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Market-tested solutions to attract and retain top substitute teachers.
It's the struggle most public school administrators across the U.S. fight every day: teacher absenteeism. The National Center for Education Statistics data shows that chronic teacher absenteeism—defined as missing 10% or more of school days—increased by as much as 49% during the 2021-22 school year.
In addition to short-term absences, long-term vacancies continue to grow as educators continue to leave the profession—citing unlivable wages, burnout, safety concerns, and an overall lack of support among the top reasons for their exodus. And the reinforcements aren't there. Enrollment in collegiate teacher preparation programs has steadily declined over the past decade.
The educator shortage is so severe that Kelly Education, the nation's largest provider of substitute educators, is predicting the shortfall of qualified educators will double by 2025 unless swift, substantive, and collaborative action is taken to change course.
The result? More reliable substitute teachers are needed.
It's no surprise that the demand for substitute teachers — long and short-term — mirrors the teacher vacancy trend.
School administrators are scrambling daily to fill classrooms. They rely on teacher prep periods or administrators for coverage. Compounding the problem, many districts' HR teams can't keep up with the revolving door of substitute teachers—they don't have proper resources to attract, onboard, develop, and retain a large, qualified talent pool.
Gone are the days of “you’ll have a substitute teacher tomorrow” being synonymous with “tomorrow, we’ll watch a movie.” The role of the substitute teacher is more important than ever as they are now are an essential part of the continuation of learning in the classroom. They need to be qualified, vetted, and respected professionals who meet local and state standards and have the ability to collaborate, understand building safety protocols, and execute lesson plans.
High demand means substitute teachers are in the driver’s seat when deciding where and how they want to work. Districts are not only in competition with the local labor market, but their schools are also competing against one another for the best employees. What to do? Districts can position themselves to attract and retain the most reliable substitute teachers by examining what I call the "Four P's".
The Four P's: Pay, Planning, Pulling Data, and Partnership.
1. Pay School budgets are tight and attracting people is hard when other industries pay more. Hobby Lobby recently raised its starting hourly wage to $18.50; compare that to the $14.21/hour on average that substitute teachers make. During the last 13 years, the Hobby Lobby has raised its minimum wage 12 times. Since our return to in-person learning, some districts have had near immediate success when they increased pay and offered incentives—such as offering long-term pay starting on the first day of the assignment, rather than requiring substitutes to teach for 20 days first.
For example, Baltimore County Public Schools increased substitute teacher pay across all categories by $4/hour at the start of 2022-23 school year and has seen sustained improvement in fill rates. The Charleston County Public School District took fill-rates to above 90 percent after a competitive market analysis led to pay increases.
2. Planning Great working relations start with creating a welcoming environment for all staff. Due to the nature of their jobs, substitute teachers can easily feel like outcasts, so we recommend a few steps.
- Have the school principal or someone designated to get them set up for the day provide a warm welcome—this is especially important on day one.
- Take the time to provide an overview of the school, key processes, and classroom lesson plans.
- Provide access to all tools and resources, such as updated lesson plans and training on applicable technology platforms. Substitute teachers want to be supported in ways that allow them to teach—not just to keep order in the classroom.
- Consider a work buddy who can help them with questions or concerns. Assign someone to check in on a substitute teacher periodically to see how things are going and to ensure they have everything needed to be successful.
3. Pulling Data Most districts utilize an absence management system: software that allows district employees to create absences and allows substitutes to accept assignments. Although their core scheduling function is simple, these systems provide powerful data when leveraged properly. Users have the ability to pull historical absences and forecast future absences. Once equipped with this data, leaders can develop substitute strategies around high-volume days, volatility, and recruiting—ultimately mitigating the impact of absenteeism.
In seven months, upon doing a deep dive into analytics Oklahoma City Public Schools boosted teacher fill rates by 30%, with some days exceeding 90%.
4. Partnership Engaging a third-party partner like Kelly Education can help minimize HR and financial burdens, allowing district and school administrators to focus on what matters most—student achievement. We know that each district has unique challenges and have seen that from in our 9,100 partner schools from coast to coast. Whether it's addressing teacher attrition, attracting a more targeted substitute teacher/tutor/paraeducator/staff pool, providing access to benefits, or properly onboarding and managing the team, we've got more than 25 years of market-tested experience in helping districts achieve their mission through employment solutions.
In wrapping up, now is the time to take real steps to mitigate teacher absenteeism and the educator shortage. To do so, we’ll need to continue to work together to change the system—but there are things that districts can do right now to help ease the pressure in hiring a substitute educator workforce that is more skilled than ever before. Districts who deploy the "Four P's" — pay, planning, pulling data, and partnership — can see fill-rates rise and stress levels fall.
The article author is Tay Person, a strategic sales manager at Kelly Education. During his 18+ year career in education, Tay has taught in two of New Jersey’s most underprivileged school districts, Camden and Atlantic City; delivered successful implementations of READ 180 and System 44 as part of Scholastic Education’s Northeast Service Practice team; and served as an elected school board member in New Jersey. Tay is a driven and dedicated consultant, executive, and leader with the key ability to understand the intricacies of the K-12 market while assisting districts in meeting their goals.
View Related: K-12 School Districts
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