Picture this: it’s your first day at a new job. You don’t know where to park, where to eat lunch, or even where to find the restroom. But, in order to succeed, you have to push all of those thoughts aside. The bell will ring soon; you’ll need to immediately understand the schedule and put on an air of authority to make it through your day.
This is the plight of substitute teachers.
On the first day of every assignment, substitutes often show up to schools with the best intentions, but very little information about how to succeed, much less navigate the day. Why is it the norm not to consider the day-to-day experience of substitute teachers when they are an essential part of a school community?
Even under ideal circumstances, substitute teaching is a hard job, made even harder by the nationwide substitute shortage that’s getting worse each year. In January 2022, The Atlantic reported that “America Is Desperate for Substitute Teachers.” One year and several COVID-19 variants later, the title still rings true.
I can say with confidence, and a healthy dose of concern, that the problem isn’t going anywhere, anytime soon. So, if the substitute shortage persists, what can schools and districts realistically do that they aren’t already doing? The answer begins not with how we treat subs when they arrive on campus, but rather in how we find them.
Consider a community-based solution to the substitute shortage
The substitute shortage is felt acutely at the community level. There are a finite number of substitute teachers in discrete geographic areas. School districts find themselves having to compete with each other for this limited pool of educators.
This means that the first step in addressing a local substitute shortage is to strengthen the connection between districts and the communities they serve. Instead of repeatedly tapping the same pool of substitute teachers, districts can collaborate on community outreach to cultivate new subs and grow the available pool for all the schools in a region. While the challenge of unfilled teacher absences is felt acutely in individual schools, the larger community may need to be educated about the problem—and how they can be a part of the solution.
Look for substitute teachers in new ways
School districts are constantly embracing new, innovative practices, and there is no reason why this can’t be applied to finding subs. Cultivating the next generation of substitutes will require shifting away from traditional methods of finding and hiring subs.
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Right now, substitute jobs are typically found on a district’s website or on a job board, postings that best serve candidates who are actively looking for these roles. But, what about people who don’t yet know that they want to be a substitute teacher? To reach this new group, the most effective approach is to come to them, which requires new thinking and new methods. Cajon USD in California is one of those creative problem solvers which turned to web technology to reach new candidates
Once a group of ideal candidates is identified—such as recent graduates looking to gain work experience—learn how that group behaves online and market to them in those spaces. Think of your district as a business trying to attract new customers. Run a digital advertising campaign to convey the value of being a sub.
Design your substitute program with intention and empathy
Once you’ve put in the work to find substitute teachers, bring that same intention and focus to their onboarding and first-day experience. This means making it as easy as possible to become a sub (if they aren’t already certified) while creating a welcoming environment from the moment they accept the job.
It helps to stand in your substitute teachers’ shoes. Considering their uncertainty and worry from the moment they accept an assignment to the final bell of the day can guide planning. How much care goes into easing this experience?
Districts have the opportunity to set the stage for a successful day right at the onset, when they post a substitute assignment. Include not only the basic information like a sub’s point of contact for the day, but also describe where to park, and whether or not a lesson plan will be provided. This goes a long way to making a sub feel prepared and valued.
While seeming to be logistical basics, these extra considerations can have a significant positive impact by showing substitutes that their presence is not an afterthought. After all, substitutes live and work in the same communities as the districts they serve. They want to be valued. If there is any hope of shifting the tide of the substitute shortage, it’s critical for districts to recognize, honor, and nurture subs as part of the education communities they serve.