5 ways to build and retain a substitute teacher pool

Education leaders offer their thoughts on maintaining and growing a talented base of instructors in an adverse environment.
By: | August 19, 2020
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One of the most pressing challenges school districts are facing this year is having enough substitute teachers to cover classes. Most states are already grappling with teacher shortages in areas such as science, math and special education. Add in a pandemic and virtual learning, and the near future of instruction, especially face-to-face, looks a bit hazy.

Some districts have it better than others, relying on a pool of either veteran or permanent substitutes to fill in.

“For the most part, we were very surprised that 90% said they were ready to come back either way, face to face or virtual,” says Valerie Suessmith, chief human resources officer for Henry County Schools south of Atlanta. “Many subs have been with a particular school a long time. That’s what we love about it. It’s the same face every day. That’s where the permanent sub comes in and is such a benefit because of the consistency. They’re already ready to go.”

Some districts, however, may not have as deep a pool of regular subs and will have to rely heavily on short-term substitutes to cover gaps heading into the fall and winter.

“There are certain times of the year, as with any other district, during flu season, when it gets close to a holiday, when we really push our system to the limit as it relates to our subs,” says Alicia Thompson, superintendent of Wichita Public Schools in Kansas.

Thomas Taylor, deputy superintendent in Chesterfield County, Va., foresees a bit of a murky road ahead based on factors that stretch beyond his district’s control.

“Building the pool is a bit of a challenge when you don’t have a firm return-to-work date or a firm means of communicating what exactly they would be doing,” says Taylor, referring to the choice many schools have made to go remote or hybrid without setting a definite in-person return date. “People substitute teach for a lot of the same reason that they drive for Uber or Lyft, or that they participate in any gig economy job. Unfortunately, gig economy jobs are not insulated from market disruption. If you have a vacancy right now, you better be pretty scared, because that teacher vacancy might be a teacher vacancy for the fall.”


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Avoiding those roadblocks and being nimble will be key to keeping and growing the subs pool in the coming months.

“We need to be looking at very unexpected pools of talent that we haven’t considered,” says Nicola Soares, president at Kelly Education. “The pandemic has exacerbated this conversation: that we need to look at how we can expand the credentials of very qualified individuals to become teachers.”

The leaders above and others offered 5 strategies on maintaining and growing pools of subs:

  1. Call on nontraditional instructors. “When I look at the folks that are currently right now unemployed, who have been displaced, we have enormously talented people that would probably love to take a substitute teacher job,” Soares says. “Maybe somebody who has been in a STEM career that has been working in a laboratory that might have gotten furloughed or lost their position due to reduction would make a great teacher in the middle school to teach a STEM class in a discipline like physical science, or biology. If they have the minimum requirements to be a substitute teacher within that state, they should be considered. What I love about that is that some people would be engaged to pursue the teaching profession with an alternative credentialing degree on top of their four-year degree. Also, it brings in real-life applications of somebody who has been doing the career for our students.”
  2. Look beyond your campus and train them up: “If you have a university that’s close to you, it will be to your advantage to work with them because they have teachers – young folks, virtually especially – that would be able to support and help,” says Thompson, who also suggests outreach to military bases or a workforce alliance for additional instructional jobs, including those that may have fewer requirements, both on the academic and operations side. “We took a different approach this year. We pay substitutes some days to come in and be part of the professional development with our regular teachers so that they know exactly what they need to do to be able to teach virtual.” … Taylor adds  “one of things that we have supported is something called the Richmond Teacher Residency Program. It is a collaboration with Richmond Metropolitan School Districts and Virginia Commonwealth University. We support those in non-traditional roles such as instructional assistants or substitutes to pursue the courses that they need for a bachelor’s degree in teacher certification while also working full time.”
  3. Consider college students: Soares notes that many college students are electing to take gap years because they don’t want to sit at home doing virtual courses. “They’re looking to maybe add some income, feeling maybe they’d like to give back to their local school districts.” Taylor agrees, saying, “I would say even looking at folks that are going to be more seasonal, maybe a college student that’s off for the semester or they’re seasonal from November to January.”
  4. Listen to subs and praise them. “They need to be part of your staff; make them feel like a part of the team,” says Micky Savage, director of human resources and labor relations for Grand Rapids Public Schools in Michigan. “Make sure they’re provided with the resources that they need, to have a lesson plan and class list, rather than come in blind and not be able to engage the classroom.” … Suessmith says it’s important to empathetic. “I can’t imagine waking up at 5:30 in the morning and not knowing where I’m going to be working or how well-received I am going to be at that particular school. Our subs do have schools that they enjoy working out of because the school makes them feel like a part of that family. It’s the schools that treat them more like a commodity that they’re not happy with.”
  5. When all else fails, do what you have to do. Sometimes, staffing is just going to be short. Yolanda Martin, chief of human resources at Shelby County Schools in Memphis, Tenn., says her school is considering leveraging existing staff to serve as a part of the school-based subs team to cover classes, such as “coaches and facilitators, counselors, interventionists, and librarians, when they typically may have a planning time or have some time that they can utilize differently and have more flexibility.” … John Helmholdt, executive director of communications and external affairs at Grands Rapids says, “one of our top goals is retention and recruitment of talent. Like school districts across the state, really across the country, we are facing a teacher shortage crisis right now. So we’ve developed kind of a multi-prong strategy, that among other things, includes paying our substitutes more than the surrounding districts to entice those individuals to fill in the gaps when we need them. We launched an academy of teaching and learning, which is at one of our high schools as part of a grow-your-own program. And we are still recruiting.”

Chris Burt is a reporter and editor for District Administration. He can be reached at cburt@lrp.com