The pandemic has driven home the importance of substitute teachers. Often, they step in with little advance notice. Sometimes they take long-term assignments in cases where districts can’t fill a permanent position due to a teacher shortage that’s only going to get worse. The number of students choosing education as a major is dropping, and experienced educators, put off by low pay and the incredibly demanding work conditions, are drifting away from the profession. Some who have health conditions or are over 60 are electing not to return to the classroom. The result? Substitutes are more critical than ever.
And they add value in ways that go well beyond reliably showing up. Former full-time educators are seasoned pros who bring a wealth of classroom experience and wisdom, while “second act” subs bring a completely different set of skills and experience that’s no less useful. As I think about the worsening teacher shortage and the impact of the pandemic, it seems to me that this second group offers districts two kinds of opportunities.
The first opportunity lies in teacher recruitment. The pandemic cost many people their jobs and the worst may still be to come as employers anticipate laying off hundreds of talented professionals.
These newly unemployed will be looking for work — and, possibly, not just any work. The pandemic has inspired people to take stock of their lives and ponder questions related to a higher purpose. “Is my work meaningful? Does it help others? Is it making the world a better place?” Anyone asking those kinds of questions might be attracted to the classroom. First, however, the idea of a career in education must occur to them. It’s up to administrators to make sure that it does.
If the teacher recruitment effort is successful, administrators will find that “second act” teachers add diverse skills and experiences to the district’s educational mix. And that’s the second under-recognized opportunity: That kind of diversity benefits students in ways that prepare them for the workforce.
Second-act teachers are naturals at real-world application. They can draw on their work experience in terms of what and how they teach. Yes, they need to teach the subject matter of the class, e.g., computer programming, but they can explain how new video games are created and brought to market by teams that include storytellers and designers and sound engineers, as well as programmers, and that all of them need to understand each other’s work and resolve conflicts. That requires good communication and interpersonal skills.
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Employers say “power” skills like this are missing in new college hires. I say there’s no reason students can’t start learning them as early as elementary school, and second-act teachers can help. Their real-life work experiences are inherently engaging. Our substitute teachers are everything from an athletic trainer who works the professional rodeo circuit to a lab technician in a pharmaceutical test center. Their stories bring to life the concepts they are teaching in the classroom.
They may also naturally integrate best practices they’ve learned from other roles into the classroom. Continuous improvement is one example. Organizations often do “postmortems” after each project, taking time to dissect “What worked? What didn’t? What can we do better next time?” Using that approach in the classroom helps students learn about learning and understand critical thinking—a skill that 64 percent of employers say it’s tough to find in college graduates. Perhaps most importantly of all, it demonstrates that learning is an iterative process, and that failure isn’t the end of something. This teaches students persistence, another power skill that employers say is important.
Beyond marketing to them, how can we get the attention of these kinds of professionals? We need to make it easier for them to enter our field through alternative credentialing programs. When they show up to sub in our schools, we need to encourage them to think about a career in teaching and show them we take them seriously through the professional development we offer to subs.
While we’ll always need career educators, I believe that second-act teachers can reinvigorate schools. Their ideas — combined with lifelong educators’ classroom experience and wisdom, for which there is no substitute — can help schools better prepare students to be valuable contributors in an evolving workplace.
As a senior vice president, and president of Kelly Education, Nicola Soares is responsible for setting the division’s strategic direction, driving growth, and managing operations. She led the division’s expansion into the early childhood, special needs, and higher education markets, making Kelly Education the largest and most trusted education workforce solutions provider in the U.S.