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Quest for stronger subs in schools

Leaders turn to social media, staffing agencies and local talent to boost quality
At the Tacoma School District in Washington, Heather Gooch is a substitute teacher at Mann Elementary School. Tacoma recently started using social media and paying subs more in harder-to-fill schools. It has improved the quality of subs there.
At the Tacoma School District in Washington, Heather Gooch is a substitute teacher at Mann Elementary School. Tacoma recently started using social media and paying subs more in harder-to-fill schools. It has improved the quality of subs there.

During two decades of teaching, Andrea Giunta wasn’t sure what she would find a day after a substitute teacher was in her classroom.

Sometimes substitutes taught the lesson plan she left, and students produced high-quality work. Sometimes the lesson plan was followed only partially, but she felt she had to reteach the material once she returned. One time, a young substitute ignored her lesson plan and played his guitar all day.

As a bilingual teacher in the Denver, Tempe and Phoenix districts, she learned to get to know substitute teachers and call them personally to step in for her. When she ran for vice president of the National Education Association, Giunta asked a recently retired teacher to fill in for her each time she visited lawmakers and worked on policy.

“I relied on a few people, and if one was not available, I’d call the next one,” says Giunta, now senior policy analyst for NEA. “It’s hard to be away from the classroom and worry about your students learning when you’re not there.”

Giunta’s concerns echo across the country as districts face a “substitute shortage” and struggle to find quality candidates to fill in for absent teachers. In Pittsburgh, for example, substitutes often leave high-poverty schools to work in other schools or jobs. In Maine, several districts simply can’t recruit enough substitutes to fill classrooms, and principals or administrators must supervise when teachers call in sick.

Other districts, facing new regulations under the federal Affordable Care Act, are limiting substitutes’ hours to no more than 30 hours per week to avoid paying for their healthcare coverage. Still others are losing qualified substitutes to full-time jobs as the economy slowly recovers.

Amid the shortage, however, some districts have strengthened certification requirements, increased communication with substitutes and hired staffing agencies to keep their classrooms full.

Strong laws, contracts

From a national perspective, the quality of substitutes often relates directly to certification policies at the state and district levels, Giunta says. Some districts must follow strong laws and contractual language regarding qualifications, and they have high-quality substitute teachers as a result.

In Denver in the 1990s, for example, substitutes were required to have a teaching credential—and today all of Colorado requires it. In Phoenix, however, substitutes were required a decade ago to have two years of college but not a teaching certificate. Now Arizona substitutes must have a bachelor’s degree.

“I found a great difference between Denver and Phoenix,” Giunta says. “The laws were different, and there was more rigor required in Colorado.”

Tacoma Public Schools in Washington recently implemented more rigor to its substitute services process to reduce teaching absences and improve substitute quality. During the 2014-15 school year, the district had 8,473 teacher absences and 1,233 unfilled assignments, equaling a fill rate of approximately 80 percent. So far during the 2015-16 school year, the district has seen a 7 percent decrease in teacher absences and 78 percent drop in unfilled assignments, bumping the fill rate above 95 percent.

What led to the improvement? During the 2014-15 school year, Tacoma focused on recruiting emergency substitutes for last-minute vacancies and now operates with 140 emergency substitutes out of a pool of 362 certified substitutes. The district also offers higher pay for “hard-to-fill” schools that are seen as less desirable to substitutes, says Lisa Nolan, assistant superintendent for human resources at Tacoma Public Schools.

The district adopted a “digital media as our friend” mantra and began recruiting substitutes by reaching out on social media outlets such as Facebook and Instagram. The human resources staff also announces emergency substitute positions on the district’s website, local television and local job fairs. Nolan’s staff also embraced a “We’re all recruiters” policy, and each person plays a role in identifying qualified substitutes with bachelor’s degrees.

An Emergency Substitute Recruitment Committee, which includes district administrators, school principals and interns, interviews each substitute applicant. The questions are based on behavior management, resiliency, life experiences and passions, not necessarily content knowledge. “Innovation comes in many shapes and sizes and renditions,” Nolan says. “We are beginning to see our efforts come to fruition in a positive way during this school year.”

Strong relationships

For many districts, finding substitutes among certified but non-working teachers is the best option. For example, Brevard Public Schools in Florida prioritizes hiring certified teachers as subs. To do this well,  Jackie Wyatt, district substitute coordinator, focuses on hiring familiar faces who live locally. Wyatt asks retiring teachers and instructional assistants to join the substitute teacher pool.

Wyatt also recruits student teachers and interns for full-time work after they complete temporary roles in the district.

Such a proactive approach, even though it makes sense, is sometimes overlooked at the district level. Former employees may need a personal connection to transition to substitute work, says Debra Pace, Brevard’s associate superintendent for human resources services. “Sometimes this requires handholding to encourage those who have experience and are certified to enter our substitute pool,” she says.

Wyatt calls and emails prospective substitutes and walks them through the application process. In addition, the district provides training and a handbook to explain what to expect as a substitute teacher and how to contact school staff if there are concerns about lesson plans or student behavior.

An online portal serves as the go-to point for all substitutes to search the handbook, find links to substitute teaching information and see upcoming pay dates.

“We’ve found that having someone designated for meeting substitutes’ needs is vital,” Pace says. “It’s not something you can distribute across several employees and have the same personal connection and success.”

Technology and services

When districts don’t have a centralized role to manage substitutes, they may hire staffing agencies, such as Kelly Educational Staffing and Source4Teachers.

In 2015, the Kelly service was used in 900 districts across 35 states to fill more than 2 million teacher absences, and Source4Teachers was used in 200 districts across seven states to improve classroom fill rates.

By investigating a district’s substitute placement software, such as AESOP or SmartFind, staffing agencies can determine the cause of a substitute shortage and recruit accordingly, says Scott Apsey, vice president of Kelly Educational Staffing.

Districts might have many substitutes who don’t teach often, so Kelly contacts the current pool of substitutes and asks them why. In other locations, Kelly looks for new candidates on college campuses and retired teacher lists.

“Most districts have automated systems for absences but need a company to put discipline around it,” Apsey says. “If you don’t have the relationships correct around recruitment, the technology won’t make it any easier.”

Staffing companies such as Kelly and Source4Teachers take over the entire human resources process, which means they become the employer of record for substitute teachers. They take on employer requirements such as worker’s compensation costs and healthcare insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

They recruit substitutes year-round, even during the summer when schools are closed. They host paid orientation sessions to prepare substitutes for the classroom and operate awards programs.

“We’re able to offer connection and recognition that districts are not able to,” Apsey says. “It doesn’t matter how many people you have in your pool, only how many want to go to work tomorrow morning.”

Carolyn Crist is a freelance writer based in Athens, Georgia.