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Teaching Profession

Absence Makes Districts Scramble for Stand-Ins

By Leslie Harris — January 17, 1996 7 min read

Raeburn Rathbun, the principal of the 340-student Elementary School 64 in Indianapolis, knows all about the shortage of substitute teachers.

“Many times I taught a class myself,” she said recently. “It’s extremely frustrating when you don’t have a class covered and you have to spread children around the building. It’s not an ideal situation for anybody.”

While she filled in for ill or absent teachers, the complex task of running the school fell to the secretaries in the office, who took over her duties unless there was an emergency.

The perennial shortage of replacement teachers is one of the most familiar--and frustrating--challenges for school administrators nationwide.

Many say the problem is getting worse. Some states have responded by easing the requirements for substitutes, allowing more noncertified adults to fill in for absent teachers. Many districts turn to parent volunteers or other school staff members to plug the gaps.

A ‘Tough Job’

“The school system has always been challenged to find high-quality substitute teachers,” said Gary Marx, a senior associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators in Reston, Va. “The need is there, but that doesn’t mean the supply keeps up.”

The nature of the job itself--low pay, irregular hours, little respect, and a lack of benefits--often makes substitute teaching unattractive.

“The number-one reason for the shortage is that it is an awfully tough job,” said Tony T. Riehl, the superintendent of the 2,422-student Dripping Springs school district near Austin, Texas. “When you also pay a very low salary for someone to do a very difficult and sometimes impossible job, you don’t have people beating down the door to get in those positions.”

Ms. Rathbun agreed. “You can work at fast-food places and other jobs in this area and get better benefits,” she said.

Indianapolis has 250 to 300 substitutes, but that is seldom enough to handle all the classrooms that need them, Ms. Rathbun said. Out of 180 days last school year, there were 118 when she could not find enough replacements.

In Indianapolis, nonlicensed teachers are paid $45 dollars a day as substitutes, and licensed teachers get $50. If nonlicensed teachers work for an entire month, they receive an $8 bonus, while licensed teachers get a $13 bonus.

Emergency Permits

In Michigan, the number of emergency permits issued to school districts in the 1994-95 school year doubled, to 1,631, according to the state education department. Districts must apply for an emergency permit for each person they use as a substitute who doesn’t have a valid teaching certificate.

“We’re getting requests from a lot of districts that haven’t had to use the emergency permit in the past,” said Karen Taylor, a department analyst.

Many district officials say the emergency permits may not be enough to fix the problem.

“I don’t think it is going to correct itself in some time,” said Michael DeVault, the superintendent of the Macomb Intermediate School District, which provides special-education and other services to 21 districts in Macomb County, near Detroit.

“We see an increasing shortage of substitute teachers, and we are unable to staff classrooms and relieve teachers for professional development,"he said. “It has become a very severe problem.”

When there are not enough substitutes to go around, which usually occurs on Mondays, Fridays, and prior to holidays, the schools pull teachers from their planning periods, or from the media center, Mr. Devault said. Administrators also fill in when needed.

Like many other Michigan districts, Macomb Intermediate, which has requested emergency permits from the state, has sweetened the pot. This year, it increased the daily pay for substitutes from $60-65 to $70-$75, Mr. DeVault said.

But the extra money hasn’t helped.

“Pay by itself does not have seemed to have increased the pool of substitutes,” he said. Though there has been a shortage for the past decade, the problem has grown worse in recent years, he said.

Wisconsin, under an emergency rule, has issued temporary teaching certificates that ease the requirements for substitutes in districts that have a shortage.

Lawrence Pekoe, the superintendent of the 4,500-student Oak Creek-Franklin district near Milwaukee, said its substitute pool shrank this school yearfrom 54 to 24.

“Most of those people have reported that they have taken jobs outside of teaching,” he said. “I think we are losing valuable resources to the private sector.”

The district increased the daily pay for substitutes from $57 to $60 this year to stay competitive with 22 neighboring districts that draw from the same substitute pool.

He said the hardest classes to find substitutes for are art and special education.

Burden on Teachers

For regular teachers, the shortage of substitutes means extra work and less time for their own students.

“Occasionally a teacher will have to cover two classrooms, and that is not the ideal situation,” said Betsy Melin, a substitute coordinator for the Salem, Mass., district.

“They get paid extra for it,” she said, “but I’ve heard them say they don’t even want the money because they don’t think it’s right.”

Ms. Melin said she makes about 25 calls each morning trying to locate substitutes for the 5,000-student district.

Few Benefits

Many administrators and substitutes themselves say the very nature of the job makes it hard to find substitutes. Thrown into an unfamiliar school or classroom, with as little as a few hours’ notice, being a substitute teacher can be trying.

Diane Kingery-Roth has a master’s degree in secondary education and 20 years’ teaching experience. When her husband recently transferred from Palm Springs, Calif., to White Cloud, Mich., Ms. Kingery-Roth signed on as a substitute because there were no regular teaching jobs available.

“It’s unpredictable because a sub does not know if she is going to be working and that is somewhat stressful,” Ms. Kingery-Roth said. “You have got to let [students] know that you know your subject, and sometimes you have to do a little song and dance and impress them to gain their respect.”

Because of the low pay and the job’s low prestige, Ms. Kingery-Roth said she won’t teach as a substitute for much longer.

“There is a humility factor,” she said, “and you don’t feel you are being paid what you’re worth and using your knowledge and the training that you’ve had.”

A Foot in the Door

Bill Ewing, the president of the Seattle Substitute Teachers Association, said the association has seen a 50 percent turnover in the past year. Most of the people who left the 800-member organization found jobs in other areas, he said.

Mr. Ewing believes that even though substitutes, who are paid $104-$114 a day, have to meet the same qualifications as permanent teachers in Washington state, they are not always treated with respect by students or administrators. He noted that when the district hires new teachers, only 30 percent come from the substitute pool.

“We don’t feel like we are valued and that we are disposable,” said Mr. Ewing, who has been a substitute for 10 years.

Yet, many substitutes see this as the price they must pay to get their foot in the door, and they say the experience, no matter how grueling, is worth it.

“I gained experience, and it really helped,” said Marty Buckner, a 42-year-old teacher who graduated from college last spring and was a substitute for four months.

She is now a permanent special-education teacher in the Montcalm County district in central Michigan.

“Each day and classroom was a different experience,” she said. “I could not imagine graduating from a college and having only one experience with one class. That would be very scary.”

Many experts believe the chronic shortage of substitutes means schools need to change the way they are run. Frequent absences of teachers and a host of short-term replacements, they say, disrupt learning.

New Solutions Needed

Jewell C. Gould, the director of research at the American Federation of Teachers, said there are ways to limit the damage.

Districts should limit the number of absences that are not related to illness, he said. One way, he added, is to scheduled staff-development seminars during the evenings, weekends, and the summer.

To attract and keep substitutes, Mr. Gould suggested that districts set up well-defined employment tracks that allow substitutes to work toward permanent positions.

“We need to take a look at how we operate the school year and limit the parade of subs from day to day,” he said. “Kids need some form of stability.”

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A version of this article appeared in the January 17, 1996 edition of Education Week as Absence Makes Districts Scramble for Stand-Ins


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