A Game Plan to Attract, Retain Substitute Teachers

by Carol G. Peck and James W. Rice

Are you having difficulty attracting substitute teachers to your district? Are the substitute teachers the quality you would want instructing and supervising your own children? Do you find the market for substitute teachers highly competitive and the lack of qualified applicants causing problems?

These are the challenges that Alhambra School District began facing five years ago. Since we were routinely finding that adequate substitute teacher coverage was not available and principals were regularly having to cover classrooms, a plan was developed to recruit and provide incentives for retaining a large pool of quality substitutes. Strategies were developed and implemented to create a positive atmosphere for our guest teachers.

Our first challenge was to attract more substitute teacher applicants to our district. Increasing our advertisements through local newspapers and bulletin boards did not seem to do the trick. As a result, we developed a five-step approach.

  1. Every school was asked to advertise for substitute teachers on their school marquees.

    In addition to advertising for substitutes in our districtwide publications, all schools ran advertisements in their local newsletters. District representatives spoke at Block Watch meetings, School Community Council meetings, and community events to share our need for quality substitute teachers, and to sign up interested applicants. We were surprised at many people who expressed an interest who would not have considered substituting since their college background was not in education.
  2. Everyone expressing an interest in substituting was invited by letter to our district’s substitute orientation workshops held each fall and spring.

    A continental breakfast, door prizes, district literature materials, pens, special pads, etc., were provided. To emphasize the importance of our substitute teacher orientation, the superintendent opens the meeting with an overview of the district. Substitutes are provided staff development by principals on our districtwide classroom management skills and routine classroom procedures such as attendance.
  3. A videotape was professionally produced to introduce substitutes to our district. It features our principals and schools so the substitute begins to feel a part of our family. This video also is shown to applicants interested in substituting in the district throughout the school year.
  4. Our administration makes appointments at nearby colleges and universities to speak with mid-year graduates from the schools of education. Often, these students have a difficult time finding a job mid-year and are eager to substitute.
  5. After the school year has begun, the many applicants who applied for teaching positions but were not hired by our district, are contacted. Those who have not yet secured a job are invited to substitute teach in our district.
The Arizona Department of Education allows districts to recommend support staff to be certified as emergency substitute teachers. Emergency substitute teachers are used when a certified substitute is not available. The necessary state certification to become an emergency substitute teacher was a major obstacle for our district. Employees selected as emergency substitute teachers had to obtain six credit hours of course work in the field of education from one of the state universities or colleges.


These prerequisites eliminated support staff members who could not afford the tuition or did not have the additional time to take the education classes. We petitioned the Arizona Department of Education and succeeded in changing this requirement. The department changed the minimum requirements so that support staff employees could attend district staff development classes to substitute for the required courses. In addition, classroom aides who work under the direction of our teachers were able to count that experience toward their credit hours. We also pay our emergency substitutes an additional $25 per day.

Incentive Pay

Once we increased our list of potential substitute teachers, we felt a need to provide incentives to retain the highest caliber people. We accomplished that by implementing three new approaches.

  1. A three-tiered salary schedule.
    In the past, we had paid all substitute teachers $60 per day. We added a second tier whereby after substituting for 40 days, the pay scale increases to $75 per day on the 41st day, and after substituting for 100 days, the pay scale increases to $100 per day on the 101st day. This provides the incentive for our best substitutes to prioritize substituting in our district in order to move up on the salary schedule.
  2. A free lunch.
    Substituting is always very hectic and often times substitutes are so burdened by not knowing the routine schedule, etc., they have no time for lunch or forget to bring their money when they take students to the cafeteria. Providing a free lunch ensures that they receive the nutrition and energy needed for demanding afternoon schedules.
  3. A performance evaluation.
    When our teachers return to work, they are asked to evaluate their substitutes. The comments are reviewed by our Human Resources Department and a copy of "positive" comments are sent to the substitutes. This provides "warm fuzzies" to some of our timid substitute teachers. (Occasionally, there are no positive comments, in which case nothing is sent to the substitute and he/she is not requested in the future.)
Climate Control
Creating a favorable atmosphere for substitutes assures positive experiences for both the substitutes and the students. The following ideas have worked well for us:
  • We refer to our substitutes as "guest teachers" and use this term districtwide. The only time we refer to substitute teachers is in our advertisements as the outside public is not familiar with the term we coined.
  • All guest teachers are provided identification badges and packets when they arrive at their assigned schools. Whenever possible, a principal escorts the guest teacher to his or her classroom and answers questions.
  • The principal routinely visits every classroom with a guest teacher twice a day. This helps to ensure positive student behavior and support for the guest teacher.
  • All certified district office administrators, including the superintendent, substitute a minimum of one day per year. The receiving school and teacher do not know when or where these individuals will be assigned. This has made a remarkable difference in the quality of guest teacher lesson plans. It also has generated positive feelings by staff toward administration. Staff members feel that by administrators being in the classroom, they become more aware of changing demographics and of challenges teachers face on a daily basis.
Although we still face a shortage of substitute teachers on special occasions, these action plans have improved significantly our pool of guest teachers and created a positive climate for all involved.


Carol Peck is the superintendent and James Rice is the assistant superintendent for human resources in the Alhambra School District in Phoenix, Ariz.