Substitute teachers are important members of the education family

Bruce Lear: It’s time schools started making recruiting and retaining substitute teachers a priority instead of an afterthought.

Remember those days in junior high when class is about to start? The bell rings, and in walks a teacher no one knows. It takes only seconds for the junior high mind, which struggled yesterday to add single digits, to calculate if this substitute is one that can be goofed on. You know, things like switching seats, making up fake names, and generally testing classroom boundaries. It’s mostly harmless, but stuff not tried with the “regular teacher.”

That was then—this is now.

When the bell rings in 2021, your child or grandchild might wait, but no one walks through the door. There isn’t a substitute. The office scrambles. Teachers aren’t available. Finally, it’s decided to split the class. Now, instead of 28 kids with one teacher, there’s 38 pair of eyes staring at one teacher not prepared for this.

Football, basketball, baseball, and hockey coaches all know to win they’ll need bench strength. They know substitutes decide the fate of the team. Too bad public schools haven’t figured it out. 

There isn’t really a teacher shortage, or a substitute shortage. But there is a shortage of qualified, highly trained professionals willing to work in a stressful job for a subpar professional wage. It’s time schools started making recruiting and retaining substitute teachers a priority instead of an afterthought. 

Here are a few suggestions. 

The average pay for a substitute teacher in Iowa is about $15 an hour. Fast food franchises figured out they need to pay more to get employees working again, so some places like Taco John’s, McDonald’s, and Burger King are paying about $15 an hour to start. 

Even at $15 an hour, some of those franchises struggle to keep a restaurant and a drive through staffed. If fast food joints can’t attract enough workers, why do schools think they’ll find qualified substitutes willing to brave COVID-19 and 30 kids per class at $15 an hour? They won’t.

Prior to the pandemic, the substitute teaching pool was comprised of two groups: recently graduated teachers who couldn’t find a full-time teaching job, and retired teachers wanting to earn a little extra money. 

Both pools dried up once the teacher shortage hit, and COVID-19 became real. Young teachers fresh out of college were quickly hired full-time, and older teachers decided not to risk their lives for $15 an hour.

One immediate fix would be to increase substitute pay, using some of the federal Elementary and Secondary School Relief Funds (ESSER) from the COVID-19 relief packages. The pandemic directly contributed to the shortage, and using the funds for that purpose would help teachers as well as other staff who are called on to substitute instead of doing their own jobs. It would also ensure that kids don’t lose valuable learning time when a teacher is absent.

Some other barriers also discourage qualified substitutes. Raising wages won’t solve those problems. It will take conscious action by school administrators.

First, when a substitute teacher agrees to a job they have chosen, a principal shouldn’t reassign them to a job that they haven’t been able to fill. Bait and switch is illegal in stores, but common in schools. A substitute teacher needs to be assured they will cover the job they agreed to fill, not whatever the principal of the building chooses.

Second, administrators need to listen to substitute teachers. That means taking the time to have meetings at the beginning and end of the school year to listen to concerns. I would suggest these debriefing meetings take place in a relaxed atmosphere, off school grounds, perhaps at a restaurant where substitutes are treated to a “happy hour” with food. Like all teachers, substitutes want to feel a part of the team whose ideas are validated and put into action.

Third, long-term assignments lasting for 6 weeks or more are some of the hardest substitute jobs. They often require a substitute to step in and do grading and parent teacher conferences, which are even more stressful than day to day subbing.

Districts should create a full-time job category for those long-term positions. Theoe substitute teachers should be paid on the salary schedule and should include benefits like single insurance and a full menu of leaves. When not doing a long-term job, they could be day to day substitutes.

School districts are erecting some even higher barriers. Some public school boards have simply given up. Instead of trying to solve the problem, some districts have contracted with a for-profit search company to find substitutes. By giving the job to a private company, the school board doesn’t lose the problem; it simply loses control of the problem.

School districts would be much better off taking the steps mentioned above instead of paying premium dollars to head-hunting firm. This type of privatization raises other questions too. Will substitutes still be eligible for IPERS? Will the private firm use the same kind of background checks? Are these private employees, working in public schools?

I would guess that Iowa legislators are hearing about this problem. I predict Republican politicians may look for an easy answer: further eroding substitute teacher standards. Iowa may follow Oregon’s lead and not require any college degree, as long as the substitute is 18 years old and able to pass a background check.

This sends the wrong message. It would also mean a person working in a nail salon or tattoo parlor in Iowa would need to meet more requirements than a substitute teacher. It’s easy, but wrong.

Teachers are under a great deal of stress, due to the pandemic and the nature of the job. School districts and state politicians could relieve some of those stresses by taking steps to deal with the substitute shortage. Quick fixes like privatizing and lowering standards won’t produce long-term results. Iowa can do better.  

Bruce Lear lives in Sioux City and retired after 38 years of being connected to public schools. He was a teacher for eleven years and a regional director for Iowa State Education Association the last 27 years until retiring. 

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