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Short Supply in the Teaching Profession

James Paterson

Today, one big problem that’s getting attention in the teaching profession isn’t about the lack of discipline, acceptable test results or funding – it’s about the lack of teachers. That, in turn, is causing a shortage of substitutes to replace them, and both teaching profession problems are likely to get worse as time goes on.           

No issue in education may be more significant than a growing teacher shortage, forcing schools to compete for qualified teachers and sometimes lower their standards, and too often use substitutes – some for long periods and some of whom aren’t qualified.

“It’s a serious problem – the teacher shortage and the increasing need for good substitutes,” says Nikki Soares, vice president of Kelly Educational Staffing, which helps school districts with employment needs. “Schools need to find ways to make certain they aren’t affecting the quality of teaching.” 

Articles have appeared in the last year reporting that schools running out of teachers and subs in a number of regions:

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  • In Maine, low unemployment and the teacher shortage has created what the president of the state teachers union calls a “Mess,” forcing districts to raise the pay for substitutes. One school reported that an automated system called nearly 50 people, but none accepted a spot – and said about 130 spots went unfilled last year.
  • State officials in Nebraska have considered cutting the education requirement for substitutes to handle the “Constant challenge” of not having enough because teachers are leaving the field and out of the classroom more often.
  • Niagara Falls, N.Y., schools report it has an “Unprecedented” shortage of substitute teachers, forcing schools to use everyone from unqualified math coaches or teaching assistants to counselors and principals. One high school has days when 20 teachers are out and only about a dozen substitutes are available.
  • Superintendents in Illinois reported that a statewide survey found that 18 percent of total weekly absences could not be covered by substitutes, and 3000 teacher absences went unfilled by subs each week. The head of the organization said schools often are “Scrambling to move personnel around or change plans to fill the gaps when those substitutes cannot be found."
  • According to Desiree Carver-Thomas, a researcher with the Learning Policy Institute (LPI), a nonprofit, California-based education think tank, schools were about 64,000 teachers short nationwide during the 2015-16 school year. Shortages were most common in special education, math, science and bilingual education. She coauthored a LPI report on the problem.

Sometimes, struggling schools resort to hiring less-qualified teachers or turn to long-term substitutes to fill these gaps, she says, further reducing the pool of teachers available to cover daily absences.

Rising Numbers

“There has been a definite uptick in our need for substitute teachers, both long- and short-term,” says William Briggman, head of human relations for the Charleston County (S.C.) School District. “The task of securing subs on a daily basis is complicated in a region experiencing significant economic growth, declining unemployment and a regionally high cost of living.”

He notes that schools throughout the region that once were able to fill 90 percent of their open spots now often fill only 70 percent.

Briggman’s district has tried a two-pronged strategy – asking teachers in the school to fill in (an increasingly common approach) and increasing pay and publicizing the need for substitutes, using a consultant to help. Uncertified teachers are now paid $100 a day and certified teachers $112. It has kept the open spots at near just 10 percent.

Carver-Thomas says the shortage is mostly a result of four things: an Attrition rate of about 8 percent in the teaching force nationwide, a dramatic 35 percent decrease in the number of people entering the profession, and the need for more teachers as the student populations rises and as schools replace programs cut during the recession.

“When there are shortages, it is normal to focus attention on how to get more teachers into the profession, but it’s just as important to keep the teachers we have in the classroom,” she says.

She and other experts say that short term, more can be done to attract teachers and subs to the profession, but a long-term commitment to fixing the problem is important, particularly examining the reasons for teachers leaving the profession, including high stress, low pay, and not enough support, praise, and job satisfaction.

What Teachers Can Do

First, experts say, be thoughtful about being out of school, trying to let your school know well in advance about absences and helping where possible to arrange for a sub.

Second, they say, get the word out about the need for subs – to retired teachers and others who might be interested. Encourage good people to become teachers, too.

And finally, prepare well for a sub, who increasingly might not have as much training as necessary. Experts say to imagine what you would want if you were coming into a classroom for the first time – then imagine someone has even less experience.

Set high expectations with your class (some teachers use awards and punishments for good and bad reports, while others object to such policies and note that it can put added pressure on the sub to report and then perhaps face those students later), and prepare the class for the material they will cover, even previewing it. Consider flipping your class – or recording a lesson that students can watch at home than work on in class (or watch if they didn’t previously).

Make the plans explicit: Class X will do X and the material is located X. They will turn assignment in on X. Include emergency contact information, key policies, and any instructions about students with special needs or who can be relied upon. You can determine whether you want the substitute to have your personal contact information,

Be sure to set up emergency plans to be kept in the main office for use in situations where you won’t have time to develop them.