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The Substitute Teacher Shortage In The United States

Dani Corbett
Ready2Teach Article Writer
February 3, 2021

Substitute teachers have an important and vital role to fill in the K-12 education system. There is a substantial substitute teacher shortage across the United States due to the high demand for qualified substitute teachers and a low supply of ready-to-work substitute teachers. The demand for highly qualified substitutes has increased as higher degrees, more training and certifications are required by school districts. Simultaneously, the pool of substitutes has decreased due to low pay, lack of recognition, insufficient training and other available jobs in the workforce. There are many solutions to be considered by districts and schools to help alleviate the needs of school districts while providing a better opportunity for substitute teachers.


The demand for highly qualified substitutes has increased across the United States. Nationwide, there is a shortage of substitute teachers. Requirements to become a substitute teacher vary from state to state, and some requirements are being lowered by school districts to fill the need.


Substitute Teacher Need


Across the country, teachers miss an average of 11 days per school year. One way schools and districts are combatting the teacher shortage is by adding job perks for full-time teachers to encourage less time missed in the classroom. More schools are offering advantages such as more sick or personal days, improved unused days roll-over plans, monetary incentives, rewards programs, and more. Some schools have increased their employee protocols to be more strict. While it seems like having these policies in place will encourage better teacher attendance, it doesn’t seem to be the care. There is no evidence to support that the current policies are having a significant impact on teacher absence.


Teachers being in the classroom is directly correlated to outcomes for students, so we want to first and foremost ensure our students’ teachers are in their classrooms as much as possible. One study concluded that students in classrooms where teachers missed more than ten days of school in the school year showed a 1.2% and 0.6% of standard deviation decrease in both math and English test scores


When teachers are unable to be in their classrooms, it is desirable to have a certified substitute teacher fill in. Studies have concluded that there is a positive correlation between substitute teachers with substitute teaching certifications and the effectiveness of teaching in the classroom. There is also a correlation between the effectiveness of teaching when comparing certified substitute teachers with non-certified substitute teachers. The conclusion is in favor of using certified substitute teachers to ensure a more positive effect on student outcomes. 


“Interesting fact - based on the average number of days teachers miss per school year, each student will spend two-thirds of a school year with a substitute teacher during their elementary through high school education.”

The total cost for substitute teachers is a significant amount in the school budget each year. An average of $1,800 is spent per teacher per year for substitute teaching needs. But we still need to find substitute teachers to get into the classrooms when needs arise.

The Substitute Shortage

It was found that 48% of schools are experiencing a “severe or somewhat severe” substitute teacher need shortage. There are multiple factors contributing to this shortage. First, trends for new graduates have changed. Second, the ways schools are currently posting jobs leave room for unfilled positions. Third, the way schools and classrooms are labeled has a direct effect on substitute teaching job fill rates.

New Graduate Trends

Previously, college graduates in the education field often spent a year or two substitute teaching prior to committing to a full-time position. Because of the great need for full-time teachers, those same graduates are accepting full-time positions right out of college. 

Inefficient Job Postings

40% of teacher absences are reported on the day of the absence. Schools are continuing to use inefficient ways of notifying substitute teacher pools of available jobs. Many administrators are still using cold calls each morning in attempt to fill substitute teacher needs. Subs are missing calls and receiving messages too late to be on time in a classroom. Jobs that are posted within 90 minutes of the job start time are much less likely to be filled than jobs with more notification given to substitutes. Jobs with more than 24 hours of notification have closer to a 90% fill rate.

How School Labels Affect Substitute Job Fill Rates 

Schools struggle to fill substitute teaching positions in what is labeled as harder to teach subjects - math, special education, bilingual classrooms and foreign-language classes. Substitutes who are willing to take these jobs are in high demand, and are often unavailable for last-minute job postings. 

Schools labeled as “disadvantaged” are really struggling to place substitute teachers in classrooms, especially when compared to their counterpart “advantaged” schools' sub placement rates. Schools labeled as “disadvantaged” are schools with lower-income or schools that have a more diversified student body. On average, these disadvantaged schools had 0.9 to 1.3 more non-covered positions per teacher annually than schools without these labels. Teachers are more likely to turn down jobs in schools that have a reputation for having ongoing issues with student behavior as well.

“A high-needs school with 50 teachers is expected to have 65-80 non-covered absences annually, compared against 16-33 non-covered absences in an advantaged school of the same size.”

In a school with a high population of black and Hispanic students, almost half of the full-time teachers expressed that their school does not adequately fill the substitute needs. Only 9% of teachers in schools with low numbers of black and Hispanic students report the same opinion.

In one survey of substitute teachers, filling positions at middle schools with low achievement scores, schools with more black and Hispanic students and schools with high suspension rates were the least preferred schools to fill needs at.

