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When students at Huntley High School in Illinois began returning to in-person classes after pandemic closures, Principal Marcus Belin had to hop into classrooms to substitute teach because the school's substitute pool had shrunk significantly.
“You would think a school this size — of almost 3,000 kids — the last thing you would catch a principal or associate principal or a dean doing is subbing,” Belin said.
And while it’s become less necessary in the years since, Belin still finds himself occasionally subbing in classrooms.
Depending on the day, the school needs five to 20 substitutes, Belin said. And if teachers have to sub for each other, that can fuel staff burnout, he said.
Before the pandemic, students spent an estimated 10% of their instructional time with a substitute teacher, said Amanda von Moos, executive director of Substantial Classrooms, a nonprofit that supports districts on training substitutes. Given teacher absence patterns and ongoing educator shortages, von Moos said that percentage has likely doubled to 20% since COVID-19 emerged.
As schools pivoted to fully remote learning during the pandemic, the substitute pool quickly depleted when subs couldn't teach remotely, von Moos said. But since then, she said, some schools have been able to rebuild their substitute pools as districts used federal emergency pandemic relief funds to raise substitute pay.
Boosting pay, loosening requirements continues
States also began to loosen requirements for substitutes, such as lifting certain education requirements or allowing any school staff member — such as secretaries and paraprofessionals — to fill the role.
At the district level, some school leaders have taken similar approaches, with a majority choosing to raise pay for substitutes. Among 148 of the nation’s largest school districts, 80% increased substitute pay, 16% lowered requirements, and 13% used both strategies since January 2022, according to a November analysis by the National Council on Teacher Quality.
NCTQ found 40% of districts require a high school diploma to be a substitute teacher, and just 30% of districts call for at least some college coursework.
The average starting wage for substitutes during the 2022-23 school year was $18.40 per hour, according to NCTQ. In January 2022, the average district in NCTQ’s sample paid substitute teachers a starting rate of $15.50 per hour — 19% higher year over year.
With Substantial Classrooms, von Moos also noticed many districts upping substitute pay as their primary recruiting strategy, often using Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds to do so. However, that well is running dry, as schools have less than a year left to obligate the spending of ESSER dollars.
“Which leaves a question mark for what happens" next, von Moos said. “ESSER has not fully run out, so we don’t really know. Most districts seem to be finding a way to maintain that level of pay so far.”
A teacher shortage impact?
Meanwhile, states are continuing to focus on creating more accessible pathways for becoming a full-time teacher to mitigate the problem of educator shortages. Some principals say this strategy could also be exacerbating the substitute teacher shortage, as it can be easier to pursue a full-time teaching role now.
Kimberly Winterbottom, principal of Maryland’s Marley Middle School, said she has offered more positions to substitute teachers this year than ever before. For instance, Winterbottom said, she offered the same job for a permanent substitute position to seven different people. Some declined because they could get a full-time teaching job elsewhere, she said.
This struggle to hire strong substitutes comes as Maryland has loosened education requirements to become a full-time teacher through alternative certification programs, Winterbottom said.
“All these people that were in substitute positions now are being offered teaching positions, so it’s kind of like a big backfill,” Winterbottom said. “It’s been very difficult to hire prime substitutes, because they are all getting teaching positions.”
Some 38% of substitute teachers polled by Substantial Classrooms recently indicated they wanted to pursue a teacher certification, according to its website. There’s a missed opportunity for some schools to offer training and a career pathway to substitutes, which could serve as a retention strategy, she said.
“The way to build our sub pools is to make substitute teaching a more desirable job, and one way to do that is to connect it to career opportunities,” von Moos said. “If people have a career aspiration, the best way to keep them working in schools is to give them a pathway to a career that is sustainable and has more of the attributes that a high-quality job would have.”
When Belin discovers that a substitute has chosen to pursue a full-time teaching role, he views it as a success story. Because substitute teaching can be a gateway into an education career, he said, it’s important to give subs the tools and resources to help them envision a full-time role.
A ‘sector-wide blind spot’
There has been no national data gauging the supply of substitute teachers since 2018, according to von Moos. At the state and federal levels, there are very few resources dedicated to getting that data, she said, calling it a “sector-wide blind spot.”
In 2018, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 527,780 substitute teachers worked in elementary and secondary schools in May 2017.
For school districts, human resources departments are responsible for staffing substitutes, but finding and keeping substitutes is often considered separate from a district’s staffing strategy, von Moos said.
To help districts navigate substitute staffing, she suggests that they partner with federal and state leaders to find resources for training substitutes. Additionally, she said, substitutes need to be considered part of the overall strategy to build out the K-12 workforce.
The bottom line, Belin said, is that substitutes are invaluable.
“If we don’t place a higher value in regard for our subs, we ultimately put ourselves in tougher situations, because our subs then won’t want to come work in our buildings,” Belin said. “If the culture doesn’t exist where we’re responsive to their needs in the classroom and support them just as much as we would support a certified teacher, then why should they come?”