Monday, July 27, 2015

The Substitute Shortage

One of the surprises of my look into state by state teacher shortages was the widespread reporting of a substitute teacher shortage. I knew we had a problem in my region. I didn't realize it was a problem everywhere.

Several writers have tried to parse out the problem and offer solutions, but I don't find anybody doing any serious research on the issue. So until that turns up, let me fill the void with more speculation and anecdotal evidence. You're welcome.

One writers specifically singles out the ACA as NOT a problem. Many folks were worried that districts would cap substitute hours to avoid having to pay health care costs, thus effectively reducing the number of total sub-hours available. But that shortage-by-Obamacare assumes a pool of subs who wanted to work all the time, and that may not be a safe assumption in any markets. So maybe a culprit, maybe not.

That same source also suggests that greater absenteeism is a culprit--iow, we need more subs. Can we get teachers to miss less school? The writer suggests that an increase in in-service training is the problem. And so we can chalk up the sub shortage as another side effect of the reformster movement.

Fewer people in the teacher pipeline also seems a good bet. Fewer people coming out of teacher programs means fewer people "auditioning" for jobs in school districts.

I would bet we are losing some of those as well. Here comes an anecdote.

When I came back to my area, I started out as a sub. I was single; I sank my nest egg into a mobile home in a trailer park. Back then (early 80's) a day of subbing paid $50. Two days of work paid my lot rent, and after that it was all gravy (well, spagetti and generic sauce, anyway). I couldn't have supported a family on sub pay, but I could live independently. But in thirty five years the going sub rate in my region has gone up about thirty-five dollars. If it had kept pace with inflation, the sub rate would be at about $130.

Point is this. In 1981, I could live on sub pay and hold on until a job turned up. Nowadays, subs may take on another easy-to-schedule job like waitressing and still not be able to support themselves. A teacher hoping to land a real gig may end up taking themselves out of the pool because of their selfish desires for food and shelter. In many areas, teaching has joined the long list of modern jobs that you can't afford to break into unless you have well-off parents or a good trust fund.

The other common sub back in the day was a nice lady with a teaching certificate who had stayed home to raise kids and, now that they were older, was ready to earn a little pin money to supplement the main income her husband brought home. That scenario is by the wayside as well, of course.

Bottom line: lots of people need to make a living too badly to stay available to sub pools.

This dovetails with another oft-cited culprit--an improving economy that means people can do better and get an actual job. I'm not sure how much this holds water, but the argument is out there.

Many states have come up with many creative ways to fill their sub gaps. NEA has a whole list, and some of it is a little horrifying--  Georgia and Florida are among the states that only require a high school diploma to be a sub. But opening the doors wide to any warm body is not a great answer, either. Pennsylvania years ago tried a Guest Teacher program; with a little training, anybody who'd ever held down a job could become a substitute teacher. We had lots of folks sign up, but very few of them survived their first few encounters with actual students. (Turns out that while your office subordinates may have listened to you because you were the boss, sixteen year olds are less so inclined.)Substituting is hard work-- in some ways more grueling than having a regular classroom assignment-- and lots of folks find out they'd just rather not.

Substitute shortages are a good example of our avoidance of obvious solutions. How could we possibly convince more people to become substitute teachers?

Pay them more.

Yes, there are other factors that would help. Nothing will lose a sub faster than a building where nobody is in charge and no discipline is maintained. And it's nice to make subs feel at home, like part of the team, and not like a stranger who's supposed to know what to do through some sort of psychic power. But mostly it's pretty simple. If people can't afford to live on the wages you're paying, people will take any other job except the one you're offering.

A good sub pool is critical. A good sub keeps classes moving forward and makes sure that the needs of students are met even if the regular teacher must miss. A bad sub means it will take me three days to make up for the one day I had to miss. A good sub honors the promise that a school should make-- no matter what, we will get you the education you were promised. It seems obvious that we do not want to draw subs only from the pool of People Who Couldn't Find Anything Else To Do In The Whole World.

Heck, you could get crazy and hire permanent subs as some districts do-- a person who is hired at a full contract with full benefits and who is there every day to cover whatever needs to be covered.

Substitute shortage is yet another problem to which we know the solution. It's just that the solution costs money, and we don't wanna. A good substitute teacher is worth her weight in gold, but we prefer to offer only peanuts. 


  1. Right on as usual. The school I left when my principal dared me to find greener grass elsewhere was paying substitute teachers the lowest wages in the county, and by the hour. When my substitute traveled my daily 4 mile trek from one of my art rooms to the other, she was not paid for that 15 minutes. By the time I left, admin was begging us not to take days off if we could help it.

  2. You can't make a living substitute teaching.

    After the recession and before I got my current teaching job I substituted for 2 years.

    It's a hard life. I worked almost every day. I survived by living with my parents and having the social life of a monk. (a fun life for a 30 year old.)

    A secondary issue is, you know that no one cares about you. You are there as a stop gap. Occasionally a school would accidentally book me. I show up and after a few minutes of the secretary trying to figure out why I was there, she would tell me to just go home. They don't care that their screw up just cost me a day's pay.

    In my current district the sub issue is trickier. We are a tourist community. During the winter we're ok, but the spring and fall are a nightmare. On multiple occasions the school has sent out emails stating that they were out of subs. (sometimes a week or two in advance.) As you might imagine, with such desperation quality was never a question.

