Search form

Schools Respond to Substitute Shortage

From better pay for substitutes to special training programs, schools are paying more attention -- and respect! -- to the substitute teachers they recruit.

Time was when the biggest problem in substitute teaching was the way some students did no work when a sub took over in the classroom. Now, the worst problem involving substitute teaching in many areas of the United States is recruiting enough subs to go around.

A good sub is hard to find for any number of reasons. The economy is thriving, relatively. In such an economy, qualified people who might work as substitute teachers have found other full-time jobs. In addition, some school districts are in the middle of an enrollment boom, making the demand for subs even greater as the number of subs falls. And the essence of the substitute teaching job itself is part of the problem; low pay, the lack of health benefits, and the unpredictable number of hours worked impacts the number of available substitutes.


With the growing need for subs, school districts have tried new ways to attract more of them. News stories from several areas of the United States seem to indicate that the problem of finding qualified substitute teachers is not limited to one region but exists throughout the country. A Christian Science Monitor story in December focused on the following strategies that school districts have used to find substitute teachers:

  • Broward County, Fla., north of Miami, examined files and sent letters to hundreds of retired teachers. More than 100 of them signed on as substitute teachers.
  • The William Floyd School District in Mastic Beach, N.Y., has used postings on the Internet and ads in the New York Times to attract fill-ins.
  • In Topeka, Kan., 250 substitute teachers were given a holiday tea and special awards, such as Substitute of the Year in appreciation of their services. Topeka substitute Marjorye Savage Heeney said, in the old days "They'd just give you the key and say, 'Your room is there.' They wouldn't even tell you where the teachers' lounge was." Now, she continued, "Somebody even walks you to your classroom."
  • Various school districts throughout the nation are upping substitutes' wages to attract people.

With all the negatives about substitute teaching, some positives exist. "It's a wonderful foot in the door," Lynne Snyder, associate director of teacher education at Central Michigan University, told The Detroit News. "It lets you scout out different (school) systems, and it (financially) supports you ... but you have to be willing to move or drive."


Naturally, the quality as well as the quantity of substitutes concerns educators facing a shortage. A statewide training program for substitutes, spearheaded by the Wisconsin Education Association Council, addresses this problem.

In 1996 Wisconsin began allowing school districts to hire non-certified teacher substitutes. But such substitutes must hold a permit, granted only when they hold a bachelor's degree and successfully complete a training program on the local level. Newly certified teachers interested in substitute teaching and experienced teachers returning to the field as well as current substitute teachers are encouraged to attend.

Topics covered in the training include these listed in a WEAC brochure:

  • the overall teaching process
  • age-appropriate teaching strategies
  • maintaining discipline
  • health and safety issues
  • the culture of schools
  • fitting in with other staff
  • techniques for starting a class
  • practical ideas and resources
  • challenges and opportunities
The course has trained nearly 200 substitutes since last summer. One of the highly experienced teachers who conducts training is Tom Gilding, a middle school teacher for 17 years and a sub since 1991. In NEA Today, Gilding emphasizes, "I get the feeling that some people who go into substituting think it's an easy day. It's a very challenging, responsible situation."

To create such a training program, a grant from the National Education Association's (NEA) National Foundation for the Improvement of Education was used as well as help from the WEA Professional Development Academy. The state Department of Public Instruction, administrators, school boards, and the state PTA collaborated to develop criteria and a training program for non-certified subs.


Besides better professional development for substitutes, school districts can encourage regular teachers to smooth the way for subs. The NEA recently published a list of tips from teachers -- tips on how to prepare for a substitute to take over:

  • Make an audiocassette that walks the substitute through the plan and communicates insight about routines and students.
  • Call the substitute and talk about the classroom plans, from roll call to activities.
  • Tell students to respect and cooperate with the substitute.
  • Put the daily schedule on a class computer with specific information about it.
  • Provide a folder with daily and weekly schedules, assignments, various procedures, fire drill directions, seating chart, class list, and names of students who need special attention. Provide information about school administrators and "teacher-neighbors." Include a map.
  • Ask the substitute to leave a note explaining how the day went. Follow up with students if any problems occurred.
An experienced sub will appreciate any action you take to help the class run smoothly, and your lifeline may keep a novice substitute afloat.

In the end, the substitute teacher shortage, though clearly not a positive development in itself, may lead to some beneficial changes. In many school districts, administrators and other educators have developed a new appreciation for skilled substitute teachers. At the same time, training programs for substitute teachers will tend to enhance the professionalism required for the job.

Article by Sharon Cromwell
Education World®
Copyright © 2006 Education World

Links updated 02/28/2007