Winning the Substitute Game

Winning the Substitute Game

Attracting and retaining substitute teachers isn't just a game of chance. These district-tested move

It doesn't take long for a kid to learn one form or another of the game Sink the Sub. Nancy Haas of Arizona State University remembers well the day her grandson TJ, then in first grade, got all bright-eyed and announced, "We're going to have a SUB tomorrow." When she asked him what that meant, he replied, "You get to do whatever you want and you don't have to listen."

The object of the game is, of course, quite the opposite for substitute teachers. And as Sandra Nelson, a sub for the past seven years in Aldine, Texas, knows, not even experience exempts you from the occasional classroom management catastrophe.

This spring, Nelson found herself in the middle of a student uproar soon after a school-wide Cinco de Mayo celebration.

Getting second graders back on task is no easy feat when you're competing with a mariachi band parading past the window. With a quick glance at some "captivate and redirect" techniques from her substitute teaching guidebook, Nelson survived that round.

Many well-educated people "who are competent and would do well on a temporary basis [in schools] know better than to put themselves in harm's way by walking into a classroom." -Geoffrey G. Smith, executive director, Substitute Teaching Institute, Utah State University

For many districts, the substitute teaching game is an early morning rush for classroom coverage that day. End of story.

But savvy administrators know a true win requires a big-picture objective--making sure that subs are not only present, but that they're prepared to continue the learning process.

"We can't just send a babysitter into the classroom. These folks have got to be ready to step up to the plate," says Linda Coffey, the substitute program's personnel specialist for Fulton County (Ga.) Schools. That's why the district has, for the past 15 years, required that subs go through a training day.

"It's good for the protection of the district, it's good for the protection of the sub, and more importantly it's good for the protection of the students," says Larry More, a retired principal who now teaches a three-day course for substitutes in his district, Hillsborough County (Fla.) Public Schools.

It's data like this that have administrators in these districts concerned: With teachers out of the classroom (for any reason) at least 8 percent of the time per year, that adds up to an entire year of a student's K-12 education spent with a sub. "There isn't a school in America where teachers never leave, so substitutes affect every classroom in America," says Geoffrey G. Smith, executive director of Utah State University's Substitute Teaching Institute, which tracks teacher absenteeism.

"It's a horrifying statistic," says Haas, developer of a one-credit training course for Arizona substitutes. "We are the only profession that would allow a substitute to come in with no training and stand in the place of a professional. Imagine going to the doctor's office and the doctor is a substitute, off the street with no training. Imagine you walked into the courtroom and you had a substitute attorney to plead your case," notes Haas, who chairs ASU's secondary education department. "Training subs is a very serious issue when you think of the ramifications for kids."

But the issue is getting little attention. "In most districts it's just non-management as opposed to mis-management," Smith says.

That may be because, traditionally, a good sub is hard to find. "We hear things like, 'Have you learned how to grow subs yet?' " says Kasey C. Dibble, manager of marketing and sales for CRS Inc., creators of the substitute management system SubFinder.

Even in districts like Fulton County that currently have plenty of classroom coverage, administrators realize everything is cyclical. "With the economy we've been able to secure enough to meet our needs," says Coffey, whose substitute pool is currently at about 1,600 for the 600 or 700 subs needed daily. "But we expect it to swing back the other way."

Those most qualified to fill in as educators generally have the pick of the litter when choosing a district. "The subs around here are becoming pretty selective of where they want to go," Haas says. She gives her future subs tips on finding a place that's a good match for their needs.

Would your district pass muster if it were up against other school systems in winning over a potential sub? Tune in to the latest episode of The Substitute Game to find out.

"Administrators: Describe your perfect sub."

"The sub has to be able to pick up the baton and carry the ball while [teachers are] gone," says Kim Lindley, director of staff development for Capistrano Unified School District in San Juan Capistrano, Calif. "Teachers used to assume that if they had a sub, probably nothing would get done. Now with the rigor and expectations for reaching the standards, they know that something had better get done that day, and if it doesn't they want to know why."

Finding good subs is also more important today because teachers attend in-service sessions more frequently than in the past. When Ralph Lynch, a retired Fulton County principal who is now a consultant for the district, teaches the classroom management portion of the substitute training course, he always asks for a show of hands about firsthand experiences with subs. "Believe it or not, you can run into somebody that's never had a substitute in their life," he says.

Rich Thome at the San Diego County Office of Education remembers when he started as a substitute teacher 35 years ago, the task was only about classroom management and being able to carry out the required lesson plan. Now, subs need to understand No Child Left Behind and other factors influencing education, says Thome, a former superintendent who is now assistant superintendent of human resources and technology for the county.

