An estimated 500,000 to 600,000 substitute teachers serve in the nation’s classrooms every year, often without the training, work conditions and compensation they need to succeed. With the pandemic exacerbating perennial substitute shortages, education leaders are considering ways to rethink not just substitutes’ compensation but the way the job is designed and substitute teachers are trained. FutureEd associate director Phyllis Jordan interviewed Amanda von Moos, co-founder at the nonprofit Substantial, a nonprofit focused on improving substitute teaching, and co-author of a new book on the subject.
The shortage of substitute teachers predates Covid-19. How has the pandemic made matters worse?
The pandemic exposed systemic weaknesses, right? And substitute teaching is definitely one of those in education. Before the pandemic, we had about 80 percent coverage of classrooms that needed subs. One-in-five jobs went unfilled. And that's the overall coverage. You had many schools that had almost all their substitute needs filled and then lots that had very few. The on-the-ground reality was many schools regularly had unstaffed classrooms, which creates a stressful morning for the school team, adds to the workload of other teachers, and significantly disrupts learning. While we don’t have national data yet, it’s looking like the national fill-rate for subs is about 50 to 60 percent. Having spent a lot of time in schools with 50 to 60 percent sub coverage, I can tell you having unstaffed classrooms on a regular basis makes it difficult to run a school.
What are schools doing to address this reality?
What's happening is what’s happened historically. Other staff members—coaches, specialists, and administrators—are getting pulled into classrooms. And teachers are covering for each other. In both cases, that means pulling people away from [their own] very urgent work. The last thing is we're seeing is that principals really can't release teachers for additional duties, like professional development and collaboration.
What can school districts do to attract more substitute teachers? Is it a matter of better compensation?
Pay is important. For substitute teachers, it varies significantly, between $80 to 250 a day. Many districts have increased pay in response to the substitute shortage in the pandemic. But we often overlook the importance of other benefits, especially health benefits. We are asking people in the middle of a pandemic to go into a public setting and to move classroom to classroom. It's pretty significant that we don't offer subs health benefits. As districts are thinking about what they're going to need to do to attract subs, that's a really important thing. We hear a lot from subs that they would be more interested in doing full-time substitute teaching if they were able to get benefits.
In the medium term, we need to work on job design. Substitute teachers are education's plan B, the backup plan. I think that redesigning the role of the substitute teacher is one of the most important things we can do. How do we restructure the job? What does the compensation and training and support look like. How do we create something that is better for supporting students?
You have written that only 44 percent of substitute teachers receive any training before going into the classroom.
The American education system has set up substitute teaching like a gig-economy job. People apply to be a sub, they become part of a centralized pool, and they basically get access to a big list of schools that needs subs. They don’t get professional development. They don't get a day-to-day manager who checks in on them and says, "How was today? Oh, that sounded hard. How did you bounce back? What might you do next time?" They often don't get a regular set of colleagues.
The core job responsibility for a substitute teacher is classroom management. But we found that just 11 percent of school districts offer classroom-management training to subs. And most of the time it’s a one-time orientation to the job. As a result, people go into the classroom unprepared. Not surprisingly, lots of people don't stay. Even when people do stay, without basic training and support, the classroom experience isn't great. The labor market right now is really sending us such a clear signal that it's not working, that we will have to address it.
Are there models that would improve working conditions for substitute teachers?
Having full-time, school-based subs is a fantastic model. It is especially great for students who have experienced a lot of trauma to have known adults in their lives.
Would these full-time subs be hired by the school, then fill in for different teachers?
Right, and what's really nice about that is having full-time subs at the beginning of the school year, when there are fewer teacher absences, be able to do classroom observation, help with small group pull-out, and do other kinds of classroom support that help them be part of the school community. They're better at their job when that happens.
Can substitute teaching become a pipeline into the workforce, a training ground for locally grown teachers?
This is one of my favorite ideas for redesigning substitute teaching. I love the idea because lots of people are checking out teaching through substitute teaching, especially mid-career folks. And then they're thrown into this very under-designed experience. A full-time substitute teaching fellowship is great for creating that stepping stone to regular teaching roles.
The model I love is in Central Falls, Rhode Island. They’ve created a fellowship program, like a teacher residency, where the participants commit to a full-time sub position in a school for a year and are paid for each day. They can then become regular teachers.
What about the substitute teachers who don’t want a full-time job?
There are all kinds of reasons people find their way to substitute teaching. Some are aspiring teachers and many of those folks would like a full-time job that helps them transition into a career in education. But there are others who find that substitute teaching fits into their lives, maybe they are artists, retirees or freelance workers.
It helps to think of those people as community educators who enrich students’ experiences because they come from the community and bring diverse backgrounds. While aspiring teachers are looking for a career path, community educators are more likely to be seeking a sense of connection. They want to make a difference and support their community. They want to get to know a school and feel a part of the team.
We're starting to see districts looking to their existing partners and figuring out whether those partners, like arts organization or a tutoring company or an afterschool provider, could help with coverage during the school day. Developing community partnerships is not about cost savings. It’s about improving the quality of the experience.