resources professionals are finding creative ways to ensure they have ample staff to cover inevitable teacher absences and leaves. Hiring and retaining a solid pool of substitute teachers can be beneficial to immediate needs in the classroom, but also to long-term recruitment strategies. Hiring substitutes should not be the stopping point. Instead, keep them engaged so the pool you already have is more likely to accept substitute assignments, requiring less overall recruitment.

Preparing the foundation

Having systems and policies in place may be key to developing an outstanding substitute teacher program. The following strategies will enhance district organization, efficiency, and overall satisfaction of substitutes and aid in retaining and developing them, potentially towards full-time teachers:

  • Have a designated point of contact for substitutes to communicate with. Some districts are providing a help desk, staffed by an experienced substitute teacher, perhaps one who has opted not to return to the classroom this school year.
  • Develop policies and processes for substitute teachers, particularly around engagement (e.g., required minimum participation in substitute opportunities).
  • Implement an automated substitute scheduling system so finding and accepting assignments is hassle-free.

Creative recruitment

HR professionals are turning to non-traditional, creative recruiting tactics to address the substitute shortage due to COVID-19. Many forward-thinking districts are offering a fast-track program for substitute candidates referred by current teachers and principals. These candidates still receive the same screening and training, but it is offered in a way that moves them through the process faster so they can be placed in a classroom as soon as possible.

Other creative recruiting techniques include:

  • Reach out to parents via email and social media posts.
  • Advertise substitute openings on buses, with banners on school fences, and with yard signs.
  • Post online at local colleges—most college students will have a longer winter break this year.
  • Set up recruiting tables at fine arts and athletics events.

Continue with comprehensive onboarding

Once substitutes have joined the district, ensure there is a solid, structured onboarding program to welcome them to the team and set the stage for their development. This should include new hire training that provides an introduction to the culture of the organization, emergency response training, and an overview of important policies and procedures. Although onboarding may look different during the pandemic, quality shouldn’t be sacrificed.

Districts may consider different ways to transfer necessary knowledge that include:

  • Onboarding cohorts of substitute teachers to enhance efficiency and build camaraderie
  • Including a tour of campuses, when possible
  • Providing a survival card that outlines who to contact and what to do in common scenarios substitutes face
  • Assigning a campus teacher contact, in addition to a central office contact, to assist with questions or challenges during the assignment
  • Setting up a website specifically for substitutes so they can revisit training sessions when they need a refresher
  • Providing training on virtual platforms to substitutes who will be responsible for teaching virtual students

Set up for success

A great onboarding will provide a solid beginning for newly hired substitutes, but don’t forget about them after their initial start. Substitutes are more likely to stay engaged (taking substitute opportunities) if they see ongoing investment from the district. Keep them involved in opportunities for professional development, and if there is a training required of staff, particularly as it relates to safety or students, consider requiring it for substitutes, as well.

Often, technical challenges hamper a new substitute’s success. That learning curve, if too long, can lead to turnover. To retain the newly hired substitutes, educational entities should do everything in their power to set them up for success from the minute they walk into their first classroom. Consider the following:

  • Provisioning substitute teachers with email addresses and logins. This provides an easy way to communicate needs and also allows for simplified access to lesson plans and other essentials on a moment’s notice.
  • Issuing laptops to substitutes working every day, or nearly every day.

Floating substitutes

Many educational entities are hiring floating substitutes–substitute teachers who are guaranteed five workdays per week and agree to work as assigned at a specified campus or group of campuses. These guest educators are not deployed for planned absences, but rather for unexpected vacancies. Most receive premium pay, sometimes even higher than that paid to long-term subs.

Utilizing central office team members

Some school districts have tasked their central office team members with one substitute assignment per week. Others have identified qualified central office employees with teaching licenses and encouraged them to temporarily swap their job for a classroom assignment. If either tactic is pursued, it is encouraged that employees keep their current pay (unless teacher pay is higher), and educational entities should take caution to ensure important central office functions are still performed.

Offer additional perks

Wise educational entities are exploring inexpensive perks to incentivize substitutes. Below are some ideas:

  • Increase payroll frequency to bi-weekly for substitutes. This can go a long way for someone needing an influx of cash.
  • Offer personal protective equipment (PPE) for every assignment.
  • Consider offering a small referral bonus or a bonus for working a predetermined number of assignments.

Even small changes can make a difference in substitute retention and recruitment. Substitute teachers seeking a regular teaching position are likely to favor districts that invest in their contributions and development. Texas Education Agency’s (TEA) Grow Your Own Grant Program also encourages districts to invest in their existing substitute teachers for future teacher recruitment.


Erin Kolecki is a compensation and HR consultant at TASB HR Services. Send Erin an email at erin.kolecki@tasb.org.

Patti Redding is an associate HR consultant at TASB HR Services. Send Patti an email at patti.ellis@tasb.org.


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Tagged: COVID-19, Hiring, HR, "HR training"