When an administrator recently posted a message on an online K-12 discussion group asking for help with the daily chore of hiring substitute teachers, he struck a responsive chord. "Teachers who will be absent begin calling my home at 5:30 to 6 a.m.," he wrote, "and then I have to collect information on their classes and locate appropriate substitutes. Can anyone share ways to make this responsibility more palatable?"
The replies he received from around the country confirmed that getting substitute teachers is a continuing challenge that is getting worse. School districts in the United States spend $3.8 billion annually on substitutes, and teachers are absent an average of 14 to 16 days each year. As a result, the typical K-12 student will have had substitute teachers for the equivalent of more than one academic year through high school. And, with huge numbers of teachers reaching retirement age in the next decade and vacancies in large urban districts already close to 20 percent, the needs continue to escalate.
Depending on the size of the district, securing substitute teachers is often the responsibility of an assistant superintendent or a principal, though coordination may be off-loaded to other staff members.
However, Frank Buck, principal of the Graham Elementary School in Talladega Ala., says, "Calling substitute teachers is one of those 'routine urgencies' far too many administrators are saddled with. It's a terrible waste of time and taxpayer dollars, and an example where technology can relieve us and give us more time to concentrate on things that require our training and experience."
Turning to Technology
Districts nationwide are implementing automated telephone and Internet-linked systems that remove the frustrating and tedious tasks from district personnel. These systems record absences online or by touch-tone telephone, make repeated calls to hire the substitutes, and keep detailed reports.
Examples include the popular services AESOP, SEMS and SubFinder; each offer additional advantages of receiving absence reports 24/7 and allowing potential substitute teachers to query the systems to find out what openings are unfilled. Since Internet-based solutions allow multiple district schools to share the same sub pool without duplication, a substitute hired by one school is not contacted for other assignments.
Buck describes the basic procedures for using SubFinder: "When a teacher is going to be absent, he/she calls one phone number. The computer directs the teacher to enter information, which tells the system not only who is calling, but also how to code the absence. The system then finds a sub and calls the teacher back to let him/her know who the sub will be." Some of the programs also give teachers the option of sending lesson plans to the school by fax or e-mail. My daughter registered as an aide with such a system at a local district, and was called for assignments almost daily.
Expanding the Pool
Web resources are valuable vehicles for recruiting and supporting substitute teachers, and growing numbers of districts put pertinent content on their sites including policies, pay scales, application procedures, handbooks, class management tips, curriculum guides and required forms. For example, the Web site of New York's Greece Central School District offers an online copy of the negotiated agreement between the district and the Greece United Substitute Teachers Organization. Related resources listed below include national organizations targeted specifically to substitute teachers, and a free online chatboard for sharing help and ideas with peers nationwide.
AESOP--Automated Educational Substitute Operator www.aesoponline.com
SEMS--Substitute Employee Management System www.eschoolsolutions.com
Greece Central School District www.greece.k12.ny.us
National Substitute Teachers Alliance www.nstasubs.org
Substitute Teaching Institute subed.usu.edu
Substitute Teachers Chatboard teachers.net/mentors/substitute_teaching
Odvard Egil Dyrli is senior editor and emeritus professor of education at the University of Connecticut.