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I'm barely keeping this ship afloat—we need reinforcements, says the principal.
For more than 25 years Kelly Education has worked with thousands of school principals across the country who need help finding substitute teachers. In this narrative, we share their collective experiences through the eyes of one principal who is trying to hold his school together on a typical Friday.
I‘m the principal of Central High School. We have 2,568 students and 110 teachers and staff. Today started early. I knew it would. It always does. It’s a Friday.
The wake-up triage.
5:00 a.m. Buzz, buzz, buzz. My phone on my nightstand began to groan. I’m fairly certain that a sharp elbow to my side ushered me out of bed.
I set my Friday smiley face mug under the Keurig and tap my cell screen. Shelly, my substitute staffing coordinator is a gem. Dutifully, she sent the informal absence report at 5:00 a.m. I almost dropped my coffee—eight more teacher call-offs since we checked the dashboard last night. She was working her magic to fill this batch of replacements. We were already slim with planned PTO handled through our automated system. I’m not sure how many more substitute teachers we could wrangle at this hour.
5:30 a.m. The morning got worse. Six more call-offs, including several paraprofessionals and a couple of math teachers. These die-hard educators never call out—especially on a Friday. They are among the most passionate and reliable people we have on staff. They often miss their own family events for school functions.
In a group chat, I ask other principals in my district if they’re experiencing the same volume of teacher call offs. It’s not as bad for them, but a bug must be hitting our school community.
5:45 a.m. I text my faculty and staff to prepare them for the day. “Good morning team. Looks like we’ve got more absences than a typical Friday. Extra compensation will be awarded for giving up a prep period. Text Shelly ASAP if you can offer availability today. She’ll email the coverage plan by 7:00 a.m. I appreciate your willingness to pitch in. It’s an all-hands-on-deck kind of day! Thank you.”
6:30 a.m. Shelly is waiting for me in my office with that look on her face. We don’t have enough coverage to safely manage the students. It’s time to call the district office to see if they can help. I’ve done all I can. Our Chief of Human Resources assures me that they are working on a plan to address shortages and the resulting burnout. We review the standard protocol for high absence days.
- Yes. We offered incentives to teachers giving up a prep period.
- Yes. We combined classes where we could.
- Yes. The assistant principal is covering a class.
- No. I can’t cover a class. With this skeleton crew I need to focus as a leader. I don’t bother to schedule meetings on Fridays but often must squeeze in impromptus with parents, staff, and vendors.
- Yes. But I don’t love the idea of combining three math classes in the auditorium for a Friday movie day. That’s a lot of teenagers not being productive.
- Yes. Please send over three people from the district office. How soon can they be redirected to us?
It’s suggested that we seek counsel from the school nurse and put the custodial crew on standby to sanitize the building. We need to get ahead of any virus that might be spreading. And Monday morning is the day after the Super Bowl … I’m already concerned that we won’t have enough teachers.
Morning Madness: A new matrix.
7:00 a.m. Shelly sends the email detailing the coverage plan. She’s got a matrix that accounts for every period of each vacancy. I see a few new names of substitute teachers in the report. I ask that these folks stop in my office before going to their assigned classrooms. Since the district hires substitute teachers, I want to be sure they understand our school rules and culture.
7:30 a.m. I decide to go out in the hallway to greet our teachers, then I can catch the substitute teachers as they arrive. I cross my fingers that they will all show up and be able to follow the lesson plans.
Substitute teachers are easy to spot, they project confidence but have trouble navigating our building. I want them to feel welcome because we need them to stick around. They all seem delightful, but I worry about one who may encounter our more mischievous students. I make a mental note to alert a neighbor teacher to pop in, especially during fourth-hour chemistry.
7:55 a.m. The bell rings. Here we go.
School Hours: The hop, skip, and jump.
Leadership in the high school setting is not for the faint of heart. My teachers, staff, students, and parents are all counting on me to deliver on safety, academic progress, and swift communication. While complaints are often voiced to me without hesitation, solutions are seldom brought forth. Allow me to clarify – I'm not complaining. I see this job as my vocation, and I love helping people of all ages navigate challenges and grow personally, and professionally.
I spend the rest of the morning popping into classrooms and providing pep talks where I sense teachers are overwhelmed. By midday, I’ve fielded two parent calls about the decision to put 110 students in an auditorium. Their students wanted to go home because they thought we were wasting their time. I explained that we unexpectedly had more teachers out today and we’re doing the best we can. I even asked if they know anyone interested in becoming a substitute teacher.
In lieu of lunch, I gobbled down a few cookies from the front office stash while coincidentally walking toward fourth-hour chemistry. I was too late. Jimmy Taylor decided to be a mixologist. The beaker exploded and Jimmy’s hand was injured. He needed to see the nurse. The substitute teacher looked as pale as a ghost. I was going to need to stay here for a while.
In the middle of sixth hour, my cellphone rings. There’s viral video of students “making out” in the auditorium. Everyone involved is in the guidance office. Protocol has been initiated, and I need to alert the public relations officer for the district.
Back in the office, I check on Jimmy. His dad was fuming when he came to pick him up. As I sit at my desk, the school nurse pops in to tell me the virus might be something, but it’s too soon to tell as she’s still tracking incubation.
Clean-up: After the dismissal bell.
3:15 p.m I exhale while reaching for one more cookie before taking a call with the superintendent and CHRO to discuss the media inquiry about the auditorium video... and the coverage plan for Monday—the day after the Super Bowl.
5:30 p.m My wife texts that she's bumped our dinner reservation to 8 p.m. She must have sensed that I had a rough day. I'll work late to review that compliance report that must be filed on Monday and respond to my backlog of urgent emails that came in this week. Everything else will have to wait.
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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