Who are these super subs? Administrators and experts say the recently retired (particularly teachers and other professionals), those in teacher education programs or who have teaching aspirations, and moms with children in school tend to fit the bill. Just one state, Iowa, requires that subs have a teaching certificate, says Smith. At the other end of the spectrum, 28 states only require a high school diploma.

Keeping local requirements in mind, consider people of any age. "I've had everything from the 18 to 83 range," says Hillsborough County's Training Specialist John Hillick, who developed and now teaches a 10-day training program for subs. "And the 83-year-old was so beyond cool. He was just great."

"Administrators: Where do you go to meet subs?"

"Most of it is word of mouth. People hear about our substitute program and want to be a part of it," says Pete Stewart, director of human resources for Aldine (Texas) Independent School District, which has been nationally recognized by the Substitute Teaching Institute.

But what if you're not well-known or you're in a remote area? Haas was once invited to a nuclear power plant--located in the middle of the desert--to do a training session for its engineers, who were then allowed to play hooky from work to substitute twice yearly. Superintendents from neighboring Palo Verde Elementary, Arlington Elementary and Saddle Mountain Unified School Districts joined Haas to acquaint the employees with their schools.

Richland County School District One in Columbia, S.C., has used both traditional and high-tech recruiting tools to find subs. At teacher job fairs, administrators screen candidates who aren't able to work full-time. They also hold an annual job fair just for subs.

Since 2002, the 2,500-teacher district has used an online application system that's raised the bar in both numbers and variety of sub applicants, says Deborah T. Sullivan, coordinator of recruitment and retention. They've chosen the Paperless Applicant Tracking System from FKS International, which asks a series of pre-screening questions. Because district and school staff have access to the system, hiring process efficiency has improved, Sullivan says. The result: More attention paid to the applicants themselves, adds Brian Weston, a substitute teacher administrator.

"Administrators: Have you ever used a match-making service?"

"Finding subs is a real problem for any district--so give it to a professional," advises John D. Petrin, assistant superintendent of Marlborough (Mass.) Public Schools.

His is the voice of experience. Marlborough has contracted with Kelly Educational Staffing for three years now. "We got rid of all the administrative headaches," Petrin says. Prior to outsourcing, the district only managed to get coverage for about 60 percent of its empty classrooms. "It was a poor system that just wasn't working," he explains, adding that the fill rate is now at about 95 percent for the district's seven schools.

And they're quality subs with training. "I get few complaints, and when we do get them they're addressed in quick order," Petrin says. The cost is about $24 more per day for each sub, but that's offset by administrative time saved and by the district no longer having to maintain unemployment and workers compensation benefits (a state requirement for temp employees).

"Typically we're cost neutral or a little more expensive," explains Teresa Setting, president of Kelly Educational Staffing. And the subs, as employees of the staffing agency, benefit from access to health care, vacation time, a holiday bonus and a 401K. Available nationally since 1999, the service operates year-round and currently brings subs to about 1,500 U.S. schools.

Besides Kelly, districts have used local staffing agencies for substitute hiring and management services. "There are school systems that have gone to [outsourcing] and are pleased, and some who have gone and come back. I would definitely put that [option] on the table to discuss," says STI/USU's Smith.

"Administrators: What would you need to know about me before pursuing a working relationship?"

"A lot of folks are under the impression that anybody can be a sub. We don't hire everyone that applies," says Coffey. Potential Fulton County subs are interviewed by a school substitute coordinator, typically the assistant principal. (Only about 40 percent of districts interview subs face-to-face, according to a 1999 survey, Smith says.)

"It's lights, camera, action for the subs. They need to be able to think on their feet." -Rich Thome, assistant superintendent, human resources and technology, San Diego County Office of Education

Questions range from "Do you think you could effectively manage a classroom?" to "Do you have concerns about being assigned to a special education class?"

Richland One's online application system includes questions on everything from educational qualifications to the applicant's take on how important subs are to public schools. After a background check, candidates have an individual interview with a human resources administrator or principal.

To determine who makes the cut in Aldine, applications are rated on a 10-point scale, with those scoring 7 or above moving on to the required substitute training session.

"Administrators: Be honest, will your children make mincemeat out of me?"

Nearly every sub has some sort of orientation, whether it's a formal session or two minutes of explanation ("What-was-that-again!?") while being walked through the hallway before the opening bell. But there's throwing information at people, and then there's training them, says Hillick. His mantra to administrators: "Train them, train them, train them. And you'll keep them."

Many well-educated people "who are competent and would do well on a temporary basis [in schools] know better than to put themselves in harm's way by walking into a classroom," Smith says. "A lot of them need a lot of help. They come in and they're lost," Colinthia Gosa, a long-term substitute in Fulton County, has noticed.

