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Sub-Searching Made Easier

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Hours of pre-dawn phone calls in search of substitute teachers to fill a schools daily vacancies soon may be a thing of the past. Some districts are turning to automated systems that use the phone, the Internet, or both to allow teachers to register absences and substitutes to review and sign up for jobs. While the systems do have some shortfalls, they have won over the districts that use them, and numerous substitutes as well. Included: Descriptions of how automated substitute systems work.

Up until six years ago, Marsha Taylor was at work and on the phone shortly after dawn in Omaha, Nebraska, making at least 100 phone calls a day in search of substitute teachers.

Now Taylor manages an automated telephone system, which calls substitutes and matches people with vacancies, for the Omaha Public Schools. I love it -- its close to perfect, Taylor said about SubFinder, a system produced by CRS, Inc. You can set up calendars for substitute teachers and teachers can put in absences in advance.

Staff members in several school districts told Education World that they have turned to automated systems to fill their daily vacancies, some using the systems just for teachers, while others use it for all employees. School officials find the systems faster, more efficient, and a good way to collect data and chart absences. Some systems just work through the telephone, while others have an Internet component that allows teachers and substitutes to register and job-hunt online.

Weve gone from having 100 people calling for substitutes, one in each building, to having two people maintaining the system, said Ruth Kilpatrick, project manager of the Substitute Employee Management System (SEMS) for the Volusia County Schools in Daytona Beach, Florida. SEMS is an automated system offered by e-School Solutions. Now the average time to fill a vacancy is three minutes, and 95 to 98 percent of daily vacancies are filled, according to Kilpatrick.


Searching for substitute teachers can be a tedious, frustrating task, which sometimes falls to teachers themselves or assistant principals. Automated systems simplify the process both for administrators and substitutes; administrators are freed from calling, and in many systems, substitutes can create a personal calendar to input which days or weeks they are available to work in a particular month. Some, such as AESOP (Automated Educational Substitute Operator), produced by Frontline, allow substitutes to sign up for jobs online.

AESOP, a program that combines voice technology with the Internet, fills about 8,000 vacancies a day, according to Frontline chief executive officer Michael Blackstone. Most of our jobs are taken from the Internet, he told Education World.

Substitutes using AESOP receive a pin number, and can either enter it into the phone or online to find out which jobs are available.

This system knows everyone who is working for us, said Janice Gladney, human resources assistant for Floyd County Schools in Rome, Georgia, which has used AESOP since November 2001. We were having trouble filling vacancies. We had a person who called for substitutes, but often teachers called their own. We used to be short several substitutes a day.

I was skeptical at first, but it works well, Gladney added.

The easy access for both teachers and substitutes is among the benefits of the AESOP system, said William Trost, director of human resources for the Shaker Heights (Ohio) City School District.

Substitutes can see a variety of jobs, and can access the list 24 hours a day, Trost told Education World. Teachers can post absences on the phone or the computer.

Added Dr. Andrea Matthews, human resources director for the Griffin-Spalding County School System in Griffin, Georgia, whose school system also uses AESOP: People are getting up at 2 a.m. and taking jobs. It allows subs to be more pro-active, and it is more user-friendly. Her staff also is creating a list of substitutes with special skills, to match them with classes.

Carrie Hartjes, a substitute service secretary in the Appleton Area School District in Appleton, Wisconsin, said SubFinder also saves valuable staff time. The system can call three people at once for three different jobs, Hartjes said. You are not spending all your time on the phone.


Besides using automated systems to fill vacancies, some school districts have linked the systems to their payroll programs and use them to keep employee records.

We get an e-mail every time someone takes leave, Matthews said. It really made a difference. The system has helped reduce absenteeism in the past year. You can notice patterns [of absences] and speak with staff members. The principals also are much more aware of leave. They are required to do more periodic reviews of leave patterns.

Larger districts find the record-keeping component particularly useful. Dufferin-Peel Catholic District in Ontario, Canada, has used SEMS since 1994, and the system generates very accurate records, according to Cathy McCabe, assistant supervisor of human resource information systems and document management. The district has 5,000 teachers, 3,000 support staff, and 300 education resource workers, all of whom are on the system. Dufferin-Peel has about 85,000 absences a year, an average of 400 a day, McCabe said.

It [SEMS] is an invaluable tool for managing absences, she told Education World. There is no way we could manage absences on paper with so many people.


Responses to automated systems were more mixed among substitutes who contacted Education World. Some substitute teachers report glitches with automated systems, according to Shirley Kirsten, president of the National Substitute Teachers Alliance (NSTA). With some systems, substitute teachers said they had accepted a job expecting to teach a particular subject, such as English, only to find out when they arrived at the school that they were assigned to another subject, such as physical education. Some also said occasionally two teachers were assigned to the same job, Kirsten said.

In other cases, certain substitute teachers names were placed on a do not call list in the system and they were not aware of it, Kirsten said.

Several substitutes said the systems have their advantages and disadvantages.

Among the pluses of the systems are their ability to allow substitute teachers access to the full range of assignments available and allow classroom teachers to request a particular substitute, according to Doug Provencio, president of the Substitute Teachers Caucus of the National Education Association (NEA). Some of the negatives Provencio has noticed: there are systems that call more than 20 times a day up to 11 p.m. and starting at 4 a.m.; substitute and regular teachers cannot always easily update their information and availability; some assignments are blocked out intentionally or unintentionally; and job choices sometimes are rationed to between one and three per call to try to stampede substitutes into accepting unpopular jobs.

After about ten years, it's evident that the system is only as good as the people who monitor it, and that constant updates are needed, according to Edith Monk Hallberg, of the Berkeley Federation of teachers and the California NSTA representative. Grades aren't always listed, or sites or schedules, and teachers are lax about when they call in for a substitute and then wonder why no one will take the job. Still, it's better than a manual system, although there should be a person available part time in the mornings in case of emergency.

Others were more enthusiastic. Its an excellent system because we can choose a school and subject now, said one substitute teacher from Oakland, California. I only substitute teach part time in the afternoon, which means I don't work too often, but if I were subbing full time I could work every day in areas I like. There are tons of jobs already in this second week of school!


Some substitute teachers have been a little nervous about the new systems. Substitutes were apprehensive when the automated system was inaugurated here many years ago, but once initiated to the machine, most find it more convenient, if not more friendly, than the school secretary, said Phyllis Kirkwood, former president of the Oregon Substitute Teachers Association.

Others feel they would miss the human contact. I sub in a small district, with seven schools, where there are maybe 35 active substitutes, and we have a human sub-caller, a substitute told Education World. I like this because if she has a question, or I have a question, we can discuss it when she calls. I don't have any experience with an automatic sub-caller, but I don't think I'd like it. I can see that it would be desirable in large districts, though.

Even Marsha Taylor, who has been relieved of her early-morning calling marathons by an automated system, said she does miss the interpersonal contact. I do miss talking to people, Taylor said. You do develop a rapport from talking to people.