Many schools across the country are experiencing difficulties getting substitute teachers, and Long Island is not exempt from this problem. Substitute teaching is often not a steady job; it is coupled with low pay, and more often than not, no health benefits. The pool of available substitute teachers has been getting smaller each year, with the improvement of the economy. With strapped budgets, schools are looking for strategies to solve the substitute shortage.
An article published in Education Week in 2016 noted that approximately 1/4 of the teachers are absent for 10 school days or more per school year. Health is not the only thing keeping teachers out of the classroom. Often, substitutes are needed because teachers need to attend in-district meetings (e.g. CSE or curriculum related) or professional development training during the school day. Such meetings and trainings generally take place during the work day as stipulated in teacher contracts. The need to ensure students are learning and staying on track is imperative, and studies have shown that students do not perform as well when their regular teacher is absent. In addition, the costs paid for a substitute teacher can quickly add up. Some school districts have an employee contract for substitute teachers, or have included substitute teachers in other employee bargaining unit agreements. Many though, do not offer bargaining rights for substitutes, and are not in a financial position to implement this.
Increasing pay or offering health benefits for substitutes may attract more candidates, but doing so could negatively affect a district’s bottom line. Some districts hire permanent substitutes that can work every school day and can then be placed where needed. This tactic is helpful, but not always beneficial for students as a substitute’s credentials may not be sufficient to implement the lesson plan. This often results in increased behavior problems as students are not properly engaged, not to mention critical time lost on teaching content.
So, how do you combat a supply shortage and ensure that the students’ learning experience is not jeopardized? One school in Massachusetts thinks they have a solution. The Lexington Public School has implemented an Electronic Learning Facilitator (wittingly abbreviated as an “ELF”) for when teachers at the high school are absent. As described in an article on the online website, EdSurge.com, the school set up a collaborative learning space where the full-time licensed ELF provides online instruction. The ELF works with the classroom teachers to ensure that the instruction is in a digitally-rich online format so that when the teacher is absent, the ELF can deliver the lesson and class time is not lost. The school achieved this by having a blended learning environment called the Independent Digital Learning Center (IDLC). Students use devices such as a Chromebook to access the lesson that their teacher created in a digital format. The school also modified the learning space so that students can work collaboratively. Teachers have reported that students had no loss in continuity of instruction from their absence, and students have reported that they are more engaged in learning when they have an ELF than with a substitute.
While an ELF may solve some of the problems with substitute shortages at the secondary school level, it won’t help much for classes at the primary school level as a physical presence may still be needed to monitor younger students. Online instructional learning may be the key to this. Many schools have already implemented elements of online instructional learning using Chromebooks through a 1:1 initiative or carts. Online education provides the platform for teachers to monitor student progress in real-time and then provide feedback. An added benefit of having electronic lesson plans is that schools will now have a repository of lesson plans that can be used for future application. Having an effective lesson plan from a certified teacher can make the difference for student learning when bringing in an uncertified substitute and hoping for a smooth transition.
Another strategy implemented in some other states to combat substitute shortages is the issuance of a substitute teacher license. Many districts require a licensed teacher to sub even though there is no minimum education requirement to be a substitute teacher in New York. Issuing substitute teacher licenses, where a person with a bachelor’s degree or higher from an accredited institution can apply for the license, can help battle the supply shortage while also bringing some level of comfort to districts and their community members that their students have an educated individual instructing the classroom. Another tactic involves providing individuals with incentives to continue substituting. Some schools have increased marketing efforts to attract retired teachers as well as parents, while others offer training for substitutes to ensure they are comfortable walking into a classroom. Lastly, some schools use monetary incentives to attract substitutes, such as increasing the daily rate when a substitute works more than a specified number of days in a district.
If incorporating an ELF into your classrooms seems a little farfetched and hiring a substitute is out of the question, there are other alternatives. Such alternatives include combining classes or dividing the class into other classes, but this can make teaching more difficult and less effective. Some schools across the nation even require that administrators or other school staff step in when a teacher is out. If an archive of lessons plans is available, then the students’ education would hardly be interrupted. This strategy can be helpful especially when getting a substitute proves difficult, however, districts then have to ask, “who’s performing the administrator’s work while they’re substituting?” Other schools have teachers give up their prep period to provide coverage, but this too is an added expense as many contracts stipulate payment for teachers giving up their prep period.
Teacher absences are known to have a negative impact on student performance and learning, and there are significant costs associated with hiring a substitute. As it is budgeting season, districts may have to weigh the cost of paying teachers extra for meetings after school hours or for providing class coverages during a prep period against the cost of hiring a substitute to determine which course is best for the district and ultimately the students.