Recruitment & Retention

Tackling the Substitute Teacher Shortage

By Brenda Iasevoli — January 18, 2017 3 min read
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Illinois schools have to cover more than 16,000 teacher absences every week and the state’s substitute teacher shortage is exacerbating the problem, according to a survey of nearly 400 districts released on Tuesday. On any given school day, the findings showed, about 600 K-12 classrooms don’t have a teacher to lead them.

The survey was conducted by the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools. Chicago Public Schools, the state’s largest district, did not participate in the survey.

Association president Jeff Vose called the survey results “sobering” and said that the state needs to find more ways to bolster the ranks of back-up teachers.

“Now that we know this is a significant problem in our schools, we need to work to make it easier for qualified people to become substitute teachers,” he said in a statement, referring to the state’s strict licensing requirements and costly licensing fees.

Earlier this month, the state took steps to address the substitute teacher shortage. On January 6, Governor Bruce Rauner signed legislation that aims to attract more candidates by allowing the state’s board of education to grant licenses to teachers with comparable out-of-state qualifications. It also reduces substitute licensing fees from $200 to $150, enables those with four-year degrees in any subject to apply, and makes returning to the classroom part-time easier for retirees.

“Lifting these burdens will allow experienced educators quicker access to the classroom without compromising on quality,” said Secretary of Education Beth Purvis in a press release.

Of course, Illinois is not alone in its efforts to tackle the substitute teacher shortage. This week I wrote about the nationwide sub shortage and the extraordinary efforts in several districts to enlist teachers who could lead a classroom at a moment’s notice. Some districts are outsourcing the recruitment of subs to staffing agencies that can work on tackling the problem year-round. Agencies like EDUStaff in Michigan and Source4Teachers in Pennsylvania are advertising on highway billboards. Source4Teachers takes outdoor advertising a step further with ads on bus shelters and on the buses themselves.

My article, however, doesn’t touch upon the effects of substitute shortages on schools, though the stress on schools came through in the reporting. Some schools report that full-time teachers can’t take time off to do their required professional development. Others report calling on support staff to cover for absent teachers. Principals often have to step in, too.

The principal of Marvine Elementary in Bethlehem, Pa., Karen Gomez, calls on her support staff (reading specialists and teachers of special education and English learners) when a teacher is out sick. Regardless of who she chooses, 35 kids aren’t getting the small-group help they need.

“The support teacher prepared lessons for her students that she can no longer teach,” said Gomez. “Instead she has to study a lesson plan another teacher left behind. The students most in need of help stay in their regular classroom and don’t get specialized instruction. Everybody loses.”

Gomez says the Substitute Staffing Service, another agency that provides back-up teachers to Pennsylvania school districts, appears to be working out. Last year at Marvine, there was no substitute to cover classes 40 percent of the time a teacher was absent. The result was that every one of the support staff had to be pulled seven times each. So far this year, each of the support teachers has been pulled to cover an absent teacher’s class only twice.

Principal Gomez employs another strategy that has proven effective. Whenever she hears from classroom teachers that a substitute followed through with lesson plans and did a good job of managing the class, she lets that sub know. “I say, ‘I understand you did a great job. Please come back. We would love to have you.’”

Photo: Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.