  3. I think one of the biggest problems is probably lack of teacher graduates. I, too, substituted when I graduated. I think pay was, like, $35/hr, but it was the only way to get into the system and I think it helped me learn classroom management. What I hated was long-term positions less than 4 months (when they started giving you base pay) because having to make lesson plans and doing grades (maybe for something that wasn't my area) was SO worth a whole lot more than what I was making.

    Another pool we always used to draw on was retired teachers. Now that they keep raising the retirement age, that's more difficult, and the way things are nowadays, it's not an atmosphere you want to go back into.

    Permanent subs is probably a good idea. We used to have a couple of them in our building. I think they stopped that though.

  4. Another problem not mentioned is that daily sub jobs don't lead to teaching jobs like they might have in the past, at least in my area.

    If you're a paraprofessional/teacher's aide/whatever they call it in your district, it's similar crap pay, but you get reliable hours and people get to know you, so you have a better shot at a full-time job later.

  5. To add to Thorup's premise: The reason it doesn't lead to teaching jobs anymore is, in part, because the sub system has been privatized. Contractually, when a sub works for the district for 60 days (a third of a school year) they are no longer a sub, but a full time teacher. With private companies hiring the subs they don't technically work for the district. Also, subs would get years of service in the pension system, but again, don't work directly for the school, so mo YOS.

    If you are going to pay a professional a crappy wage, there should be other benefits or they will, as we've seem, go elsewhere.

  6. Are you supposed to "make a living" as a substitute? In Florida, it's always been seen as a job for someone with flexible hours who is looking for a little extra money (grad students, retirees, housewives, etc.) or, more rarely, those who are looking to break into teaching. I say more rarely because until the economy crashed a few years back we were faced with teacher shortages, so there was no need to go the substitute route; they were hiring anyone with a college degree. And, even now, most people looking to get into the teaching profession who can't get in right away opt for being paraprofessionals (teacher aides). Talk about a position that is underpaid!

    In any event, there is a sub shortage in my county, but it is not because of the low pay. Over the years, the district has made it progressively more difficult to become a substitute teacher, mostly in the form of beaurocratic hoops that must be jumped through. Nothing about the process is simple. Whenever I hear subs complaining, it's always about the process or the behavior of the students. I've yet to hear them complain about pay (which is a bit odd since they really do deserve more compensation than they get).

    The behavior of the students is another issue for subs. When I went to elementary school, the biggest problems were talking in class and chewing gum. It was unheard of for a student to yell at a teacher. The job of a substitute today is definitely more difficult than it was a few decades ago.

    The flip side of the lack of substitutes coin is that teachers are taking more sick days. I think there are two reasons for this. Never easy, the jobs of teachers have steadily increased in difficulty, exacting a heavier toll on the mind, body, and spirit of teachers than it once did. The other reason is that the payment for unused sick leave hours upon retirement is periodically threatened to be done away with.

    Fewer substitutes + teachers using more sick leave = not good.

  7. Sub pay is definitely an issue in Fort Wayne. One of the many long-term subs that has left the school district that will remain nameless asked why she would put up with what she does in that classroom when she can make more and have better benefits working for Costco. I even heard that Walmart paid better (ironic as it is given who is funding school reform). The Obamacare 30 hour mandate is definitely a factor, though. It effects long-term subs and aides mostly. Often times aides are pulled to sub as teachers creating a cascade effect that it now leaving more and more teachers without aides. Just look up "More School Districts Cutting Part-Time Worker Hours Ahead Of Insurance Law" which was a StateImpact Indiana report to see its effects. However, giving subs insurance wouldn’t be a problem if the legislators weren’t underfunding education so much; many superintendents and school board members have said that they would give health insurance to subs if they could, but can’t, because of funding constraints, and I would say that is a fair assessment.

  8. I have a masters in elementary childhood education; therefore, I can't get hired as a classroom teacher in a public school as my pay will be higher than a teacher with only a bachelor's degree. I also have a bachelor's degree in liberal arts and know four foreign languages. It means nothing. So I was resigned to sub. Even that didn't turn out well. I was professional in showing up well on time, treating the students and faculty and administration with respect, being proficient in instruction, doing more than babysitting. I liked it well enough. I said and did nothing controversial. Then out of the blue, the tide changed. I was charged with "sleeping in class". I never ever slept or napped or nodded. Wide awake every minute and no witnesses even if I were. I was put on the "No Call" list in more than one district. The nail in the coffin came with an accusation that I physically harmed a child. Specifically she was one of three girls who were sitting in butterfly chairs in a cluster and kicking each other for sport. I broke it up (appropriately), didn't yell, and told them to leave their butterfly chairs and to sit at library tables. One girl remained and I gently took her by the wrist and got her on her feet, and walked her over to a table. I didn't report her to her teacher or to the office because it was the week-end before Christmas and I didn't want to get her in trouble. Just the opposite. Her parents reported to the principal that faint red marks on her arm was due to me. I was investigated by the state's child protection, the charges were found to be baseless. But it doesn't matter. I am on yet another "No Call" list permanently. I am beyond dismayed. I am a good teacher, care about the children, and worked *hard* as even a substitute. I even excelled in special education as a substitute. I miss teaching more than I can say.

  9. You can't touch kids. They'll nail you on that alone.