Dealing with the Substitute Teacher Shortage


Ashortage of substitute teachers, both in quantity and quality, across the country has never been more severe.

The Howard County, Md., Public Schools claim substitute teacher usage is up 9.9 percent over the year before with three new schools opening this fall and two more expected soon. The Madison, Ohio, district reports it is at the lowest number of substitute teachers in 18 years, less than 30 percent of the number needed to cover classes.

Why is there a crisis? The answer comes right out of a basic economics text: Increased demand coupled with a decrease in supply.

The increased demand on the existing substitute teacher pool is due in part to higher requirements for in-service training for permanent teachers and generous teacher contracts that offer additional leave time during the school year.

The decline in quantity and quality of substitute teachers is largely a result of today's competitive job market where there are many alternative employment opportunities for potential substitutes. Plus, the growing trend of smaller size classes has reduced the number of certified teachers in the substitute pool.

Coping Mechanisms
School districts are using various tactics to cope with this growing crisis.
  • Lower requirements: Many states and districts have lowered their substitute teacher certification requirements and now only require a 4-year or 2-year degree, often not limited to the field of education. Some states, out of desperation, only require a high school diploma.
  • Pay increases: Some districts increase pay by as much as 50 to 75 percent to compete with other local districts.
  • Reduce demand: Some schools ask permanent teachers to fill in in other classrooms during their preparation period to reduce the need for substitutes. Other districts pay teachers for unused sick and personal leave.
  • Aggressive recruiting: Districts use targeted advertising coupled with job fairs co-sponsored by colleges and universities, parent-teacher organizations and educational services centers.
  • Temporary staffing services: Temporary agencies contract with districts to cover classes when the demand for substitute teachers becomes too great.
  • Bonuses: Incentives of $5 of $15 a day are offered to those substitute teachers who teach 85 percent or more of the semester.
  • Professional development restrictions: Some districts prohibit the scheduling of in-service programs on Fridays or during the month of December, the most challenging times to find classroom coverage.
Tied to Training
These strategies are most likely to work with they are tied to training.

The common thread among school districts dealing successfully with the substitute teacher shortage is training. This training provides substitutes with the information and skills they need to be successful in the classroom.

Unfortunately, few districts conduct regular substitute teacher training. Surveys indicate that fewer than 10 percent of all school districts currently offer any such training beyond a basic orientation to district policies.

Does training really work? Studies show that when substitute training is conducted regularly, both the number of applicants and employee longevity increase significantly. Plus, reported complaints about substitute teachers drop in half.

Research conducted by the Substitute Teacher Training Institute at Utah State University has found successful training programs address the following core elements of the shortage crisis:

  • Being prepared and professional: Unprofessional conduct is the No. 1 complaint by permanent teachers and administrators.
  • Legal issues and emergency procedures: Training inhibits costly litigation and helps to ensure student safety.
  • Classroom management: This is the No. 1 concern of substitute teachers.
  • Teaching strategies: Students want something other than fill-in activities when a substitute leads the class. This is their No. 1 request. They want to learn and do something constructive.
  • Development of a super sub pack (bag of tricks): This is the leading trait of successful substitute teachers.
Use of Resources
In-service training is most effective when presented over an extended period. Inasmuch as most substitute teachers receive little, if any, training, even a few hours is effective.

The Substitute Teacher Educational Programs Initiative, or STEP-IN, developed at Utah State University and funded in part by the U.S. Department of Education, provides 10 hours of training. Other successful programs using STEP-IN materials have run for up to 60 hours. Even when training is required, but substitutes are not paid, the number of applicants increases and the retention rate soars.

Handbooks and training outlines are readily available so that starting a training program for substitute teachers in a school district need not be an added burden.

No other small investment in education today will make a more significant improvement in the classroom than training substitute teachers.

Geoffrey Smith is executive director of the Substitute Teacher Training Institute at Utah State University, 8200 Old Main Hill, Logan, UT 84322. E-mail: