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Education Funding

Substitute-Teacher Shortages Put Schools to Test

By Brenda Iasevoli — January 17, 2017 5 min read
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Drive down a highway in Michigan, and you might spot a most unlikely help-wanted ad, a billboard emblazoned with an urgent call: “SUBSTITUTE TEACHERS NEEDED.”

“We thought, ‘What form of media is pretty hard to ignore?’ ” said Clark Galoway, the president of EDUStaff, the school-staffing company responsible for the signs.

Michigan is not alone in its attempt to find creative ways to boost the ranks of those who fill in for absent teachers. Across the country, districts are confronting a substitute-teacher shortage, and they’re making extraordinary efforts, a mix of old-school job fairs and tech-savvy social-media campaigns, to enlist teachers who can lead a classroom at a moment’s notice.

Some districts are increasing pay and benefits for substitutes, while others are cutting back the number of college credits required for the job and eliminating qualifying tests. The question is whether such strategies can entice applicants in an improving economy.

Until now, many districts haven’t done much to spread the word, and that’s a shame, according to DeRay McKesson, the interim chief human-capital officer for the Baltimore public schools, especially since most people don’t even know substitute teaching is an option.

“Much of the substitute-teacher shortage is a lack of recruiting,” said McKesson. It’s not that districts don’t think recruiting subs is important, he said, it’s just that in a world of competing priorities, full-time teachers are priority No. 1.

The Baltimore district held its first substitute job fair this past July, in combination with its regular teacher job fair. About 150 substitutes were hired, McKesson said. That effort worked in tandem with a “refer a friend” campaign, in which district employees were asked to recommend potential teachers or substitutes.

Casting a Wide Net

Districts nationwide, including Elk Grove Unified in Sacramento County, Calif., are targeting retirees and stay-at-home parents through similar tactics, newsletters, and email blasts to parents. Recent college graduates are reached through social media and visits to college job fairs.

But Elk Grove, the fifth-largest district in the state, has a plan to keep substitutes from roaming to other districts. The district raised salaries and offered health benefits.A little more than a year ago, its school board voted to increase substitute pay from $125 a day to $135, making it more competitive with surrounding districts.

Elk Grove also sent an email to parents, inviting them to think about becoming a substitute or persuading a friend or family member to apply.

Shelly Clark, Elk Grove’s director of human resources, said the response was overwhelming. She said the district is now able to cover teacher absences 99.4 percent of the time.

“Before the recruiting campaign, it would not be uncommon for upwards of once a week on a Monday or Friday to not have enough sub coverage at a school,” said Clark.

Many reasons exist for the shortages, according to district officials around the country. For one, fewer college students are choosing to become teachers. Enrollment in preparation programs nationwide has dropped 35 percent in the past five years, according to a report from the Learning Policy Institute.

The recovering economy has also exacerbated the problem. College graduates can find higher salaries elsewhere. Add to that the general view that teachers are overburdened with responsibilities and get little respect.

“Substitutes are leaving for other ventures,” said JR Godwin, the vice president of business affairs for Substitute Teacher Service, which provides substitutes for districts in Pennsylvania. “The health-care industry is gobbling them up so they can become salespeople, because they are comfortable speaking in public and teaching people.”

Teaching Gaps in Pennsylvania

The situation is dire in Pennsylvania. In the 2012-13 school year, the state issued 16,361 certifications, according to its education department. Two years later, that number was 6,215. A new state law will allow education majors with 60 credits under their belt to substitute-teach for up to 20 days a year. Still, with the precipitous decline in education school enrollment, the shortage will likely rage on.

Districts across the state have relied on staffing services like Substitute Teacher Service and Source 4 Teachers to bridge the gap by recruiting 12 months a year. Even so, Godwin predicts that it will be another six years before the substitute-teacher pool grows to needed levels.

In the meantime, social media is helping the service boost its substitute ranks with recent college graduates looking to build their résumés, recent retirees and, in the largest group, stay-at-home moms and dads who want to be done with work in time to pick their children up from the bus stop.

Godwin says Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn have paid off big for the company in the past couple years. The company also reached potential substitute-teacher candidates through university job fairs, newspaper ads, and TV commercials.

Districts are also beefing up training for their new recruits to stave off high turnover. Baltimore hopes to roll out its training for substitutes in the spring, in time for a second recruiting fair.

“Our goal is not only to increase the substitute-teacher pipeline but to make sure they are effective because we believe every moment that a teacher is in front of our kids is important,” said McKesson, the human-resource official.

That commitment to training, more so than pay raises, is the key to boosting the substitute-teacher pool, according to Geoffrey Smith, the director of an online training school for substitutes, STEDI.org. “People know better than to take on something that they have no training or skills to do,” he said.

Another key to ensuring substitutes return, said Smith, is to make sure they are recognized and appreciated.

Pennsylvania districts have learned that lesson well, said Godwin of the Substitute Teacher Service. Schools are offering substitutes free lunches, gift bags, and guidance. “The extra attention makes substitutes feel welcomed and appreciated, and they are showing up,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the January 18, 2017 edition of Education Week as School Systems Confront Shortages of Substitute Teachers

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