Email Status

Volume 15, Number 5
September/October 1999

Schools Get Creative to Find Good Subs

Clusters, flexes, temps, and training help districts deal with a growing shortage


Every morning at 6 a.m., Charlie Skidmore, assistant headmaster at the Brighton (MA) High School, calls the city’s school department to find out how many teachers will be absent, and how many substitutes he’ll need to cover their classes. When there aren’t enough subs, teachers have to double up on classes, skip needed preparation time, and miss opportunities for professional development. "It puts a strain on everyone," says Skidmore. And not just at Brighton. Across the country, school districts are scrambling to find substitutes to fill empty classrooms.

While there are no national statistics showing just how many subs are needed, state data and anecdotal evidence confirm the problem. Several national trends are feeding the shortfall: ballooning student enrollments, dwindling ranks of teachers, and low unemployment that gives potential subs other options. "We were short of substitutes almost every day last year," reports Bob Minthorn, supervisor for school personnel in Hillsborough County, FL. "On our worst day, we needed 1,122 subs and I could only fill 914 of those vacancies. Substitutes who wanted to be teachers are long gone—they’ve been hired [as full-time teachers]."

From Florida to California, Texas to New York, newspaper headlines trumpet the need for more teachers. In California, 2,300 full-time teaching jobs were still vacant late in August, according to the state’s education department. At the same time, New York City was trying to fill 3,000 spots, while Houston had 1,400 openings. Experienced subs are getting hired for those jobs, creating even bigger gaps in the substitute ranks.

No substitute for learning

Meanwhile, as schools come under increasing pressure to prepare students to reach high standards on state assessments, the need for substitutes grows exponentially. More subs are required to stand in for regular teachers engaged in much-needed professional activities like mentoring, collaborative assessment, and development workshops. That same pressure is pushing schools, even in the face of sub shortages, to find well-qualified fill-ins. Subs have to be more than the "warm bodies" and "babysitters" they’ve been derisively labeled. Several studies have shown that students typically spend 5 to 10 percent of their K-12 class time with subs. That’s an average of one entire year of schooling over the course of 13 school years.

The shortage is prompting school districts to find new ways of attracting and, more importantly, keeping good substitutes. Some are trying the obvious way, offering better pay and benefits, more professional opportunities, and other perks. In Nebraska, for example, districts are in the midst of a price war, boosting substitutes’ daily pay by two-thirds, from $45 to $75. When better pay and working conditions aren’t enough, administrators have to be more innovative.

Some schools develop partnerships with local colleges and universities. Traditionally, substituting has served as a training ground for new college graduates who want to try out the teaching profession, but few schools have developed formal ties with college education programs. Trotwood-Madison City School District outside of Dayton, OH, is an exception. The district developed a program with Wright State University in which fifth-year education majors work an entire year as graduate assistants in a school, shadowing a teacher, student teaching, and substituting. Each student is assigned to one classroom, though they may help out elsewhere at times. Trotwood-Madison High School principal Jim Brown describes it as a win-win situation: "[The subs] get to know the building, the staff, and one particular classroom very well. And we get people who are on the cutting edge of teaching strategies. They come in like a ball of fire."

The advantage of familiarity is prompting more school districts to hire permanent subs. And while permanent subs usually command more money—not to mention benefits—schools are paying up to keep classrooms operating smoothly. For years Watertown, MA, kept a few permanent substitutes on the payroll but had trouble finding the additional daily subs it needed, according to Superintendent Sally Dias. Then the city "stole an idea from neighboring Newton" and hired what Dias calls "instructional support staff." These part-time, permanent subs are assigned to specific schools for one to three days and, when possible, participate in professional development and staff meetings. For instance, a graduate student who takes classes Monday, Wednesday, and Friday may work in a school every Tuesday and Thursday. Watertown—a district with 3,000 students—now has 40 such teachers, and "very rarely needs subs," Dias says. "And there’s not the, anxiety of having someone in the building whom nobody knows, and whose qualifications aren’t known."

Part of the staff

At Beacon Schools, a private K-12 school in Oakland, CA, founder Thelma Farley included "flexible teachers" who act as permanent subs in the school’s educational design. Since the school operates year-round, teachers typically take four to six weeks off at different times throughout the year. When subs are needed, the "flexes" take over. When they’re not subbing, the flexes work alongside regular teachers as aides and tutors, and they are included in all staff meetings and professional development. "They are part of the staff and become colleagues with the teachers," says Farley. "They’re often people who enjoy teaching but don’t want the responsibility of their own classroom."

The Boston Public Schools, a larger district, use what is called a "cluster strategy," in which subs are assigned to a home school within one of the district’s ten clusters of schools. On those rare days when a home school is fully staffed, subs tutor or work at other schools in the cluster. That approach lets subs become familiar to kids and regular staff, and familiarity, administrators say, is a key element in solving discipline problems. While cluster subs are expected to fill in at different grade levels and subjects, they are usually assigned according to their interests and academic backgrounds. They negotiate their terms through the Boston Teacher’s Union, are guaranteed a full year of work ($92 per day), and earn sick days and health benefits. "The new cluster sub strategies allow us to assign the better qualified people with more experience under their belts to these positions," reports Beverly Pina, assistant manager for human resources for the Boston schools.

