Recruitment & Retention

This District Built a Better, More Reliable Supply of Substitute Teachers. Here’s How

By Elizabeth Heubeck — September 02, 2021 6 min read
Substitutes size is fine
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Solving the substitute teacher shortage has long been elusive. There aren’t enough subs, and, for many districts, the even bigger struggle is finding subs who can confidently step into a classroom on short notice and deliver instruction. The pandemic has turned the sub shortage into a crisis in many communities, and may be forcing some school districts to invest more creative thinking and financial resources into solutions.

But in some districts long at work on this perennial staffing challenge, there are some smart strategies and valuable lessons to glean. Here’s the story behind the effort in Central Falls, R.I.

When Michela Lyman graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree in communicative disorders from the University of Rhode Island, she found herself at a crossroads. In order to become a practicing speech-language pathologist, the discipline she concentrated on in college, she’d still need a master’s degree. She’d long thought about going into teaching, but was dissuaded from studying education by family members, friends, and even teachers.

Then she learned about the Central Falls Teaching Fellowship, a local school district’s solution to not only a shortage of substitute teachers, but a shortage of well-trained subs.

Launched in 2016 by the Central Falls school district, the program has been a “win-win” for both the district that educates the children of Central Falls—a small but densely populated city in Rhode Island where the median household income is less than $33,000—and the participating fellows.

Too often, substitute teachers are treated as if they’re disposable, says Amanda von Moos, co-founder at Substantial Classrooms, a national nonprofit that aims to elevate the circumstances of substitute teachers. But despite their lack of benefits, training or job security, school districts rely heavily on substitute teachers to keep schools up and running—about 500,000 to 600,000 nationwide in a given year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the demand for substitute teachers increased further, often outpacing the supply. Given the ongoing uncertainty of the pandemic’s effects, particularly given the surge of the Delta variant, some schools and districts this school year have already had to close because of quarantined staff and a lack of subs to take their place.

Even before the pandemic, educators like Jason Midwood recognized that the outdated model for substitute teaching, likened to the “original gig economy” because of its high autonomy and flexibility, but nonexistent pathway for professional growth, was unsustainable.

“We said: ‘We have to do something about the traditional role of the substitute teacher; it’s obsolete,’” said Midwood, director of strategy and development at the 2,900-student Central Falls district.

That something turned into the Central Falls Teaching Fellowship. Here’s a look at its origins, design, and outcomes.

A new solution to an old problem?

Like many school districts, particularly those in low-income communities, Central Falls faced a consistent shortage of substitute teachers.

The superintendent, Stephanie Downey Toledo, believed a fellowship program could help remedy this problem while also providing new opportunities for local residents with bachelor’s degrees to become active members of the school community. She charged Midwood with leading this task.

“In its first year, I thought we’d get 28 or so applicants. We got over 80. It blew us away,” Midwood said.

That first year, the district hired 15 of the 80 applicants. It was a solid start to the residency-like fellowship which, since its inception, has provided the school district with a steady influx of well-credentialed, long-term substitute teachers who, in turn, are guaranteed a well-paying job, training and support, and a pathway into the field of education.

Twenty-nine fellows have been hired for the 2021-22 school year. In addition, the district relies on a small pool of five to eight substitute teachers on an as-needed basis.

A deliberate selection process

Midwood developed and continues to oversee the hiring process of fellows, who are called “warrior teacher fellows.”

A bachelor’s degree is the sole, non-negotiable prerequisite for candidates, each of whom Midwood personally interviews—an exercise he says allows him to get to the core of what motivates the candidates. Through those interviews, Midwood says he is looking for “guardians of equity.” He wants candidates who understand the challenges the Central Fall district faces, but who also see the many strengths students and families have.

“We have them on the roster, and we say to them: ‘Make this experience everything you want it to be. Love our kids and give back to the community,’” Midwood said.

The district is more than 70 percent Hispanic, 15 percent Black, and 13 percent white. Roughly 40 percent of the student population identifies as multilingual learners. The district has faced steep challenges in recent years—most notably, in 2010, when it fired every teacher at Central Falls High School, part of a massive “restructuring” meant to improve student achievement. The teachers were later rehired.

Midwood seeks job candidates prepared to teach the diversity of students within their district. Having ties to the community helps, too.

“For us, it was: ‘How do we create a pathway into education for community members?’” said Midwood, who notes that, on average, 20 percent to 30 percent of the fellows he hires are residents of Central Falls or were former students in the district. Lyman didn’t attend schools in Central Falls, but spent much of her spare time in the classroom of her mother, a long-term teacher in the district.

Benefits for the teacher fellows

Typically, substitute teachers don’t know where they will be working from week to week—or even day to day—or for how long. But in Central Falls, fellows commit to a year-long substitute teaching arrangement within a single building in return for daily pay. (fellows choose between a current per diem pay of $225 or $195 plus health insurance benefits.)

Professional development is an integral part of the program. Fellows receive four days of training prior to the start of the school year, followed by a year-long series of monthly PD opportunities. They also are welcome to attend PD training offered to the district’s teachers. Further, Midwood carves out regular office hours and provides his direct phone line to fellows.

In contrast, nearly half of all substitute teachers nationwide get no training, according to von Moos.

Beyond concrete benefits, the fellowship is designed to foster a sense of connection between fellows and their designated school community. Being in the same building for an entire year advances this goal. Lyman, who spent her first year as an early-childhood teacher fellow, touts the benefits of the design.

“I was in every teacher’s classroom,” she said. “Everyone in the school knew my name.”

Signs of success

Between 70 percent and 80 percent of fellows complete the program’s year-long commitment. Since the program’s inception, fewer than 10 fellows have quit, mostly to return to industries in which they were previously employed, Midwood explains.

The fellows provide consistent classroom coverage for the majority of teacher absences. The district is able to fill any remaining substitute teaching gaps with a small cadre of fewer than 10 day-to-day subs.

Some who enroll in the fellowship are hired into full-time positions by the district.

“When a full-time position opens, we don’t go external. We go to my bullpen of fellows,” said Midwood, who says about half of the fellows possess teaching certificates and, therefore, are qualified to serve as full-time teachers. So far, 18 fellows have been hired into full-time positions.

Lyman is one of them. After serving two years in the fellowship program while taking graduate classes in the evening toward her master’s degree in education, she’s starting this fall as a 4th grade teacher at Central Falls’ Raices Dual Language Academy.

“I’m very nervous,” Lyman said. “But it’s comforting to know people in the district, and for them to know me.”

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