Desperately Seeking Subs

March 01, 1998 5 min read

Carol Grosse Peck, superintendent of the Alhambra school district in Phoenix, can’t do without her alias. Every year, she and about a dozen other central-office administrators take turns substituting in the district’s schools. The practice adds seasoned educators to the district’s dwindling supply of subs, but it also ensures that regular teachers leave detailed lesson plans.

That’s where the alias comes in. Peck doesn’t want her teachers to know that she’s the one filling in for them. They “might be expecting ‘Claudia Paxton,’ and in I walk,” she explains.

In Alhambra and hundreds of other districts nationwide, officials are struggling to find qualified substitutes as demand grows and a booming economy siphons off candidates to other jobs. Although national statistics don’t exist, many observers say shortages have worsened in recent years. To tap and retain more people, districts are trying a wide range of approaches, from paying more and relaxing qualifications to posting “help wanted” pleas on school signs and making sub duty a condition of early retirement.

The 12,500-student Alhambra system recently sent letters to education graduates at four local universities, inviting them to a seminar for potential subs. At the seminar, Peck says, “I let them know that in our district administrators substitute. Consequently, they can expect good lesson plans.”

Alhambra also makes sure that substitutes are rewarded for filling in frequently. The basic rate for substitutes is $60 a day, but that jumps to $100 after they’ve worked 100 days in a school year. Such pay incentives are common around the country but fairly new in the Phoenix area. Peck calls the three-year-old pay differential “our competitive edge.”

Caryn Shoemaker, an official at the Arizona Department of Education, says the state has issued the same number of substitute-teacher certificates in each of the past five or six years, despite soaring student enrollments. “The problem,” she says, “is that we’ve needed the number to grow, and it hasn’t.”

One sign that districts are scrambling is the number of certificates issued for “emergency substitute teachers.” Although regular certificates require a four-year degree, the emergency designation can go to someone with as little as a high school education. From 1993 to 1995, Arizona issued from 400 to 500 emergency certificates a year. Last year, 790 people with less than a college education received certification.

Enrollment growth coupled with low unemployment have contributed to the current shortage, which is likely to get much worse before it gets better. Demographers project that the student boom that began more than 10 years ago will continue full force in the West and the South for another decade. At the same time, the ranks of baby boom teachers taking early retirement will almost certainly grow, opening full-time positions for many teachers now on the sub rolls. “Much of our new hiring has been off the substitute list,” notes Verleeta Wooten, president of the Seattle Education Association.

Wooten points out that the new national focus on professional development for teachers is exacerbating the substitute problem. The crisis, she says, “has been worsening in the last five years as the opportunities for staff development have increased.”

In Howard County in Maryland, school officials are dealing with that problem by restricting school-time training opportunities. “We are limiting the number of controllable absences,” says Kirk Thompson, a district personnel official.

The Hilton, New York, district has taken another tack. To make sure teachers on training missions are covered, officials there bumped up pay for staff-development subs to $100 a day—$40 more than the district’s standard rate.

Christine Yaeger taught in Hilton’s middle school before she went on maternity leave last year. Now she substitutes at her old school, but only at the $100 rate. “It’s not really worth it,” she says, to fill in for $60 a day, given the tax bite and babysitting expenses.

The problems in Maryland and New York pale in contrast to those of many Florida districts. In Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa, school officials can’t meet the daily demand for 650 substitutes. In December, some 115 vacancies were going unfilled each day. The county is so desperate that last fall it dropped its college requirement. High school graduates can now sub once they have completed a short district course.

“When the unemployment rate dropped way down, we lost a lot of people,” says Robert Minthorn, head of personnel placement for the county schools. The substitute list peaked in 1993-94 with about 2,000 people for a teaching force of roughly 9,000. Today the list has dropped to about 1,500 substitutes for almost 11,000 teachers.

Although most of the efforts to find and keep substitutes take place at the district level, states also play a role because they often regulate teaching job requirements and work rules. In Ohio recently, the state school board asked lawmakers to lower the requirements for short-term substitutes. Currently, the state requires such subs to have coursework beyond a four-year degree in the subjects they teach.

Some observers believe the shortages call for far more than such tinkering around the edges. What’s required, they argue, is large-scale reform. “The whole substitute problem is a consequence of an antiquated and ineffective structure for teaching,” says Hendrik Gideonse, retired coordinator of the secondary teacher education program at the University of Cincinnati. He calls the request to lower qualifications for subs in Ohio “astonishingly contradictory” given that the state has signed on to an effort to raise standards for teachers.

Gideonse believes substitute teachers should be paid at the same rate as regular teachers. And to reduce absences, he would allow teachers to use money not spent on subs for classroom materials.

But even more, Gideonse says, schools need to move away from the one-teacher, one-classroom model. In a school organized around teams of teachers and other professionals, the absence of one teacher can be taken in stride. And that, Gideonse says, has benefits for both students and teachers.

—Bess Keller