Search form

Substantial Subs

Finding and keeping good substitute teachers requires several strategies.

The shortage of good, qualified substitutes is not just a nagging scheduling problem for teachers and administrators, it is an issue that hampers instruction and can damage school culture and even create safety and security risks.

Good substitutes can step into temporary, unexpected gaps or long-term roles, but unqualified or unsuitable ones can create classroom atmosphere or management issues that reach beyond the periods they are teaching, and, can create holes in instruction that significantly affect how students in those classes advance.

William Briggman, head of human relations for Charleston County (SC) School District, says his and other districts are seeing an increase in the need for long-and-short-term substitutes while at the same time often finding they have fewer people available to fill the positions.

“The task of securing subs on a daily basis is complicated in a region experiencing significant economic growth, declining unemployment and a regionally high cost of living,” he says.

Desiree Carver-Thomas, a researcher with the Learning Policy Institute (LPI), a nonprofit, California-based education think tank, says schools have been about 64,000 teachers short nationwide each year, most often in special education, math, science and bilingual education. She coauthored a LPI report on the problem.

She agrees with Briggman about the causes and says the shortage is mostly a result of an attrition rate of about 8 percent in the teaching workforce, a 35-percent decrease in new teachers and the growing need for teachers for a variety of reasons

Here are some tips that might help schools and districts.


  • Recruit them. Schools and districts can explore a variety of avenues to get people interested in the field – from “advertising” in local media or on the district or school web site, to communicating with local unemployment offices and social service agencies and attending job fairs. Some experts suggest they let parents know about their needs, even students who might at some point be interested after they leave school. Local college part-time faculty may be interested.
  • Review requirements. Some districts have lowered the requirements or at least examined them to see if some discourage potentially good substitutes.
  • Provide training. Geoffrey Smith executive director of the Substitute Teacher Training Institute at Utah State University says that it is critical to provide training for substitutes, especially those who perform well and who you hope to keep. Some schools provide basic instruction initially, and then pay substitutes to attend more advanced training if they persist – even helping fund classes toward certification if they make some commitment to working in the district.
  • Make positions attractive. Improve the pay or offer other benefits they might appreciate such as help with child care or transportation. Some district offer bonuses for substitutes of $5 to $15 a day if they teach 85 percent or more of the semester, Smith writes.
  • Consider temporary staffing firms. Some temp agencies offer personnel specifically trained in education.


  • Help with recruitment. Get the word out about the need for subs – to retired teachers and others who might be interested.
  • Fewer surprises. Experts say teachers can be thoughtful about absences and helping where possible to arrange for a sub. They should try to give advance notice whenever possible. Schools can help by being more lenient about reasons for time off when teachers plan in advance.
  • Prepare well. Establish good, manageable plans and offer to be available to explain procedures and assignments by phone. Describe the students who might be difficult or have special needs, or classes that have a distinct personality. Experts say teachers should imagine what they would expect if they were coming into a classroom for the first time – then imagine someone with even less experience.
  • Prepare the class. Set high expectations with them. Some teachers use awards and punishments for good and bad reports, while others object to such policies and note that it can put added pressure on the sub to report and then perhaps face those students later. They might tell the substitute that some free time can be offered if they students perform well, and then allow time in the schedule for it. Prepare the class for the material they will cover, even previewing it.
  • Change up the work. Consider flipping your class – or recording a lesson that students can watch at home then work on in class (or watch if they didn’t see it previously). Consider assignments that they might enjoy or more readily get involved in. Technology offers ways to make the substitute’s job easier.
  • Make plans explicit. Instructions such as: “Class X will do X and the material is located X. They will turn assignment in on X”. Include emergency contact information, key policies and any instructions about students with special needs or who can be relied upon to help.  You can determine whether you want the substitute to have your personal contact information.
  •  Emergency plans. Be sure to set up emergency plans to be kept in the main office for use in situations where you won’t have an opportunity to develop them.

Written by Jim Paterson, Education World Contributing Writer

Jim Paterson is a writer, contributing to a variety of national publications, most recently specializing in education. During a break from writing for a period, he was the head of a school counseling department. (

Copyright© 2019 Education World