Teaching Profession

Substitute Teachers Need Support, Too. See How One State Is Helping

By Evie Blad — February 13, 2024 7 min read
Conceptual image of substitute teacher in classroom, colorized blue.
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What started a few years ago as an occasional gathering of overwhelmed substitute teachers has grown into an unusual statewide effort to train, network, and support these educators who, though not often in the public eye, help keep schools functioning every day.

Advocates for quality substitute teaching say Washington state’s initiative, called the Emergency Substitute Teacher Support Project, could be a model for other states.

Schools are relying on substitute teachers to fill staffing gaps during an important time of learning recovery, even as some states have even loosened up hiring standards for subs. Despite the demand for them, substitutes often feel they lack respect and authority.

“Substitutes are responsible for a higher share of instruction than ever before,” said Jessie Weiser, the chief operating officer of Substantial Classrooms, a national nonprofit focused on improving substitute teaching. “And when students have a sub, there’s [now] more of an emphasis on keeping the learning going for the day.”

Better support could help districts retain substitutes who might otherwise leave the role out of frustration—and it could also help classroom teachers feel more confident when they take leave, improving overall morale, she said.

And, when properly equipped for their work, today’s substitutes could be inspired to become tomorrow’s full-time classroom teachers.

Supporting a ‘completely different’ skill set

Substitute teachers are education’s Swiss Army knives. Often working without any training in education, they shift classrooms, subjects, and school environments with little support. They quickly assess how regular classroom teachers greet students, learn what tricks they use to calm them during loud moments, and supervise lessons in subjects that may be new to them.

It’s an experience that can feel isolating and draining, substitute teachers told Education Week.

“It surprised me,” said Megan Conklin, an experienced former classroom teacher who became a substitute teacher in Olympia, Wash., after taking some time off to raise her children.

Conklin said she realized two things in her first day of substitute teaching: “I loved subbing, and it’s a completely different experience from being a classroom teacher.”

After noticing her fellow substitutes without education experience struggled with managing new classroom norms and juggling days when teachers on emergency leave didn’t create sub plans, Conklin and some friends held informal gatherings at restaurants. There, the substitutes talked about tactics that work—like moving closer to misbehaving students to send them a nonverbal cue to calm down.

“Everyone thought we were going to try to sell them a condo at the end,” she joked about the early meetings.

Growing a state network of substitute teachers

Leaders at the Washington Education Association, the state’s teachers’ union, later reached out to Conklin to build on her networking efforts.

The Emergency Substitute Teacher Support Program, funded by a two-year state grant, includes “SubCommunities,” regional convenings of substitute teachers, and daylong “SubAcademy” trainings where participants earn professional development hours that can be applied to nontraditional teacher-preparation programs.

Organizers offer online, asynchronous professional development through SubSchool, a program created by Weiser’s group, Substantial Classrooms. Leaders also host “SubPosiums” to help district human relations employees and substitute teaching coordinators learn how to better recruit and support substitutes.

The grant funding is part of the $10.5 million in federal COVID-19 relief aid WEA received from the state for its teacher residency program. That program provides an on-the-job training pathway for teacher-candidates, said Annie Lamberto, the special populations coordinator for WEA who supervises the program.

When districts experience churn or declines in their substitute workforce, full-time teachers often have to cover their colleagues’ classrooms during planning periods to pick up the slack.

“At this point, we know that substitutes are an integral part of our school communities, and yet many of them are working in silos or working for multiple districts,” Lamberto said. “To pretend that there is not an impact on our members—certified teachers—would be naïve.”

Subs share ideas for engaging learners, keeping order

Washington state typically requires substitute teachers to have some training through teacher preparation programs.

In a rule that predates the pandemic, districts that struggle to recruit an adequate sub pool under those rules can seek state approval for emergency substitutes, who may not have a background in education or a degree at all.

During the pandemic, many other states desperate to fill classrooms waived substitute teaching requirements, recruited retired educators to step into classrooms, or even called in the National Guard. Many of those states have retained looser requirements, said Weiser, of Substantial Classrooms.

While there’s a dearth of data about the use of substitute teachers, district leaders have reported concerns about increased teacher absenteeism and difficulty recruiting subs in federal surveys. And, in a 2020 poll of district leaders commissioned by Kelly Education, a temporary staffing agency, only 11 percent of respondents said their districts provided substitutes training in classroom management, though 67 percent said such training would significantly improve teaching.

Conklin, who organized the original sub convenings in Washington state, remembered a day when she was substituting for a 4th grade class as they did an activity with a kindergarten class, which was also supervised by an emergency substitute. At a moment when the classroom was particularly rowdy, Conklin got the students’ attention by clapping the rhythm of the popular “shave and a haircut” door knock: bum budda bum bum. Then, she paused and waited for students to clap the rest of the rhythm: bum bum.

“Why didn’t you guys tell me about the clapping thing?” the other sub whispered as he marveled at a common classroom management trick.

More than 450 substitutes have completed online courses through the program. This month, about 200 substitute teachers met face-to-face in four regional meetings to compare notes on such classroom strategies, along with larger issues, like inclusion of students with disabilities, communicating expectations, and using new classroom technology.

“All of these people, in my mind, are preservice teachers, but what they don’t have is anyone supporting them, anyone training them,” Conklin said. “It’s this idea called missing manager syndrome.”

Leaders of the state’s effort have noticed that Washington’s substitute teachers seem to be more diverse than their classroom teacher workforce, including people from a variety of professional backgrounds, nationalities, and ethnicities who could enrich schools if they become full-time teachers, she said. Fifty-five percent of substitutes who attended a recent SubCommunities event were from racial and ethnic minority populations, and 40 percent indicated interest in becoming a certified teacher.

Pathways to the classroom

After about four and a half years of substitute teaching in Federal Way, Wash., Meenakshi Boma decided she wanted to teach full-time. Now she’s part of the WEA teacher residency program, subbing one day a week while she trains to work in special education.

In her early days in the classroom, Boma struggled to understand what to do when a student was upset or disruptive. In conversations with fellow substitutes, she learned about sending students to “calm down corners” to collect their thoughts. Boma also introduced fellow substitutes to new strategies, like building quick rapport by allowing students to ask a few questions about her life at the start of class.

“The number one thing I’ve learned is how to build relationships,” Boma said.

Now she helps to lead one of the regional substitute convenings.

Leaders of the Washington substitute program are searching for additional funding to continue the work when the state grant concludes at the end of the current school year.

And they think other states should explore similar work. Supporting substitutes is difficult because many school districts don’t have designated staff to oversee subs, and many substitute teachers work in multiple districts, Lamberto said.

“What surprised me was how eager and appreciative these substitute teachers are” to participate in the trainings, she said. “It was very clear to me early on that, if we got the message out that this was available, they would come.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 21, 2024 edition of Education Week as Substitute Teachers Need Support, Too. See How One State Is Helping

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