In my first post on the substitute teacher shortage facing low-income schools and districts, I discussed some of the problems it causes within the entire school when a substitute teacher cannot be found. In this post, I want to suggest a few ways that teachers, community members, and school administrators can begin to address this problem of substitute teacher shortages – especially in high-poverty school districts.

What Can Be Done?

1. Teachers can think twice before calling in sick or taking personal leave. This one might go without saying, but the first line of defense is the teachers. I say this to myself, as I know perfectly well that I took “personal” days back when I first started teaching just because I could. I’d like to think I did so because I didn’t know the negative effect it had on my students (who were all receiving free-or-reduced lunch).

I know I shouldn’t feel guilty, but every day that I have to call in to take care of my sick daughter or to take a personal sick day is a burden to me because, after teaching and after researching the effects on students, I know I am robbing those students of educational time that they need. Obviously some sick and personal leave is necessary and completely permissible, but teachers need to minimize the time they take off to the greatest extent possible.

2. Districts and schools can also take action in a research-based manner, instead of trying to mitigate teacher absences in a way that isn’t effective. “In 2007, the National Bureau of Economic Research published a working paper, Do Teacher Absences Impact Student Achievement? Longitudinal Evidence from One Urban School District, by Miller, Murnane, and Willett, which found:

  • Absence rates decrease “when incentive schemes like buy-backs of unused sick-leave (Boyer, 1994; Ehrenberg et al., 1991; Winkler, 1980) or bonuses for exceptional attendance (Boyer, 1994; Freeman & Grant, 1987; Jacobson, 1990; Skidmore, 1984; White, 1990) are implemented.”
  • Changes in absence control policies influence behaviors. “For example, teachers who are required to report absences directly to their principal by telephone are absent less often than teachers who report their absences indirectly, to either a centralized reporting center or a school-based message machine (Farrell & Stamm, 1988; Winkler, 1980).” (See original Education Week article here.)

3. Districts can lower the requirements for substitute teachers by requiring only a high school diploma (as opposed to requiring full teacher certification or related experience, as some districts or states — like Colorado and Iowa — do). I have rarely seen a substitute teacher employing their skills as an “educator” by instructing the class, leading discussion, or improving student achievement. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen; I just haven’t witnessed it. More often than not, I walk by a classroom and see a substitute teacher sitting at the desk on his phone or on the computer while students play games on their phones or talk to one another animatedly. Either we should hold substitute teachers accountable for the same teaching that we require of our regular teachers or we should simply allow responsible adults to sit with the students. We have a shortage of substitutes but many unemployed college and high school graduates without teaching certificates. Why not help solve both these issues by reducing the requirements for substitute teachers?

  • Require all substitute teachers to be at least 22 years old
  • Require background checks on all substitute teachers
  • Require professional references for all substitute teachers
  • Require brief training by each school district

4. Provide pay incentives to substitute teach at the hardest-to-fill schools and/or districts. Many schools in “rough” areas have a hard time recruiting substitute teachers. I literally have never heard anyone recommend a school with a “bad” reputation to a potential substitute teacher. Never. Yet, in many ways, these are the schools that need to have substitute teachers the most because they often have higher-than-average teacher absences.

5. Make it easier for substitute teachers to apply for jobs. I only searched for about twenty minutes on different websites like Indeed.com and k12jobspot.com, and school districts like Fulton, Gwinnett, and Henry Counties had multiple substitute teaching positions posted on both sites – DeKalb had none. Even after typing in keywords like “DeKalb substitute teacher position,” I still was unable to pull up any jobs for our county. I know that every county has job fairs and online applications on district websites, but some districts (like ours) need to make it easier for potential substitute teachers to find these jobs by utilizing more tools on the internet and in the community.

6. Substitute teachers can intentionally seek out positions in high-poverty districts or schools. Many inequities occur simply because we insulate ourselves from anything that makes us uncomfortable. However, many of us like to volunteer a day here or there with different non-profits or charities. What if we thought about substitute teaching in a similar way? Instead of spending a day volunteering at a soup kitchen, why not spend a day substitute teaching in a school with kids in a rough part of town? Not only would you get time with some incredible children, but you would also help the school run more smoothly during a teacher’s absence (and you’d get paid $85-$100+ per day).

By doing these things, we could help ameliorate the substitute teacher shortage in many districts. I’m not saying it is ideal to have substitute teachers with minimal qualifications; ideally substitute teachers would follow these minimum protocols (as required by Gwinnett County) and have teaching certificates and/or a college degree in a specific subject area that they are substitute teaching.

However, we need to solve the immediate problem at hand, and that is this: when a teacher calls in sick or takes personal leave, the entire school day is disrupted for dozens of students. It is even worse for schools and districts who are unable to find a substitute teacher for that classroom. Let’s minimize the disruptions to the school day by figuring out ways to hire and recruit more substitute teachers.