Substitute teachers in special ed classrooms

5 questions administrators must know the answers to before sending a substitute teacher into to fill in for a special education teacher
By: | October 15, 2020
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The shortage of special education teachers has been exacerbated by the fallout of the pandemic.

“In our part of the country, we are having a hard time finding licensed individuals to teach special education,” explains Laura Tubbs Booth, a school attorney at Ratwik, Roszak & Maloney, P.A. in Minneapolis. For a quick fix, districts may find themselves turning to substitute teachers to cover needed areas. But before sending a sub into a special ed classroom, administrators must know the answer to the following five questions.

  1. Does the potential substitute have the required licensure?

According to the IDEA regulations at 34 CFR 300.156(c)(1), a special education teacher who teaches elementary school, middle school or secondary school must:

  • Have obtained full state certification as a special education teacher (including certification obtained through an alternate route to certification as a special educator) or passed the state special education teacher licensing examination, and hold a license to teach in the state as a special education teacher, except with respect to any teacher teaching in a public charter school, who shall meet the requirements set forth in the state’s public charter school law;
  • Have not had special education certification or licensure requirements waived on an emergency, temporary or provisional basis; and
  • Hold at least a bachelor’s degree.
  1. If the person does not have the required licensure, how can you provide support to the student?

One way to do this might be through a co-teacher, Booth says. The Minnesota Department of Education recently received a complaint stating that a district failed to provide a student with services in her IEP during her special education teacher’s two-week leave. Two substitute teachers covered the student’s special education skills class while the teacher was gone, but neither one had special education teaching licenses. However, the district designated another special education teacher who was familiar to the student to assume IEP management responsibilities for the student and to coordinate with the substitute teachers. The MDOE did not find the district in violation.

  1. What is my state’s timeline for substitute teachers?

In Minnesota, where Booth practices, there is a timeline in the regulations that states that a student can have a substitute teacher only for a maximum of 15 days.

Timelines vary state by state, Booth says. Often they are short, right around 15 school days, so districts should be aware of their state’s rules.

  1. Does the substitute have access to the IEP and any behavior plan the IEP calls for?

A substitute is entitled and required to review the IEP and any behavior plans, Booth says. If the IEP calls for individuals to be trained in a certain technique before they can work with a student, then the substitute would need to have that training.

“More often than I can count, I hear of substitutes or paraprofessionals who haven’t had access to the IEP,” she says. “It’s important they’ve reviewed the IEP or behavior intervention plan.”

For example, a student’s BIP may call for every staff person who works with the student to have trauma-informed training. If a substitute teaches that student’s class, then that applies to the substitute. Ensure that the substitute has reviewed the IEP, understands her role, and knows who she can go to ask questions if needed.

  1. Does the substitute understand special education?

Make sure that the substitute understands confidentiality requirements and appoint him someone in special education to go to with questions and concerns. Additionally, make sure the substitute understands the students’ disabilities.

“How can you work with a child with autism if you don’t know what the disability is?” Booth asks. “It’s important for individuals to have a basic understanding of disability and to understand behavioral programming. So often we mistake behavior as intentional, when it’s really communication. Humans do that naturally. We see a kid acting up in school and we think it’s bad behavior, but for a student with a disability, it could be communication that, ‘I’m not well’ or ‘I don’t understand the instructions.'”

Florence Simmons covers Section 504, paraprofessionals, and transportation for Special Ed Connection, a DA sister publication.