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    I must stop teacher burn out before there's no one left to teach our students, says the district CHRO.


    For more than 25 years Kelly Education has worked with hundreds of district human resources administrators to solve staffing challenges. In this narrative, we share their collective experiences through the eyes of one CHRO who is managing the impact of the teacher and substitute teacher shortage on a typical Friday. 

    As a Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO), I develop and implement policies related to personnel, compensation, training and development, recruitment, and labor relations for our school district’s faculty and staff. 

    My biggest headache? Keeping my schools filled with qualified educators. The pandemic gutted our labor pool. Worse, we don’t have the time or resources to constantly replenish the substitute teacher talent pool. Sure, we have a game plan for when there’s a pending winter storm, a flu outbreak, or when one of our teachers informs us about a long-term FMLA absence. But bracing for unexpected PTO on any given day makes me more anxious than a kindergartner on the first day of school.  

    Friday morning: The people shuffle. 

    Yes, we have a district-wide plan for Fridays too... because every Friday is a crisis. It never fails, every Friday I start the day with a call from at least five principals. They don’t have enough substitute teachers to cover classrooms. I can hear the desperation in their voices. The bottom line is that they are responsible for ensuring the school day runs safely, and smoothly and that means having a qualified educator in each classroom. 

    We go through our protocol list together:

    • Can any classrooms be combined? 
    • Have we offered incentive pay for teachers who give up their prep period? 
    • Are any other qualified adults available in the school? 
    • Can I send over a receptionist – or any other warm, vetted human - from the district office?
    • Can we ask any of our spouses to pitch in... again?  
    • Between essential meetings, can the principal and assistant principal provide coverage?

    After sending out four people from the district office, combining a couple middle school classes, and creating an impromptu “educational” Friday Movie Funday at one high school auditorium, we’ve achieved coverage. 

    Midday: Reflection on madness. 

    I’ve been tracking this madness for months (okay - years). I dutifully email the weekly absence report to my boss – the superintendent. She replies, “You know, principals are very expensive substitute teachers.” Later, she walks down to my office to tell me that we can’t keep doing this. We need to get a handle on Friday PTO requests, figure out how to keep our teachers, and finally put a stop to burn-out. If an incident happens because we don’t have enough staff, the media will have a field day. 

    I want to address the issue with the district’s substitute coordinator, but I just sent her to the high school to cover World History for the day. I consider placing a meeting on her calendar, but don’t want to frustrate her when she’s pitching in by teaching tenth graders about the fall of the Roman Empire on a Friday afternoon. I need to let her enjoy her weekend, so she comes back next week. So, instead, I send a “Thank YOU” text and set a reminder to buy her a latte on my way in on Monday. 

    The truth is that my own team isn’t resourced to recruit and hire a large enough pool of substitute teachers. Our “post and pray” recruiting strategy isn’t working. We should be analyzing absence trends, refining our onboarding process, and developing promising substitute teachers as part of our teacher pipeline strategy. Since I’m being honest with myself, I even worry that our screening process isn’t stringent enough as we’ve had a few substitutes who didn’t meet expectations of the building principals. 

    Supply and demand volume is out of control. We’re doing our best just to stay compliant with wage and hour laws, tax liability, and workers’ compensation claims. Most substitute teachers work a few shifts, then we never hear from them again. Even with an alluring Monday-Friday dayside schedule, we aren’t competitive with local wages or benefits. If SaleMart is paying $17.45 an hour, we really should do better for the substitutes who are helping to educate classrooms filled with 27-31 students. Many of these people have degrees. Today’s labor market has expectations of insurance, wellness programs, and other perks that we simply can’t compete with! 

    I need to address the compensation/reward package with our CFO, but we’re still fine-tuning the package for our full-time faculty and staff to offset burnout. That said, it’s time to get a referral system going and offer bonuses to our employees who secure a successful substitute teacher. I add that to the agenda for my next meeting with our CFO.  

    Dismissal bell: No rest for the weary. 

    I know that our principals need a pep talk so I begin to draft an email. I’ll tell them how incredible they are. We made it through another Friday. I’ll ask them to continue to support each other by sharing resources when they can.  

    Then, I look at Monday’s calendar and realize that it’s the day after the Super Bowl. Last year, 37 teachers across the district called out around 5:30 a.m. That left us scrambling and we vowed to never let that happen again. I add a line to my email asking the principals to review their dashboards, share their projected building absences, and send their plans for coverage.  

    Just as the dismissal bell rings at 2:55 p.m., I text the substitute coordinator to head back to the administration building. We need to make sure our substitute pool is ready to spring into action on Monday. It’s time to put out an “all-hands-on-deck” alert. I sure wish I had that incentive pay in place. 

    The phone rings. Our media relations director informs me that a local TV station has a student video from the capacity-filled auditorium. I’m asked to join the administrative team in the conference room. 


    About the author:  For more than 25 years, Kelly Education has been the leader in substitute educator staffing solutions for school districts across the United States. Read one of our case studies to learn more about how our partnerships help districts with their substitute staffing challenges.


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