Policy Changes Aim to Increase Pool of Substitute Teachers

This year, some university and college students in Pennsylvania will be permitted to serve as substitute teachers in the state’s public school districts, vocational-technical schools and intermediate units under a new law that becomes effective Sept. 12.

The legislation signed by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf in July is an attempt to increase the number of substitute teachers in a state with a longtime shortage. The problem, however, is not unique to Pennsylvania. School administrators across the country struggle to find temporary stand-ins for teachers, and the law that allows college students to take the reins is just one example of several diverse solutions being reviewed and implemented by the states.

“There is a shortage of substitute teachers. Districts are saying that their fill rates are not as high as they would like them to be because there aren’t enough individuals working,” said Geoffrey Smith, director of the Substitute Teaching Division of STEDI.org.

Smith founded the Substitute Teaching Institute at Utah State University in 1995. In 2008, the institute became the Substitute Teaching Division of STEDI.org, which primarily works with school districts to train substitute teachers.

Many factors have contributed to the shortage of substitute teachers, said Smith, who has written about the nationwide problem for AASA, The School Superintendents Association. In some cases, certified teachers who could serve as substitute teachers are called to work as regular teachers because of the shortage of permanent teachers across the country.

Some individuals, including retired teachers, may be unavailable when needed, Smith said. Also, low pay for substitute teachers and better job opportunities outside the school system could be part of the problem.

Moreover, increased professional development requirements and additional leave time granted to permanent teachers have created a greater need for substitute teachers, Smith said.

But Smith said he believes training is the biggest obstacle for non-certified teachers who want to serve as substitutes; not everyone knows what to do when they enter a classroom of waiting students.  

“We’re not going to tell the district that they need to raise pay,” he said. “But we find that by offering training and making sure these non-certified folks are well prepared to enter the classroom, they have a tremendous experience and are very well rewarded by touching lives, and they enjoy that.”

Preparing substitute teachers for the job can go a long way, Smith said. “Just hiring someone who breathes and putting them in a classroom without any training—they’re not going to last long.”

In Pennsylvania, students enrolled in a teacher preparation program at an accredited college or university in the state—and have completed at least 60 semester hours, or the equivalent of courses—will be permitted to work as substitute teachers for a limited number of days in the school year.

Pennsylvania state Sen. Lloyd Smucker, who wrote the bill in his state, said the idea to allow college students to substitute teach was inspired by educators and others who testified at a joint Senate and House Education Committee hearing in October 2015, according to a news release by the Pennsylvania Senate Republicans dated June 30, the day the bill passed the Senate.

“Many school districts are struggling with a growing shortage of substitute educators,” Smucker said. “This bill will help to fill that vacuum and also offer an added benefit: it will give college students who want to be teachers the opportunity to gain valuable experience in the classroom.”

Some districts reported a fill rate of only 70 percent on any given day, Smucker said, according to the news release, “and some areas have opted to outsource their substitutes or have been left with no choice but to request frequent emergency permits for day-to-day substitutes.”

In Philadelphia, some school administrators have had to congregate multiple classrooms in one gym, pay regular teachers to give up prep time or take over classrooms themselves, according to a June 20 story in The Philadelphia Inquirer with the headline, “Substitute teachers are the new endangered species.”

Concerns that arose as the bill proceeded through the Legislature included fears that the law would give college students a reason to skip class. A July 29 story by LancasterOnline said some Millersville University professors worried that students would opt to make up to $120 a day teaching instead of going to class.

Minimum substitute teaching requirements vary from state to state. Some states require college degrees, some require substitutes to have at least some college education and others require that substitutes have at least a high school diploma or GED. In some states, the school district settles the requirements.

In New York, a shortage of substitute teachers led the state Education Department’s Board of Regents to change a rule that said non-certified teachers could only substitute for up to 40 days in a school year. Non-certified teachers may now teach up to 90 days.

Although approved by the Board of Regents in July, the regulation change had critics.

“The places and the school districts that have the most difficulty finding teachers are the districts that have large numbers of high-poverty students—the very population that we want to improve in terms of academic performance,” said Regent Judith Johnson, according to a July 13 story in the Times Union. “And we want to put into their classroom teachers who are not qualified and not certified to teach kids who desperately need rigorous opportunities to learn? That is unconscionable.” 
Earlier this year, Illinois state Sen. Steve Stadelman had another idea. He introduced a bill that would waive the registration fee for retired teachers returning to work in a position that requires a professional educator license if the teacher plans to work as a substitute teacher. On June 30, the bill was re-referred to the House Rules Committee.

“It’s a big problem,” Stadelman told WREX-TV in March, referring to the shortage of substitute teachers in Illinois. “I think it affects the quality of education.”