What Happens When A Substitute Teacher Need is Unfilled

We know there is a substitute teacher shortage, but what happens when a job goes unfilled? When a substitute teacher cannot be found, the school pulls together to fill the need. Full-time teachers take on additional students and the class is split between multiple teachers 37% of the time. This is burdensome to full-time teachers who are constantly asked to go above and beyond when they are already stretched too thin in their own classrooms. Various teachers cover the classroom during their prep period 35% of the time. This is also burdensome to teachers who are losing their much-needed preparation time. School administrators cover vacancies 12% of the time. This takes administrators out of the office and often leaves their duties unfulfilled. Unknown forms of coverage constitute the last 16% of the time. 

Current Requirements for Substitute Teachers

This is a problematic situation to solve. While we know that having certified and qualified substitute teachers in the classroom are preferred, we also know that having a qualified substitute teacher who does not have certifications is better than not having a substitute teacher at all. College students entering a course of study in education are on the decline across the country. A survey in Pennsylvania found a 62% decline in the amount of Pennsylvania state residents who were working towards obtaining any form of teacher certification. We can conclude that a shortage in teacher certifications is one cause of the substitute teacher shortage as well. 

As previously mentioned, more and more graduates are accepting full-time positions directly out of college. Education graduates previously took advantage of substitute teaching positions to carve out their niche interests in education. They were able to try teaching in different classes, schools and districts before committing to a full-time position. Because the need for teachers is so great as well, new graduates are stepping directly into the full-time workforce instead.

To combat this issue, many schools are lowering their substitute teacher qualifications. Many districts and schools no longer require a two-year or four-year degree in education to become a substitute teacher. Schools are no longer requiring substitutes to be certified through applied technology schools or programs either. In fact, some substitutes are only required to have a high-school diploma to be considered for employment as a substitute teacher. Schools and districts requiring higher-education credentials are struggling greatly to fill their needs. 

How the Job of Substitute Teaching Affects the Substitute Teacher Shortage

The pool of substitute teachers has decreased due to low pay, lack of recognition, insufficient training and other available jobs in the workforce. Understanding how each of these factors has an effect on substitute teachers will help us to solve the shortage.

Substitute Teacher Pool Management

Districts and schools oftentimes need to do better at managing their current substitute teacher pool. Some schools surveyed have such a low number of substitutes that they have less than 30% of the number of substitutes needed to fill open positions. This means that there are not even close to the number of substitute teachers needed to fill open jobs, even if every teacher in the pool took jobs for the day. Let’s examine why members of the workforce may not be interested in becoming or staying as a substitute teacher. 

Substitute teachers are receiving little to no recognition for their performance. They are often overwhelmed by the job and feel they have little to no resources available to help them grow in the career. Subs are independent workers, often in a classroom on their own. Many substitutes report that other school employees are unhelpful. Substitutes feel unwelcome in their schools. They are walking into classrooms where they do not know their students. Schools are unfamiliar, and the policies and procedures vary from school to school. 

Substitute teachers walk into classrooms filled with students they do not know. Students are often known to treat substitute teachers poorly, and subs are not respected at times. On top of that, substitutes do not know what kind of lesson plan will be left for them. Substitutes report that lesson plans vary a great deal from teacher to teacher. Some lesson plans are left with much detail and direction and others are barely filled in. Students are disengaged and bored with poor lesson planning and are unappreciative of “busy work.” 

Fewer than 10% of school districts facilitate regular substitute teacher training that goes further than basic onboarding and orientation. Substitutes are left with no help or guidance, which often leaves them looking for work elsewhere. Without continued training, substitute teachers can feel stuck in a rut in their job. They experience feelings of failure, or even worse, feelings that the schools they work for do not value them.

Millennials make up a large part of the cohort of substitute teachers. Knowing this also means we need to examine their work patterns and understand how to best serve them as substitute teachers. Millennials are switching jobs more frequently than those in previous generations. This last year, 21% of millennials changed jobs. Hiring and training new employees accrues significant costs and time. Attracting and engaging the right people who are committed to being a substitute teacher and find satisfaction in the work is in the best interest of the school districts. Doing so works towards the goal of hiring and keeping long-lasting substitute teachers. It also saves time and money for schools and districts.

Substitute Teacher Pay

Low pay for substitute teachers is contributing to the shortage of substitute teachers as well. The median wage for a substitute teacher in the United States is $13.84/hr, or $28,790 for a teacher who works almost every day of the school year. Because most substitutes do not work every day of the school year, it becomes difficult for substitutes to live off their teaching pay alone. There is a direct correlation between schools ranked from least preferred to most preferred and the pay rate of a substitute teacher which suggests that teachers go to the schools who pay the most.

Solutions to the Substitute Teacher Shortage

We’ve discussed many of problems related to the substitute teacher shortage. It’s a problem that needs to be addressed across the country. The good news is - there are solutions. Let’s examine what we can do to alleviate the substitute shortage in the United States.

