Years ago, substitute teachers may have been considered more “chair fillers” than teachers. Today, thanks to a number of important factors, this scenario is far less common in schools. In a majority of school systems across the U.S., substitute teachers are trained professionals who are asked to do much more than just keep an eye on students. They are expected to teach the same skills and concepts as the teacher they are filling in for—and often they take part in the same professional development activities as full-time teachers under contract.

One reason for this shift is that more is now expected of schools in general. In this era of heightened accountability in U.S. public education, a significant number of K–12 leaders believe that every day of learning is critical—and students can no longer afford to take days off from instruction simply because their teacher might be absent.

“Substitute teachers need to be thought of and treated like the highly skilled professionals they are, who have the same responsibilities as full-time staff,” says Mitch Page, principal of Holmes Elementary School in New Britain, CT. “Substitute teachers are not simply ‘covering’ classes. They are expected to engage students with rigor, passion, and respect.”

Substitute teachers play a vital role in maintaining continuity of learning for students when full-time teachers are not available—and this role is magnified as school systems nationwide face a critical shortage of licensed instructors.

According to the nonprofit, nonpartisan Learning Policy Institute (LPI), which has been closely following this crisis, nearly 8 percent of U.S. teachers are leaving the profession every year, most before reaching the age of retirement. Teachers cite many reasons for their dissatisfaction, including low pay, plus a lack of administrative support, professional learning opportunities, time for planning and collaboration, and input into decision-making.

At the same time, fewer college graduates are becoming teachers. Enrollment in teacher education programs dropped from 691,000 to 451,000 between 2009 and 2014, LPI says. That is a 35 percent reduction during that period.

Combating Teacher Shortages

As a result of these converging trends, many school systems are struggling to hire and retain highly qualified instructors, especially in certain geographic regions and areas of specialization—such as STEM, English as a second language, and special education.

States and school systems are trying a number of measures to fill these gaps, such as reducing the barriers to licensure and recruiting professionals from other fields to teach as a second career. But, even with these measures, school districts are turning to substitute teachers in massive numbers to fill vacant positions, at least until they can find a more permanent solution. (Often, the substitute teacher ends up becoming the solution!)

These developments have important implications for K–12 principals. Not only must principals focus on teacher retention by going the extra mile to ensure that faculty feel supported and appreciated, but they also must recruit and retain qualified, highly professional substitute teachers who can step in at a moment’s notice if a teacher leaves or is absent to ensure learning continues uninterrupted.

Focus on Content Knowledge

When hiring substitutes, principals should be looking for candidates with the necessary content knowledge to deliver instruction effectively, as well as some degree of teaching experience. While much of the focus centers on the content knowledge that is lost when highly qualified instructors are not teaching students, the absence of other areas of expertise—such as classroom-management skills and the use of 21st-century tools and pedagogies—has just as much of an impact on learning. Principals should be looking for these qualities when hiring substitutes as well.

What’s more, principals must make sure they have enough reliable substitute teachers to create an optimal learning environment so their teachers under contract want to stay. The availability of high-quality substitute teachers can have a big impact on the staff retention and morale of full-time teachers.

When schools have enough qualified substitutes so that teachers don’t have to give up their prep period to cover someone else’s classes, or so they have ample opportunities during the school day to plan and collaborate with colleagues, it builds teachers’ spirits and strengthens morale. Therefore, principals should focus as much attention on the number of substitutes at their disposal as they do on the credentials of these professionals.

Strategies for Success

Faced with these shifting dynamics, it can be hard for principals to find a large enough number of substitute teachers with the requisite skills the job demands. Here are some strategies that can help:

1. Create a culture in which all staff, including substitute teachers, feel valued and supported. Recognizing teachers publicly for their efforts, providing them with the coaching they need to excel at their job, and including them in decision-making can go a long way toward increasing staff morale. This applies to substitute teachers as well as teachers under contract.

Cyndi Callahan, the principal at John A. Langford Elementary School in East Hartford, CT, welcomes substitute teachers—by name—every morning during public announcements. “We make sure they know that we appreciate what they are doing,” she says.

Secretarial staff at Riverside High School in Ellwood City, PA, ensure that substitutes are “greeted like they are one of the staff” and that they know which teachers can support them if they have any questions throughout the day, says principal Michael Brooks.

2. Include substitute teachers in professional development workshops and other school activities. While substitutes hired for long-term assignments would get the same professional development opportunities as teachers under contract, principals should consider offering PD to subs on their regular call list as well.

At John A. Langford Elementary, long-term substitute teachers participate in all school activities, including coaching and data team meetings. “When subs are paired with [strong] teachers, effective practices result,” Callahan says.

3. Step up recruiting efforts. Like most educators, teachers at Laurel High School in New Castle, PA, spend a significant amount of time creating high-quality lesson plans that provide consistent learning experiences for students. “In instances where [teachers] cannot be in their classroom for whatever the reason is, they have the desire for learning to still take place. Educator frustration grows when we are unable to accommodate that expectation due to a lack of substitute teachers,” says Principal Mark Frengel.

Minimizing the disruption to students’ learning is vital for student success, which is why schools are placing a greater focus on recruiting qualified talent. For instance, principals are advertising at job fairs and working with local colleges to find candidates with the requisite skills to serve as substitute teachers. Having a positive, visible presence in the community can help attract high-quality candidates. Exploring these local connections is an excellent way to expand the talent pool.

4. Partner with a professional staffing firm. Consider working with a professional staffing firm specializing in the education field to find quality substitute teacher candidates. These experts can quickly identify qualified individuals to fill teaching vacancies, as well as hire substitute teachers who have the skills needed to ensure that learning continues without a hitch when they are asked to fill in.

“Good teachers want to know that when they miss a day that they will have a qualified substitute teacher in the classroom,” says Nathan Quesnel, superintendent of the East Hartford Public Schools in Connecticut and formerly a principal and assistant principal. “We work hard to recruit subs who want to be in our buildings and who get to know our teachers and students.”

Mitch Page sums it up best: “When we have good communication and a seamless process with our substitute teachers, teaching and learning continue uninterrupted. Most importantly, our students win.”

Nicola Soares is vice president and managing director for Kelly Services, the largest provider of education staffing solutions to school districts in the U.S.