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Solving the Substitute Shortage, Part 1: Four Rules to Keep Your Best Subs Coming Back

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Between kindergarten and high school graduation, the average student will spend 187 days -- more than one full school year -- with substitute teachers. Learn what schools can do to guarantee the highest quality education possible in the absence of the permanent classroom teacher. Included: Four rules to help keep your best subs coming back and tips for recognizing the contributions of your school's substitutes!

Each day during the school year, about 274,000 classrooms in this country are staffed by substitute teachers, according to figures provided by the Substitute Teaching Institute(STI) at Utah State University. No one knows, however, how many additional classrooms remain largely unstaffed -- with students forced to double up or settle for little more than supervised study halls manned by school resource teachers, administrators, paraprofessionals, or even parent volunteers.

The fact is that school districts across the country are facing an increased demand for substitute services, while at the same time they are dealing with a serious shortage of substitute teachers -- a shortage fueled in part by the actions and attitudes of the teachers and administrators most in need of their help.

Between kindergarten and high school graduation, the average student will spend 187 days -- more than one full school year -- with substitute teachers. Yet according to the 1998 Survey & Analysis of Teacher Salary Trends, conducted by the American Federation of Teachers, 90 percent of state departments of education reported "some" or "great" difficulty meeting the demand for qualified subs. A combination of factors has created the crisis, including a high number of teacher absences due to an increase in released time for personal and professional development, a booming economy in which temporary workers can easily make more than the average of $10 an hour paid to substitute teachers, and the growing shortage of permanent teachers that has allowed many former subs to move into full time positions.

Many districts have responded to the crisis by recruiting vigorously or offering such incentives as higher pay, signing bonuses, and guaranteed employment. Those strategies might have helped, but they have not solved the problem -- perhaps because they failed to address the problem.

According to Max Longhurst, an education specialist at STI, when it comes to attracting and retaining quality substitute teachers, money is seldom the primary issue. Longhurst told Education World, "The number one and two reasons substitutes cite for leaving teaching are (1) a lack of respect shown by school personnel and (2) a lack of training in classroom management techniques."


Probably the most critical issue for many substitutes is a lack of training -- especially training in specific classroom management techniques. Although most systems say they provide substitute training, one study revealed that in 91.5 percent of school systems, the training lasts less than two hours.

"That isn't training," Longhurst pointed out to Education World. "It's orientation."

Effective training, Longhurst added, consists of instruction in five areas:

  • characteristics of a prepared professional;
  • classroom management techniques;
  • district guidelines and issues, including legal issues and emergency procedures;
  • teaching strategies;
  • creation of a "sub pack" of lesson and activity ideas.

To help schools and districts improve the quantity and quality of their substitute teachers, STI has developed a "Sub Success Kit," consisting of a training handbook, a CD with more than 80 instructional video clips, an association membership that allows subs to network with their peers, and WebCT, a Web-based assessment package.

"Studies show that training reduces substitute complaints, improves substitute quality, and increases the number of available subs," Longhurst noted.


"There are a lot of thankless jobs out there. And then there's substitute teaching. It's an occupation that only Rodney Dangerfield could appreciate." That quote comes from Substitutes Unite!, an article in Teacher Magazine.

Many substitute teachers agree that they get little respect from the students, teachers, and administrators they work with. Among the most frequently heard substitute complaints are the following:
"I don't feel welcome in the teachers lounge."
"I'd love to have a place to put my coat and bag."
"Usually I'm simply handed a key and left to my own devices."
"I never even see a principal, much less get feedback on the quality of the job I'm doing."

Those comments highlight the issues schools must address if they want to maintain an adequate pool of quality subs. "Substitutes," Longhurst says, "sense an attitude, among staff and students alike, that they are not professionals. That attitude must change if schools want their substitutes to keep coming back."

Four Rules
for Sub-cess!

Make substitutes feel welcome and appreciated.

Treat them like professionals.

Provide effective training.

Recognize their contributions.

Longhurst and other experts suggest that school personnel welcome subs when they arrive and let them know that their presence is appreciated, that principals emphasize the subs' professionalism by visiting classrooms and evaluating their work, and that students be made aware that they're expected to treat subs with the same courtesy and respect they show every other professional educator in the building.

In addition, although surveys indicate that more than 70 percent of teachers leave lesson plans for substitutes, 30 percent of subs say that teachers fail to provide information about how to implement those lessons. Does "Complete chapter 12" require a KWL chart, a Venn diagram, or silent reading, for example?

"Provide the information we need," subs say, "to do a professional job in your absence."

Finally, Longhurst told Education World, schools need to recognize the contributions that subs make. Institute a Sub of the Month award program, hold a yearly sub-appreciation luncheon, provide such perks as membership in professional associations or paid registration at local educational conferences and workshops. Let subs know they are valued and respected as professional members of the educational community.

"Substitutes who are properly trained and treated professionally are much more likely to have a successful experience," Longhurst said. "And they're much more likely to come back!"

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Article by Linda Starr
Education World®
Copyright © 2006 Education World

Originally published 08/22/2000
Links last updated 11/07/2006