Yet, a 1999 STI/USU survey found that less than 10 percent of districts were offering three or more hours of skills training.

"[Substitutes] can be a liability for you if you don't have them well-trained, but they can certainly become a great asset for the district, as well," says

Stewart. "It's lights, camera, action for the subs. They need to be able to think on their feet," adds Thome. That's why, since 1998, San Diego County has offered a two-day training program.

When Nelson began subbing in Aldine after spending a few years as a para-professional there, the only training available was "a video that sort of showed what was expected of you as a sub," she says. "I can't remember what was on that video."

Since completing the district's seven-hour training session and receiving a substitute teaching guide with classroom management and teaching strategies and ideas, Nelson feels ready to take on whatever challenges may come up.

Many districts with training require even those with teacher credentials to enroll. "We try to structure it so that there's something there for everybody," says Lynch. The experienced educators get a refresher course, as well as help others by sharing their wisdom.

In Hillsborough County, future subs are separated into two programs--a three-day course for those with 60-plus college credit hours and a 10-day course for those with less. Participants don't pay anything, while in some districts there is a $30 to $50 fee. Other districts, such as Aldine, consider the training a workday. Those lucky subs are compensated for their time.

For districts unable to offer a separate training program--such as Capistrano, which lost funding for its How to Be a Super Sub session, developed last year--subs can often attend staff development workshops with permanent teachers. Capistrano's 45-hour literacy training series has been especially popular among subs, many of whom are looking to eventually work full time in the district, says Lindley.

"Administrators: How will you help me avoid being the object of a Sink the Sub game?"

"[Visitors from other districts have] come to our workshops and they've said they're amazed we can cram so much into a short period of time," says Coffey. It's the goal elsewhere, too.

Most district training programs focus on classroom management and instructional strategies. Other common topics are professionalism, legal responsibilities, district policies, safety, diversity and child development. "You really try to approach it from a can-do perspective. Some of them are almost petrified," Lynch says.

As for classroom management, subs learn there are no easy answers. "I remind them that there are teachers out there with 20 years experience who are still looking for ways to better manage a classroom," Lynch explains. Delving into this area in just a few hours is a tall order, but he aims to at least provide the basics.

Learning about instructional strategies typically involves understanding lesson plans and how to be prepared with learning activities for those moments where there's a lull. Having emergency lessons ready is particularly helpful in heading off "early finishers, those most likely to play Sink the Sub," Haas says.

Some districts also offer job shadowing in an experienced teacher's classroom. For Hillsborough County's three-day training, shadowing is done on the second day so that, when the group reconvenes, discussions are based more on practice than theory, notes More. (That is, provided the participants haven't been scared off.)

"Administrators: I always like to add my two cents. Are you the type that can take a little criticism?"

After examining feedback from Capistrano's Super Sub session, one thing was clear to Chief Personnel Officer Suzette Lovely: Subs wanted more classroom management training. "I went to two of our assistant principals, one from an elementary and one from a high school--and asked them to plan a follow-up workshop," she says. Nearly 50 of the 200 subs from the initial training signed up for the overview of discipline strategies, which also contained a bunch of "What if?" scenarios.

Requesting feedback after sub training is the norm, as districts with these programs strive to make them better. Administrators also try to keep the sessions up-to-date, whether it's by explaining a new board policy or sharing a new teaching technique.

Districts may solicit thoughts from subs at the end of each school day, too. Fulton County's feedback form asks questions like, "Were the lesson plans adequate?" and "Were the students helpful?," so teachers and staff become aware of areas needing improvement.

"Administrators: Are you looking for a long-term commitment?"

"We put strong emphasis on the training and keeping in touch with subs and making them feel like they're part of our school family," Coffey says. "You've only won half the battle if you recruit them. We want them to stay." For the past few years, Fulton County's retention rates have held steady at about 80 percent, compared to rates of about 60 percent in the mid- to late-1990s.

Richland One, which is located in an area with many military families, has still managed to reach a sub retention rate of at least 50 percent, says Sullivan. That's 10 to 20 percent more than before the focus on recruitment and training. Keeping subs, she adds, helps "maintain the continuity of instruction."

As Hillsborough County's More has realized, good retention also means that teachers feel more comfortable leaving quality lesson plans as opposed to busy work.

But perhaps the best sign of success is when subs decide to make the leap into teaching full-time--and everyone seems to know someone who's done this. "We're always looking at our subs as being one step closer to becoming a teacher in the district," Stewart says.

It's all about being there when that "ah-ha" moment reaches a child's face--seeing "that wonderful, glorious smile" appear when a concept has clicked, Thome says. "Substitute teachers have those moments, too."

Melissa Ezarik is features editor.

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