Jan 26, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Schools desperate for substitute teachers

Illustration of hand writing and crossing out open and closed on a chalkboard
Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

School districts and officials nationwide are begging parents to step in, loosening requirements for substitute teachers and, in one case, asking the National Guard for help as last-ditch efforts to stay open amid the latest COVID-19 surge.

Why it matters: Substitute teachers have emerged as a vital part of schools' reopening efforts, but they are in short supply after years of being overlooked and undervalued.

What's happening: School districts in Texas, Idaho and Colorado have called on parents to fill in as substitute teachers, while officials in New Mexico asked the state's National Guard to step in.

  • In Kansas, an emergency declaration eliminated college credit hours as a requirement for substitute teachers.
  • And in Oklahoma, Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) signed an order authorizing state employees to become substitute teachers without losing employment, pay or benefits.

The big picture: These last-ditch efforts may be necessary to keep schools physically open, but they are only "band-aid" solutions, Julia Kaufman, an education policy researcher at RAND corporation, said.

  • "You're basically at the point where you're looking for bodies in a room to babysit kids because you want them in school," Kaufman said, adding that "you can't expect anybody to walk into a room and be able to teach kids."

The reliance on parents and other teacher volunteers is amplified by a waning substitute teacher force, a large number of whom left the profession during the pandemic.

  • More than 75% of school principals and district leaders said they were having trouble finding enough substitutes to cover teacher absences this year, according to a national EdWeek Research Center survey published in October 2021.
  • That's in part due the difficult nature of substitute teaching where "you're diving into a classroom that is generally filled with students who are in a bit of crisis right now," Kaufman said.
  • "Substitute teaching is not a profession for the faint of heart," she added.
Image of people in DC protesting substitute teacher wages.
Photo: Erin Doherty/Axios

What they're saying: Myrtle Washington, a veteran substitute teacher in D.C. Public Schools, pointed to low pay, minimal benefits and the overall view of substitute teachers as reasons for the shortages.

  • "We were not valued, even though we are valued, [or] we should be," she told Axios, adding that she has seen numerous substitute teachers leave the DCPS system throughout the pandemic.
  • "A lot of substitute teachers did not think it was worth it, risking their lives, in this city, for $15 an hour," said Washington, who is the president of Washington Substitute Teachers United.
  • Washington and substitute teachers across the country are using the current moment to demand better pay and benefits. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) announced last week that the city was raising pay for daily substitute teachers from $121.50 a day to $136.00 a day, but the D.C. substitutes say it's not enough.

What to watch: Turning to the future, substitute teachers and researchers alike say schools need to rethink how they support substitute teachers.

  • One solution, RAND's Kaufman said, is to increase training for substitutes so that they know the curriculum when they enter the classroom.
  • Others have called for more districts to hire a small number of full-time substitute teachers, who are eligible for the same or similar benefits of other school staff.

The bottom line: "People who substitute do so because they are called to do that. They love children," D.C. substitute teacher Lydia Curtis told Axios.

  • "There's so many other things you could be doing. They want to see children thrive and we need to be appreciated for that."

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