“I was freaked out.”
That’s how 23-year-old college senior Grace Christiansen described her first week as a long-term substitute teacher at Canyon Springs STEM Academy in Anthem, Ariz.
Christiansen is among a growing number of college students serving in this capacity across the country as shortages of teachers and substitutes show no sign of easing. She has worked as a long-term substitute eight hours a day, five days a week, since the school year began. At the end of some school days, she rushes to class at Arizona State University, where she’s a senior on pace to graduate this May with a dual major in English and secondary education.
Prior to her current job, the closest Christiansen had come to teaching was a college course for her education major in which she observed a class taught by a veteran teacher. But when a long-term substitute teaching position, referred to as “guest instructor” by the Deer Valley Unified School District, sat vacant, a district employee and friend of Christiansen encouraged her to apply.
A state law enacted in July 2022 made it possible. The bill, SB 1159, which made changes to various aspects of teacher certification, “adds a substitute teaching certificate to the certificates for which a person is not required to have a baccalaureate degree.”
Christiansen applied and was hired a week before the school year started.
How states are loosening standards for substitute teachers
Nationwide, there’s no single set of requirements to become a substitute teacher—criteria range from a GED and minimum age of 18 to a bachelor’s degree—but recent months have seen a flurry of states loosen their requirements to attract more candidates to these hard-to-fill jobs. The Arizona State Board of Education in January 2022 made changes to substitute and emergency substitute certificates, including removing the 120-day limit on the substitute certificate, thereby enabling substitute teachers to stay in their positions until a full-time teacher is hired. Emergency substitute certificates, formerly issued only for one year, are now good for two years. In July 2022, Arizona again loosened criteria with the enactment of SB 1159. One month earlier, Missouri reduced the number of college credits required for substitute teachers, from 60 to 36. And a Wisconsin bill, signed into law last April, dropped substitute teacher training as a prerequisite to receiving a permit for that job. These legislative changes reflect the ongoing challenge districts face in finding substitute teachers.
Yet, while there’s broad acknowledgement that it’s tough to find substitute teachers—92 percent of 400-plus K-12 recruiters said so in a fall 2022 EdWeek Research Center survey—not everyone agrees that making it easier to become one is a good way to resolve the problem.
Low-income students of color are disproportionately taught by inexperienced teachers
Recent data show that low-income students and students of color are already more likely than their white peers to have teachers who are new and/or uncertified, according to the Education Trust. Some experts say this can have negative ramifications for the learning of affected students. They worry lowering the bar for substitute teachers could worsen those disparities.
“States must be very careful not to reproduce existing inequities that threaten students’ academic achievement and attainment,” Leslie Fenwick, dean in residence at the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, wrote in an email. “Disproportionately staffing schools that serve students of color and those from families experiencing poverty with uncredentialed teachers and teachers in training is discriminatory and does harm.”
Fenwick suggests that districts look at other, untapped potential sources of substitute teachers, such as graduates from schools of education who haven’t yet passed licensure exams. “They’re not talked about,” Fenwick said. “They would be a good source of talent to address the teacher shortage.”
A superintendent sees benefits in greater flexibility
But some see the practice of hiring teachers-in-training to be substitute teachers as beneficial. Nathan Quesnel, the superintendent of East Hartford Public Schools in Connecticut, said his district contracts with the staffing company Kelly Services to hire substitute teachers. And during their breaks from college, some students who have served in the district as student-teachers have been hired as subs. “We know them, we’ve vetted them [as student teachers-in-training],” Quesnel said.
In addition, he said, existing teachers benefit because they take on the role of teacher-leaders, mentoring the teachers-in-training in their role as substitute teachers. “It helps them [teachers] grow their own game,” said Quesnel.
He also believes that having the college students working in the district makes it easy to vet talent for potential future job openings. “When you’ve had someone working in your school,” Quesnel said, “the principal can say: ‘This person is good, let’s get them in.’”
‘I don’t think there’s going to be another school year that’s going to top this’
Christiansen said she feels much more self-assured than when she took the reins of her 7th grade class in the beginning of the school year. She said four other 7th grade teachers have provided a lot of guidance, as well as a mentor teacher assigned to her.
“She has her own classroom, and I have mine,” she said. Christiansen is responsible for 88 students, who she said can be argumentative at times. “On the first day, I told them that respect is not given, it’s earned, but that I am ultimately giving you my respect,” she said.
As a substitute teacher, Christiansen earns $175 a day. Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College considers her substitute teaching experience a replacement for student teaching, which she otherwise would have completed this semester.
The experience has not been without its challenges, Christiansen admitted. “I thought that I was going to be super-organized, able to manage everything,” she said. “As the year went along, some things got away from me.”
But she said she’s become more organized, reserving time on Sundays for grading students’ papers.
“I think it’s a great way to have people thinking about going into teaching test it out and see if that’s actually what they want to do,” she said, referring to her dual role of substitute teacher and college student. Christiansen has told her classmates about the opportunity, and she said many are looking into it.
As for her own experience, Christiansen has zero regrets. “I look back at this year,” she said, “and I don’t think there’s going to be another school year that’s going to top this.”