Create and Sustain Training Programs for Substitute Teachers

Providing outstanding training for our substitute teachers is the first, and arguably most effective, way to help decrease the substitute teacher shortage. Studies have shown that providing consistent training increases both the number of applicants as well as the number of long-term employees who stay with your district. Training is better retained and implemented in the classroom when substitute training is consistently stretched over time. While the cost associated with creating these training programs may initially be burdensome to school districts, the long-term benefits greatly outweigh them. 

What should be included in your training? According to The School Superintendents Association, here are the areas our substitute teachers need training.

  

  1. Address how to be professional and prepared
  2. Safety, legal, and emergency procedures
  3. Classroom management
  4. Teaching strategies
  5. Creating your “bag of tricks” or “super-sub pack”

Recruit the Right Candidates to be Substitute Teachers

Recruiting the right people for the job is an important factor in contributing to the success of a substitute teacher. Recruiting teachers who increase the average number of days each substitute works per month is the goal to strive for. Recruit aggressively. Use targeted advertising, attend job fairs at local universities, utilize your PTA and reach out to local education service centers. Utilize the community resources available to you for job seekers. Colleges and university job boards and student resources are often successful. Personally call people in your community who would make excellent substitutes - retired teachers, student teachers and other community members who you feel would fill the role well. There have even been success using billboards in your community.

Set Consistent Workforce Policies and Procedures.

Having clear expectations almost always helps employees stay accountable and eager. Set a minimum number of days substitutes are expected to work so they may remain in the substitute pool. Remember, if you’ve recruited the right people, you’ve recruited substitute teachers who want to work. Set clear protocols for cancellations and no-shows. Because Fridays are more difficult days to fill substitute openings, reduce or eliminate any professional development or teacher training days scheduled for Fridays.

Deliver Outstanding Customer Service

The process of becoming a substitute teacher in your district should be pleasant and enjoyable. Here are some ways to delight your substitute teacher pool.


  1. Continually update your onboarding process
  2. Offer orientations that include tours and welcome events
  3. Provide training and workshops
  4. Use the latest technology and software, like Ready2Teach, to manage absences
  5. Utilize social media - Instagram is a great place to reach your target substitute
  6. Ensure employees in all school buildings in your district are welcoming, helpful and eager to assist substitute teachers with their needs

Be known as a district that is always pleasant to work with, values your substitute teachers and is continually going above and beyond. Partner up with your community to offer great perks to substitute teachers. This could be free food, event tickets, athletic tickets, product giveaways, etc. Create recognition programs. Name a “Substitute of the Year” in your district or at your school. 

In a survey of substitute teachers, here are the top five reasons substitute teachers designate a favorite school or district to work with. Use this information to understand your substitute teachers. Get to know them, and show them your appreciation for them by catering to their preferences.

  1. Friendly and professional teachers/admin/staff
  2. Familiarity with environment
  3. Support from teachers / admin / staff
  4. Student behavior
  5. General convenience / location 

Offer Substitute Teacher Incentives 

Offering incentives or incentive programs are a great way to serve your substitute teacher pool. Offer incentives to your full-time employees who do not utilize all of their sick and vacation time pay. Offer incentives to your substitute teachers who teach more than a certain percentage of the quarter/trimester/semester. Some schools offer incentives anywhere for $5 - $15 more a day. Pay extra for teachers who have a far commute to help cover costs.

Employee benefits are just as important as pay to many applicants. Even though substitutes are not full-time employees who qualify for benefits, find resources to direct them to for benefits. Be active in the process and help them feel their value despite not being full-time employees. Offer direction and assistance to benefit programs your substitutes can qualify for. Be a resource for them. Maybe even think about including some sort of  PTO program for your best substitutes who work a certain percentage of the school year.

“Investing in a system that keeps effective teachers in the classroom should be a priority for school leaders and policymakers.”

Increase Substitute Teacher Pay

Increasing your pay rate for substitute teachers is another solution to the substitute teacher shortage. There are many opportunities in the workforce for the candidates who would make great substitute teachers. We have to be competitive. We can show substitute teachers we value them by matching their pay to their value.

Be Aware Of Limiting Hours

Because of concerns surrounding the Affordable Care Act, many districts have chosen to limit the number of hours substitute teachers are working. This is not always necessary. Check with a local consultant or human resources company specializing in education to find new ways to approach staying within the ACA boundaries without limiting as many working hours. We're not meant to be human resource specialists. Work with specialists to ensure you're getting all of the best information.

Conclusion

Substitute teachers are needed all across the United States. The demand is needed, and it is critical to the success of our students for us to figure out how to fill it. With the solutions offered and some more creative approaches, we can ease this burden on our educators and administrators. Providing substitute teachers with all the tools necessary to have successful careers leads to higher functioning for administrators, earnest and happy substitutes and students who are succeeding. When we address these issues in our districts and schools, we can focus on what really matters - the kids!


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