An increasing number of schools are turning to temp agencies to find subs. This fall, Kelly Services, which has 1,200 offices in the United States, will launch Kelly Educational Staffing. "In the last few years, school districts, particularly in the South, have approached our local branches with this need," says Teresa Setting, director of product management for Kelly. In just two years, Kelly’s substitute ranks swelled to 300, leading the company to create the new subsidiary. The latest deal: a $54,000 contract with Louisiana’s St. John the Baptist Parish. "We meet with the school district to determine their needs and create a plan accordingly," notes Leslie Oliver, the product manager. "We take over payroll, benefits, training, calling services. The subs become Kelly employees."
Another new temp agency, Opis Substitute Management, opened for business in 1998. The company, which is owned by Select Appointments, an English firm with 24 offices in the United Kingdom that serves only schools, already has contracts with 150 U.S. school districts for the 1999—2000 school year, says its director, Bob Coffield. About 45 percent of Opis subs have never taught before; they’re recruited from the ranks of retirees, recent college grads, and corporations. Opis (Latin for "in support of") has experienced teachers train them in classroom management and lesson planning.

The training and professional development of substitutes are growing concerns as schools look to improve the performance of both teachers and students. At Utah State University’s Substitute Teacher Training Institute, Geoffrey Smith is conducting a three-year study for the U.S. Department of Education on the effectiveness of substitute teachers and is leading a program intended to eventually train 6,000 substitutes nationwide. He considers training a crucial element that is missing from most districts, particularly in the areas of classroom management and discipline: "How can a sub implement a lesson plan effectively without a lot of pertinent experience? We’re asking subs to do a tremendous task."

For Bob Minthorn, who has trained 150 substitutes, the training has provided something he desperately needed: a reliable pool of substitute teachers who have stayed with the district. "We have half as many complaints from substitutes who go through the training as from those who don’t," Minthorn says. "I really think the more training you have, the better job you’ll do." He began his training program as a three-day course for college graduates who didn’t have teaching degrees. The first two days covered everything from discipline to using audio-visual equipment; the third day was reserved for job shadowing. But as the numbers of college-educated subs dwindled, he turned to training those with just high school degrees. He began offering a 10-day substitute-training course that included refreshers in academic subjects—and doubled his pool of subs in the process.

Joyce Evans, program director for the National Science Foundation’s Teacher Enhancement Program, says that substitute teachers can make or break school reform efforts. "If you use substitutes on a regular basis, you want to be sure that what the sub is doing is good for the children," notes Evans. "Otherwise, the reform backfires." Seventy-two school districts have received NSF grants to retrain their teaching staff in math and science education. The NSF encourages them to include substitutes in the program. "We make sure what’s going on when teachers are absent is still good stuff," Evans says.

The Midland Public School District near Detroit is one of the NSF grant recipients. For the past four years the district has conducted a two-week summer institute that trains elementary schoolteachers and substitutes to teach science. "[The subs] show more confidence in their instruction and ability to supplement what the science teachers are doing," says Sarah Lindsey, the district’s science curriculum coordinator. "This also gives them the chance to work with the teachers for whom they sub. It gives them the chance to collaborate." Each year, one or two substitutes taking part in the workshops have been hired as full-time teachers after principals noticed their improved skills.

Traditionally, subs have not been treated well either by students or by school administrations. But with increasing demand for their services—and their growing awareness of their own importance—that may change. In Springfield, MA, the substitutes’ union came together after a change in city policy required subs to make inconvenient trips downtown to collect their meager earnings. "As it turns out, this indignity was fortuitous," says Jonathan Tetherly, a member of the 250-person union. "The central office became the perfect place for substitutes to gather and discuss their grievances." Last February, the union won a 30 percent pay hike. In August, newly unionized subs in Fresno, CA, struck a deal for a 15 percent increase.

Subs say that schools could go a long way toward solving their sub shortages just by making the workplace more inviting. "The tone of a school is set at the top," says New York City sub Davida Weber. "If you are a warm administrator and welcome newcomers, then teachers will welcome subs with less suspicion and more affection." That includes taking care of basic needs: "Usually I carry my coat and bag around with me all day. I’d love to have a place where I can put my stuff."

Karen Kelly is a reporter and writer based in Albany, NY. Michael Chavez Reilly is a teacher at Boston Latin Academy and a freelance writer.

Also by this Author

    For Further Information

    For Further Information

    The Substitute Teachers Homepage offers information for and about subs.

    Geoffrey G. Smith
    Substitute Teaching Institute
    Utah State University
    8200 Old Main Hill
    Logan, UT 84322-8200

    Professional Year Program (PYP) Wright State University 3640 Col. Glenn Hwy Dayton, OH 45435-0001.

    Opis 401 Edgewater Place, Suite 140 Wakefield, MA 01880-6210.