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Strengthen your substitute pool

Intensive training and tech tools ensure students aren’t losing valuable instruction time
Tracey Green is substitute teacher for second graders at Bryan Elementary School in the Jefferson County School System in Birmingham.
Tracey Green is substitute teacher for second graders at Bryan Elementary School in the Jefferson County School System in Birmingham.

The substitute teacher just became more valuable.

Economic struggles and new federal education guidelines over the past five years have changed the environment for substitute teachers. When economic difficulties led to staff cutbacks in almost every industry, many laid-off workers signed up to be substitutes, allowing districts to be more selective.

At the same time, new regulations have made it more important to staff every classroom with a qualified teacher, including substitutes. District leaders eager to have their students perform well on Common Core and other assessments are wary of losing precious instruction time when teachers are away.

And as full-time teachers temporarily leave the classroom for professional development training on new technologies and Common Core standards, districts need substitutes who are prepared to teach and ready to step in and take over their classrooms, even if only for a day.

“With the Common Core State Standards, changes in assessment and focus on individualized student plans for achievement, it is even more important than ever that we have high quality substitute teachers in all of our classrooms,” says Dawn Huckaby, chief human resources officer for Washoe County School District in Nevada.

Sub management software

  • Aesop: This automated solution can contact subs via phone and internet, and helps manage employee absences.
  • Callplus: Districts can customize Callplus to fit their substitute calling and arrangement needs, with features including teacher messages, prioritized sub lists, and administrator messages.
  • ESchool Solutions: SmartFindExpress from ESchool Solutions manages teacher absences and automatically finds a substitute to fill in.
  • Kronos: This workforce management solutions provider can manage absences, track time and attendance, and create schedules.
  • SubFinder: This solution offers absence management and substitute placement services in the cloud.

Training subs

  • Ed Training Center: The Ed Training Center offers a variety of online training courses for substitutes.
  • The Master Teacher: This program offers 25 self-paced courses with assessments to train substitutes in a cost-effective way.
  • STEDI: The Substitute Teaching Institute offers college-level courses for substitute training, available online or in workbook format for district-led courses.

“It is vital that our teachers, including substitute teachers, interact with our students, build trusting relationships, engage students and are learning-centered so that students receive an excellent educational experience every day, even if their regular teacher is away from the class.”

Many districts have instituted new policies to meet the challenges of finding, preparing and managing substitute teachers. Districts have implemented tech programs to automate the process of scheduling substitutes and keeping up with their hours. More districts also have begun requiring or offering extensive training programs for subs.

While no state requires that a substitute be a certified teacher—and 25 states only require a high school diploma—many districts are demanding more rigorous qualifications, says Geoffrey Smith, director of STEDI, a national training institute for substitute teachers based at Utah State University. Typically, two-thirds of today’s substitute pool are certified teachers, Smith adds.

“Automation and technology has changed the process of hiring and managing substitutes the most in recent years,” Smith says. “Districts now have the ability to have an automated system line up teachers, track their time and absenteeism, and determine how often they take assignments or not.”

At the same time, more standardized training for subs has become available and widely used. In 2008, STEDI, which originally provided training for Utah-based substitutes, received federal funding to become a national training center. Since then, STEDI has trained thousands of substitute teachers each year while many districts have instituted their own training programs.

Accessing technology solutions

When Jefferson County School District teachers in Alabama need a substitute, they sign into Aesop, an online substitute management program. Posting their absences in the system “triggers the call out” that a sub is needed, says Sheila Jones, CFO of Jefferson County Board of Education.

If teachers have already made arrangements with a specific substitute, they can specifically assign that person to fill the absence. If not, subs can go into the program and assign themselves to fill the vacancy, Jones says. The district also uses Kronos, a workplace management solution, to track teachers’ hours worked and absences.

Districts can use the same technology to facilitate online training programs for subs. Washoe County uses Aesop to post online teaching resources that subs may find helpful, Huckaby says. Those resources include links to teaching idea sites, e-books about how to successfully substitute teach, and information about upcoming training courses, school calendars and substitute pay scales.

New programs make it easier for districts to collect feedback on subs, and generate lists of preferred subs. Additionally, substitute management programs allow district teachers and administrators to give feedback to those responsible for hiring subs.

With Aesop, Washoe County schools also can create a list of subs that they don’t want to return to their school, Huckaby says. “Teachers and administrators can provide online feedback and evaluations for substitutes after each assignment. A poor evaluation or feedback triggers our discipline process. After three poor evaluations, substitutes are dismissed.”

