Fit to Learn: February 2023
Sometime over the last two years, you as a school leader have probably been a substitute teacher. That’s likely not a role you expected to play at this phase of your career. But, because of the pandemic and various changes in the labor market, you’ve likely been dealing with more absences and fewer subs, and you’ve had to be creative to ensure that every classroom has a teacher. You’ve used piecemeal solutions—and hopped into the classroom yourself—to plug holes. While these solutions have kept your school functioning, they’ve also contributed to collective burnout, as you and your colleagues have repeatedly sacrificed precious prep periods or work time to provide coverage. Perhaps the intensity of this challenge is dissipating for you, but for many, it’s still severe, and maybe even getting worse.
Through your frustration, you’ve likely wondered: How can I find more substitute teachers? Our research suggests that, as a principal, the better question to ask is: How can I get subs to work more days at my school? This shift from thinking about recruitment to focusing on retention will lead you to more actionable strategies.
Your goal is to create a workplace environment that matches subs’ needs and desires so that substitutes who are taking assignments at your campus will be more likely to return and work with greater frequency. If there’s a silver lining to your recent excursions into substitute teaching, perhaps it’s the fact that you’ve gotten some insight into what it’s like to work as a sub at your school.
In a recent survey (see bit.ly/SubSurvey2022), we asked substitute teachers what factors are most important when they consider which assignments to take. With over 4,000 responses, we got a good sense of what subs are looking for. Here are the top three things:
1. Reliable lesson plans. When you substitute taught recently, you may have gotten a sub plan from the teacher. With many years of education leadership under your belt, you were likely able to adapt or adjust, regardless of how much information you were given. But imagine you are a substitute teacher who doesn’t have a lot of (or any!) training or support. Sub plans are the only form of communication between the regular classroom teacher and the sub, and they are what allow subs to provide education instead of just supervision. Even when subs are simply overseeing students’ online, self-directed work, a plan from the teacher lets subs know what’s happening and how they can help. When a sub arrives at a school and isn’t given a lesson plan or directions for how to support their students’ learning, it sets them up for a challenging day. And when they have a challenging day because of something that seems preventable, they frequently don’t return to that school.
Questions to consider:
- Does your school have a process in place to ensure that teachers are creating quality lesson plans for subs to use when they are absent?
- Do your plans include noninstructional information that subs need, like classroom rules (e.g., students can/can’t wear hats and hoods, students can/can’t use their phones) and who to contact for help?
- Does your school have a clear and dependable way of making sure lesson plans get into subs’ hands in the morning?
2. Knowing they can make a difference. You probably chose a career in education at least partially because you wanted to make a difference in your community—and your subs did, too. When they enter a classroom, they want to know that they are helping the school to function, and the students to learn. But if they aren’t set up for success with appropriate training and support, subs may feel like they’re having a negative impact, and their motivation dissipates. Other times, they may feel like they are ROCKING it, but they never get validation or confirmation from other adults, and again, they lose their motivation.
Questions to consider:
- How do your subs know that you see and value their contributions? Are they a part of your teacher appreciation activities?
- What stories do you have—or can you collect—to demonstrate the positive impact of substitute teachers?
- Can you advocate for professional development at the district level so that subs are better prepared and have more positive experiences in the classroom?
3. Friendly office staff. As an established school leader, you are deeply embedded in your school community and know where to go for help or resources if you need them. When a sub arrives at your school, they may not know anyone. Their experience depends heavily on their interactions with your front office staff. When the team is friendly and helpful, subs feel welcomed, comfortable, and confident—and perhaps most importantly, they feel like they have a backup if something goes wrong.
Questions to consider:
- Do your front office staff know how critical their role is with substitute teachers, and have you conveyed appreciation for this specific part of their job?
- Have you given front office staff sufficient bandwidth and resources to properly welcome and set up subs when they arrive?
- Have you given front office staff input into how substitute teaching works at your school?
While these three items are actionable recommendations for secondary school principals, structural changes at the system level also need to happen. Even if you are already using all of the best practices highlighted here, it’s possible that the traditional model of substitute teaching, where subs choose where they work each day from a districtwide list of assignments, doesn’t serve your school well.
You can start moving the needle by urging your district to plan and budget for full-time, school-based substitute teaching positions. Our research suggests that creating this type of role makes the job attractive to new audiences and addresses some inequities built into the current system. You can advocate for an even more transformative approach—turning substitute teaching into a career development position, offering robust professional development, and connecting subs directly to your teacher pipeline. If that sounds exciting, you can offer to pilot a small cohort at your school.
You know—through observation and firsthand experience—how difficult substitute teaching can be. Your work to improve the experience of substitute teaching at your school, and spark systemwide innovation, will lay the foundation for staffing stability in the long term.
Amanda von Moos is the executive director and Jessie Weiser is the chief operating officer of Substantial Classrooms.
Sidebar: Long-Term Subs
“I wished that my principal remembered that I’ve never done this before. This isn’t filling in for a day or two, it’s being responsible for a class in a subject I don’t know anything about.” —A long-term sub
Schools are increasingly relying on long-term subs to cover teacher vacancies and extended leaves. Unfortunately, in many places these subs aren’t given resources, information, or support unique to that specific, distinct role. It’s worth a little bit of your time—some up-front investment—to get long-term subs ready for their assignments. Here are a few easy steps you can take to integrate subs into your community and set them up for success:
- Schedule a shadow day. The first day of a teacher’s absence doesn’t need to be the sub’s first day in the classroom! Give long-term subs an opportunity to connect with the regular classroom teacher, learn about the curriculum, experience the schedule, meet students, and see how the classroom typically operates. You can also meet personally with the sub to discuss processes and expectations. For just one day of pay, you can accelerate a sub’s ability to hit the ground running.
- Introduce subs to your community. Share some information about this new member of your team with staff, parents/guardians, and students. You can ask the sub for a short bio (e.g., name, favorite book, and why they enjoy subbing) and share it via email, or you can introduce them in person or via a short video message in meetings, gatherings, or classrooms. Your public acknowledgment of their presence and role will help everyone see and treat them as a valued member of your community.
- Identify a mentor or a buddy. Although you will spend some time orienting subs, they will likely have questions as they get into the work. You won’t always be available—and most of the questions probably won’t need your attention. They could ask a peer, but finding the right person and building that type of relationship takes time. If you identify someone who teaches the same subject to serve as a mentor or buddy, your sub will immediately feel like they have support when they need it. And, it can give the teacher a boost of confidence, too! If you can, provide a small gift for the mentor/buddy and/or gift cards for them to order and eat lunch together.
Substantial Classrooms offers tools that change the dynamics around substitute teaching. For example, SubPlans streamlines the process of creating and distributing sub plans, and SubSchool is a professional learning platform that cultivates meaning, mastery, and community for substitute teachers. Learn more at substantialclassrooms.org.