By the time they graduate from high school, the average U.S. student will have spent a full year of their education with substitute teachers. Substitute teaching is a core part of how education happens in schools, but it rarely gets attention or investment.
As leaders at Substantial Classrooms, a nonprofit dedicated to unlocking the potential of substitute teaching, we’re excited to share insights that policymakers can use to assess policies that support and grow the substitute teacher workforce, including:
Ensuring that substitute teachers can provide education, not just supervision. The role of the substitute teacher is to keep students’ education progressing when a regular teacher isn’t available. Too often, especially in times of crisis, the language and decisions around substitute teaching become transactional, as if success is measured by simply getting someone — anyone — to supervise the students. To keep the focus on enabling education, policymakers can root policies in a broader vision — attracting, supporting and retaining people who are equipped to teach students.
Approaching the education workforce as an ecosystem. The “Great Resignation” has hit the education workforce broadly and deeply. When leaders make changes to the design, compensation or requirements for one education job, it can cause ripple effects throughout the system. For example, when one district significantly increased pay for substitute teachers, staff from their after-school provider decided to apply. As their supply of subs increased, the after-school program suffered. In a crisis, it’s sometimes necessary to “plug holes,” but taking the education ecosystem into account can lead to stronger policies and better outcomes for the sector overall.
Understanding that the substitute teacher shortage is an equity issue. Nearly all schools are struggling to find enough substitute teachers to meet their needs, but the problem is more severe in schools with lower incomes and schools with higher proportions of students of color, even when those schools are within the same district. This compounds any challenges that these schools are already facing. As with all issues with equity implications, one-size-fits-all policies may not provide appropriate solutions.
Using these lenses for evaluation, policymakers can make changes — either temporarily or permanently — that support schools struggling with a substitute teacher shortage:
1. Broaden Eligibility
Most states can play a major role in determining who can substitute teach. By changing eligibility criteria, states can expand who districts can recruit. Already, states and districts are lowering education requirements, increasing caps on teaching days, waiving waiting periods for retired teachers and creating new permits. It’s the fastest way to increase the number of people who can substitute teach, but it doesn’t typically address the quality of teaching or disparate availability of subs.
2. Provide Training and Development
States can offer centralized professional development to alleviate pressure on school districts and raise standards for the sector. Right now, only 56% of substitute teachers receive any training before starting their role, and just 6% receive ongoing professional development. HR teams typically don’t have capacity — or funds — to offer more. When states step in, it can increase the quality of substitute teaching and make the role more attractive to candidates.
3. Invest in Research and Innovation
States can provide grants or other financial incentives for districts to develop innovative staffing models. Substitute teaching has worked the same way, in most districts, for over 100 years. The legacy system is effective at keeping costs low, but it wasn’t designed to advance student learning or create sustainable jobs. School districts may need guidance and resources to better identify the impact of the current system, and to develop and test new models.
As policymakers seek to address this crisis, it’s an opportunity to build a stronger and more modern system, rooted in research about what makes a job attractive and sustainable.