Substitute teachers keep schools running. By the time they graduate high school, students will have spent 8 percent of their K-12 schooling—an average of one school year—with a substitute, according to one estimate from 2000.
But these educators don’t always get a lot of attention. What are their experiences in schools? What do they need to be successful?
To answer those questions, a team of researchers in Australia conducted a systematic review of global research on the experiences of substitute teachers. They looked at 29 studies, most of which were from the United States or Australia.
For the most part, substitute teachers’ experiences in the classroom and broader school community were similar across countries. But there was one big difference, said Andrea Reupert, a professor of educational psychology at Monash University, Clayton, in Australia, and the lead author of the paper.
In the United States, some states allow people without a teaching license—or even a bachelor’s degree—to serve as a substitute. That’s not the case in Australia, Reupert said.
“That shocked me a little,” she said. "[It] really speaks to the profession of substitute teachers, they’re seen as not really teachers. They’re seen as babysitters.”
Over the past couple years, states have loosened their standards for substitute teachers even more, given the ongoing challenge of finding enough educators to cover classrooms.
But the substitute shortage might also be a result of their experiences in school, Reupert said: “It’s tough work being a substitute teacher.”
Substitutes often don’t feel welcome or included
Substitute teachers want to work in schools where they are supported, feel connected, and are respected by everyone in the school community, the research review found. In other words, they want what full-time teachers want.
Yet that kind of environment typically wasn’t the reality for substitutes. In the studies, substitutes often reported feeling marginalized, especially in schools they weren’t familiar with. Many said they felt disconnected from the school community and treated as outsiders.
“Some of the substitute teachers that we looked at were saying things like, ‘The staff room is incredibly toxic. I don’t feel welcome. There’s a separate room for us and visitors, so I have my lunch in the car,’” Reupert said.
While administrators told researchers that substitutes were always welcome to join planning and training sessions, the invitations often felt empty to the substitutes. Few went.
Some substitutes said that they felt like they were annoying the school staff when they asked questions, and they didn’t seek help because they didn’t want to be seen as unprofessional.
The feeling of marginalization extended to the classroom: Substitutes commonly felt less respected by students than permanent teachers. They struggled with building relationships “in fits and starts,” as one substitute teacher put it.
“When I was a kid, the substitute teacher coming in meant you didn’t have to work,” Reupert said. “But that attitude comes from the positioning of substitute teachers, how they’re treated by the school, treated by leadership, treated by the department. Kids don’t pick that up out of nowhere.”
The research found that as substitute teachers gain more experience, they begin to feel more comfortable with classroom management and more able to adapt their practice across different classroom settings. And one study found that more experienced substitute teachers were more likely to report feeling part of the school community.
Substitutes are given little support
While school leaders and permanent teachers reported providing substitute teachers the resources they need to be successful, interviews with substitutes revealed that’s not always the case. Some said they have no access to technology, like printers, or documentation about school routines, and that they are given unclear lesson plans.
One study asked substitute teachers, permanent teachers, and school administrators what skills they thought substitutes should have. The groups agreed that substitutes needed classroom management skills, instructional strategies, and content knowledge.
Yet professional development is not regularly offered to substitutes, even though many say it’s important to them.
“The worrying thing is that a lot of substitute teachers are early-career teachers,” Reupert said. “They’re still forming an identity. They’re still working out, who am I as a teacher? PD for those particular subs is especially important because they’re still establishing their skillset.”
She added that substitutes are often covering classes that are outside their subject-knowledge expertise and could benefit from more specific professional development.
Some studies pointed to mentoring as an important support mechanism for substitutes, yet that type of professional learning is not a guarantee. One U.S.-based study found that in a sample of beginning teachers, those who were hired as substitutes were not assigned mentors, in contrast to those who were hired in permanent positions. The researcher suggested that school administrators saw substitutes as “temporary workers, and thus not worth the investment.”
Rethinking the model of substitute teaching
In the United States, some school districts have adopted a model of having full-time substitute teachers who are based in a single school, rather than hiring from a pool of substitutes who work in various schools and even districts. That approach solves many of the issues found in the research, Reupert said.
“The kids get to know the teacher. The teacher gets to know the school—small things like how to use the photocopier, where the rooms are, and then more systematically, when [the school] offers PD,” she said. “They’re not just a casual blow in and blow out. They’re part of the school.”
Yet it tends to be schools in higher socioeconomic areas that can afford to hire a full-time substitute, even though the challenges are greater in schools in lower socioeconomic areas, which perpetuates the inequities, Reupert said.
Reupert said she would like to see more research done on what kind of professional development or onboarding is most effective for the different categories of substitute teachers. Retired teachers who are now substituting probably have different needs than early-career substitutes.
She’d also like to see more research that elevates the voices of substitutes, since some of the studies noted contrary views about their experience.
“A lot of permanent—for lack of a better word—teachers and administrators were saying, ‘Yeah, we treat them really well. We offer all sorts of PD.’ But then when you actually ask the substitute teachers, they would say, ‘We don’t feel connected. Sure, they might offer PD, but it’s on a day I’m not at the school,’” she said.
Creating conditions where these educators feel supported is a long-term issue that will not go away, she added.
“We always need substitute teachers,” Reupert said. “It’s in our best interest that the substitute teaching workforce is professional, that they’re treated with respect—and that flows into pay and conditions and professional development opportunities—because ultimately, that’s better for our kids. The amount of times they get substitute teachers, we can’t afford to give them babysitters.”