Teaching Profession What the Research Says

High-Quality Substitute Teaching: What We Know Now

By Sarah D. Sparks — January 31, 2022 4 min read
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In response to the worsening staff shortages and increasing teacher absences caused by COVID-19, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona last month urged districts to use pandemic relief money to “recruit and train high-quality substitute teachers.”

While many districts are offering bonuses and wage increases to bring in more substitutes, less is known about how effective substitutes are in the classroom, or how schools can better help those fill-in teachers succeed.

“Teaching already is a high-stress job—it’s relentless—and then when you’re a sub, it’s just compounded because you are working usually in new environments,” said Terrie St. Michel, the author of Effective Substitute Teachers: Myth, Mayhem or Magic, who served as a substitute for 30 years in Arizona and studied the profession. “There have to be different ways to think about including them in the school’s learning community.”

There’s relatively little direct research evidence in the last several decades of how substitute teachers contribute to student learning, though studies on teacher absenteeism suggest students lose ground in both math and reading when when they have uncertified short-term substitutes for long periods of time.

According to STEDI, the Substitute Teaching Institute, 40 percent of substitutes have a permanent teaching license. The pandemic accelerated moves to expand the labor pool. In the last year, states and districts have recruited everyone from parents and college students to National Guard reserves.

Several states and districts have also lowered the bar for new substitutes. Kansas and Missouri, which each required 60 college credits before the pandemic, began allowing high school graduates to be certified—with a 20-hour online course in Missouri and an application and background check in Kansas. Under a temporary executive order, California has an emergency substitute teaching license to allow anyone with a bachelor’s degree, basic skills. and a background check to substitute for up to 30 days or 20 days in a special education classroom; normally applicants must go through a full credentialing process.

And the Education Commission of the States finds many states had faced substitute shortages well before the pandemic, and already had started to relax substitute policies to broaden the candidate pools. Tennessee since 217 has allowed retired teachers to substitute without renewing their teaching license, while Arizona in 2017 and Hawaii in 2019 launched substitute-to-teacher college pathway policies, such as allowing substitutes to count their classroom hours toward requirements for standard teaching certification.

All that adds up to incoming substitutes who may have limited teaching experience with any particular grade or subject. Experts say substitutes are significantly less likely to participate in a district’s normal professional development for its permanent teachers—whether because they are not invited, not paid, or don’t have time. Likewise, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which provides nationally recognized certification for teachers, has no similar training for substitutes.

As of 2020, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated substitute teachers earn on average a little more than $36,000 per year, with those on the West Coast and in New England earning the highest wages.

One analysis suggests districts can boost the morale and effectiveness of substitute teachers by integrating them more into professional development, such as:

  • Including, and paying for, subs in district teacher training for standards, instruction, content, and class management.
  • Creating “mentor substitutes” of returning teachers and veteran substitutes, who can help support those with less instructional experience.
  • When possible, assigning subs to specific schools, grades, or content areas to create continuity.

Research also suggests school leaders and other teachers can create a “self-fulfilling prophecy” of low expectations for substitute teachers, by providing little opportunity for incoming subs to get to know other staff members and relying on worksheets or other make-work lessons when teachers are away.

“What I found when I observed subs is that kids cannot sit and be quiet for an entire class period, and there are subs coming in with the expectation that they’ll tell kids what to do, and the kids will just do it,” said St. Michel, an adjunct education faculty Maricopa Community College, and teacher at South Mountain Community College. “It’s not about whether teachers leave lesson plans. It’s the fact that kids are active, … so how do you get their attention and do something meaningful so that there is a progression of learning occurring?

“Whether it’s Shakespeare or quadratic equations, the content of the engagement isn’t nearly as important as actually looking at kids, speaking to them, and interacting with them during the class period,” she said.

Shannon Holston, chief of policy and programs for the National Council for Teaching Quality, said some districts have started trying to provide more consistent assignments and support for substitutes.

“District [staff] are, if they didn’t see subs before as a valuable part of the workforce—given the fact that that shortage has been so dire in this past year, I think districts are starting to see the value in onboarding their subs a little differently and the value in keeping good substitutes to help them run their schools more efficiently,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the February 09, 2022 edition of Education Week as High-Quality Substitute Teaching: What We Know Now

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