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I can't improve academic test scores when there aren't enough teachers, says the superintendent.
For more than 25 years Kelly Education has worked with hundreds of school superintendents to solve staffing challenges. In this narrative, we share their collective experiences through the eyes of one superintendent who is managing the impact of the teacher and substitute teacher shortage on a typical Friday.
As the superintendent, I’m responsible for the overall health and reputation of our school district. Reporting to the school board, I have oversight of budgets, compliance, human resources, building issues, construction projects, special education, and standards for academic achievement.
There’s one thing that keeps me up at night. Making sure we have enough qualified educators in our classrooms. Our test scores and district ranking matter. The pandemic claimed too many of my teachers and the ones who are left deserve a break. They are burned out.
The dreaded Friday morning.
Every Friday, my human resources lead reports the number of classes not covered by substitute teachers. Every Friday, I get a pit in my stomach when I digest the numbers. But I know I’m not alone—the impact of the teacher shortage isn’t limited to our district.
This morning, I walk over to my CHRO’s office and say once again that principals are expensive substitute teachers. He’s clearly overwhelmed as he shakes his head. I hear him calming the principal at one of our high schools—offering one of our central office staff as the World History substitute teacher. I release a deep breath because I know that central staff has covered many Fridays before.
Always mindful of our district's mission to shape the next generation through academic achievement and character building for the betterment of our community, in this moment, it feels impossible if we’re always plugging holes to keep the ship afloat.
I walk further down the hallway toward the CFO’s office to ask about the progress with the staffing budget proposal that we’ll share with the school board next month. Everyone knows that the current situation is not sustainable. There are too many PTO days for staff and not enough substitute teachers in the revolving substitute pool.
These teachers (and principals) need a break. They’ve stepped up year after year, they still cover classes during their prep periods, and they follow our rules about PTO—often having to miss their own children’s school events on Friday. That’s why I’m so passionate about investing in our educators and creating an environment that makes them proud to be part of our district and stay for years.
Hoping for a midday miracle.
By the lunch hour, the school day is chugging along. I check in with our CHRO and he says that we’ve got it handled, but he’s not thrilled that we’re sending three classes of algebra and geometry to the auditorium because two math teachers called out.
Math is one of the most difficult classrooms to effectively cover. I wonder if there’s a virus spreading at the school? I ask the CHRO to check with the principal to step up the cleaning protocol there. We’ll need to get ahead of that since Monday is the day after the Super Bowl. That’s historically a bad day for teacher call-offs—and good luck squeezing our substitute pool.
I field a couple of calls from board members (and a few emails from parents) upset about 110 students being educated in the auditorium by watching a documentary about animals adapting to human societal encroachment. If they were my children, I know that it’s not good enough. One of mine would quickly lose interest, then find mischief.
It’s now 2:30 p.m. and my team has managed to keep the ship afloat. I’ve maintained my composure and gracefully championed everyone through another week... another Friday. Then, our media relations director appears in my doorway.
The Dismissal Bell Lesson: Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.
I should have known better. Large school districts have minor incidents every day that need to be managed. And truly, the day is never really over at the last bell. There are athletic events, cultural performances, clubs, and meetings that extend well beyond regular school hours. I like to know about all incidents—big or small.
- The absent teacher who forgot about the fashion club meeting now has 12 teenage girls sitting in a room unattended.
- There was a small fire in the chem lab when a student tried to demonstrate “something cool” to another substitute teacher. We might expect another call from the family lawyer of the student who was burned. His father quit the booster club last year and tried to sue the district because his older kid wasn’t the recipient of a highly competitive scholarship.
- And there’s a video circulating from the auditorium where students were “making out” in the balcony. We’ve got the phone, and so far, the media hasn’t called. Our IT team is on it, but it’s unclear if we can shut it down.
Each of these incidents happened because we don’t have enough teachers. And to be honest, with the size and quality of the current substitute talent pool, I’m growing concerned that incidents will continue to escalate.
I call my “administrative cabinet” to the conference room along with the district’s head nurse. We need to look at the potential for Monday’s Super Bowl call off colliding with the flu bug that’s hitting the neighboring district. If we decide to cancel school now, we need to cancel food service, transportation, athletics, and the substitute teachers who are already on the schedule. Looks like I'll be working well into the weekend tying up loose ends.
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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