In Boston, 150 to 200 subs are requested daily, and an online program from ESchool Solutions handles the work. To stay ahead of the curve, districts should “continually review their qualifications for substitutes, their process for filling vacancies, and their training to make sure they are providing quality teacher coverage,” says Judith Vance, director of recruitment and workforce planning at Boston Public Schools, which employs more than 700 substitute teachers each year.

Training substitutes

In Washoe County, all subs participate in initial orientation and classroom management training, and additional online courses are available. The two-and-a-half-hour orientation covers school safety, sexual harassment, substitute pay, substitute assignments, classroom expectations and district programs, Huckaby says.

Additional online courses are available in various categories, including career and technical education, Common Core standards, assessment, instructional strategies, special education and technology.

“Many of our subs like to take technology courses such as active board training so they are better prepared for classes,” Huckaby says.

In recent years, Washoe County also began making all professional development opportunities available to subs. There is no cost to the district for making more training available; both substitutes and full-time teachers pay $25 per course for any voluntary training that they choose to undertake.

Boston schools requires subs to have a bachelor’s degree, some teaching experience, and to either have acquired or be working toward a Massachusetts teaching license. The district also has a new pilot program to raise the quality of subs.

Last September, Boston chose 10 substitutes to participate in its development workshops for new, full-time teachers. Workshops focused on creating a safe learning environment, engaging family and community, and planning curriculum.

“We have found that BPS utilizes its substitute teaching pool as a pipeline to provisional teachers and therefore, we wanted to provide the knowledge that all first-year teachers would acquire,” Vance says.

A former BPS teacher who had worked as a coach for intern teachers served as a mentor to monitor the substitutes’ progress. The subs in the program and the teachers with whom they worked reported that the three-month pilot was valuable. And although evaluations from principals are not in yet, the district plans to train another 20 substitutes this fall.

Boston school applicants with minimal classroom teaching experience are required to pass a national substitute training course from STEDI with a score of at least 85 percent.

Recruiting tools

STEDI also offers SubSkills, a college-level course to help individuals without teaching certificates be successful as subs. “The course helps them learn how to manage student behavior and equips them with teaching strategies so they can pick up a lesson plan and meet its objectives,” Smith says.

Districts can purchase the SubSkills online training course for their substitutes for $29.95 per sub, or ask substitute teachers to purchase the course for $39.95, Smith says. STEDI also offers handbooks for districts to conduct their own training programs, which are typically offered in one day for up to eight hours, Smith says. When districts conduct their own STEDI training, their only cost is the purchase of the handbook, which is available for $16.95 per copy.

Although many districts continue to have more than enough applicants for subs, “some are starting to experience a shortage this year,” Smith says. “When teachers retire, many certified subs are becoming full-time teachers. Also, as the economy picks up, other companies are hiring people back.”

Some districts use training as a recruiting tool, Smith says. Because many subs aspire to be full-time teachers, the ability to add PD programs to their resumes can make taking a substitute position more tempting. And as the demand increases for more highly qualified subs, training programs have become more popular.

When Boston’s recruitment team interviews potential teachers, they refer qualified applicants to “Sub Central,” the nickname for the district’s office of two coordinators who hire, train and schedule substitutes. “In many cases, these are future teachers in need of additional experience or teacher licensure,” says Vance of BPS.

Retaining substitutes

Once a district has invested in selecting, hiring and training a substitute teacher, it is more cost effective to keep that person on board than it is to keep searching for new instructors.

But many districts struggle with retention, says Smith, who offers training for district personnel focused on retaining substitutes. “We teach district personnel to be substitute-friendly,” he says. “If we become very good at making substitutes feel welcome in our district, it will be much easier to find subs when we need them.”

Among the key ways to be a substitute-friendly district is simply to encourage principals, teachers and other staff to treat substitutes as equals, greeting them in a friendly way and being available to answer questions. Also, districts should ensure that every teacher who misses class leaves lesson plans for the substitutes, Smith says.

Smith encourages district personnel to think of substitutes as paid volunteers. For instance, Washoe County schools nominates an exceptional substitute of the semester, who is honored at a board meeting by the nominating principal and recognized with a plaque for outstanding service. “Thank them for being here, recognize them,” Smith says. “Give awards for working a certain number of days, offer them tickets to athletic events.”

Nancy Mann Jackson is a freelance writer based in Alabama.