All Articles

The Truth About the Substitute Shortage and Need for Disadvantaged Students

Dani Corbett
Article Writer
February 18, 2021

Substitute Need of Disadvantaged Students

Our students are in great need of qualified teachers at the head of their classrooms. And nowhere do students need this more than in already struggling special needs classrooms and in disadvantaged schools. As we take a look at what issues are plaguing classrooms with the highest substitute need, we can start developing strategies and solutions to address the shortage.

Special Education Substitute Need for Disadvantaged Students

We know the substitute shortage crisis is prevalent all over the United States. We also know that students suffer academically when their full-time teachers miss school. There is a set of students who are drastically suffering because of the substitute teacher shortage, and they are often the students most overlooked - our special education students. The sub shortage is creating a grave situation in many of our special needs classrooms, especially in classrooms in disadvantaged schools.

There is a desperate situation brewing in many disadvantaged schools across the country. When schools are unable to fill substitute teaching positions, SOMEONE has to cover the class. Whether it’s a teacher taking on more students, administrators covering the class, or teachers filling in during prep periods, schools have to ensure students have a teacher. One way the most desperate schools are addressing the substitute shortage is by pulling away special education teachers from their special needs classrooms.

While the unethical implications of this “solution” are more obvious, this is actually unlawful in most states, too. What this really tells us is just how desperate some administrators are getting. According to the Chicago Teachers Union, many school administrators are guilty of pulling special needs teachers from their classes in a desperate attempt of filling needs around the school. Chicago schools are seeing a decline in the number of students with disabilities who attend college, and this practice is a contributing factor to that decline. 

Because of the denial of services to special education students in Chicago, the state has been required to step in. Programs have been initiated requiring schools to prove that special education students are receiving instruction from qualified teachers. Even with these programs in place, there are still many instances where administrators cannot meet the state requirements.

One contributing factor to special needs classrooms going without a substitute is the lack of substitute teachers who are qualified to sub in a special needs classroom in the first place. Even if a substitute teacher is certified to sub in regular education classes, the substitutes are often under-trained and ill-equipped for successfully teaching in special needs classrooms. While having a substitute teacher at the front of the classroom to oversee students is necessary, it is NOT the same as having a teacher with the ability to reach and teach the students. Our special needs kids are hurting terribly when they don’t have a qualified sub in their class.  

Substitute Need for Disadvantaged Schools

Another group of students often overlooked are our underprivileged students. These are students in minority, low-income schools. The substitute shortage reaches deep into these schools, and there are a few reasons for the more noticeable crisis. First, schools in disadvantaged areas have an extremely difficult time staying fully staffed with full-time teachers. Second, school reputations lead to fewer job acceptances. Third, substitute teachers do not receive the necessary training on how to manage students in schools with more negative behavioral occurrences. 

Full-Time Teacher Need for Disadvantaged Schools

Keeping a fully staffed school is one of the main priorities for administrators in underprivileged schools. Because these schools are more difficult to teach at, there are often masses of teachers who quit or transfer at the end or even in the middle of the school year. This leaves administrators desperate to hire full-time teachers during the summer. Most schools in these areas start the school year with multiple vacancies in full-time staffing needs.

Schools in Chicago struggle greatly. When studying schools in Chicago, NPR found that “almost a third of 520 district-run schools - 152 - had at least one regular education or special education teacher position open all year long.”  These same schools are twice as likely to have year-long teacher vacancies when compared to schools with mostly white students. In the most desperate of these schools, substitute positions went unfilled HALF the time.

Chris Hernandez, a student at a disadvantaged school, recounted her experience in her sophomore English class. Her class did not have an assigned teacher most of the year. Chris expressed her frustration, along with the frustration of many of her classmates, of never having clear assignment expectations. Most of the time, she did not know who to turn her assignments in to. She reported that most students in the class failed the entire year. The association between under-staffed schools and unmet substitute teaching needs is clear. We must find solutions

Poor School Reputations Cause Concern for Potential Substitutes

Disadvantaged, minority, low-income schools are often victims of poor reputations. Because of this, many substitute teachers choose not to accept jobs at these schools. When schools are labeled as low-income, dangerous, or have high minority rates, full-time applicants are low, too. This continues the cycle of too many needs to fill with too few substitutes to fill them.

In these disadvantaged areas, we are noticing some schools beginning to climb their way out of these dire situations. When principals and administrators look for and implement solutions to solve these problems, there is a noticeable difference. Principal Jasmine Thurmond is over a school in Chicago’s South Side. Her tenacity has proven effective. She has a firm belief that filling classrooms with unqualified teachers is not assisting in breaking the shortage cycle. She strives to effectively fill positions and she’s seeing results.

Matt Lyons, a chief talent officer for disadvantaged schools, said,

“Despite what someone might read, assume, or hear from a friend, you walk into these schools and they are safe, they are welcoming, students are smiling and happy to be there and happy to learn.”

More Training Needed for Substitutes in Disadvantaged Schools

The third issue is that substitutes who are willing to accept jobs in disadvantaged schools do not often have the training necessary to work in high need schools. While lack of training for substitute teachers is a factor for the national shortage of subs, substitutes in these schools are completely overwhelmed by their jobs. The chaos accompanying understaffed schools often creates challenging situations. Subs are left with no lesson plans. Students do not have consistent classroom routines in place. Behavior systems are non-existent. Aid from school employees is sparse. With substitutes already being under-paid in most places, there is no incentive for subs to accept more difficult job placements. Specific training for both the schools and substitutes is desperately needed to address these problems.


We know the nationwide substitute shortage has effects on our students. And now we also know that our at-risk students across the country are at an even larger disadvantage. By tackling this problem and creating and implementing more solutions to it, we can get teachers AND kids in successful classrooms.

Related Articles