The substitute teacher shortage we should have seen coming

As the pandemic nears its cheerless two-year anniversary, matters of health and wellness have dominated education conversations nationwide. The largescale return to in-person learning this fall has seen schools put in place mask mandates, COVID testing protocols, physical distancing requirements, and handwashing and sanitizing stations. But there has been at least one school health solution that has eluded school districts everywhere: When classroom teachers are sick or unable to work, there is often no one available to fill their roles.

This nationwide substitute teacher shortage has reached such a critical level that it has threatened some districts’ ability to keep schools open. Other school systems around the country have attempted to increase their pools of eligible substitutes by dropping requirements for bachelor degrees and speeding up certification processes. With many areas also facing shortages of full-time teachers, efforts to simply get bodies into classrooms to fill supplementary and part-time roles has exploded.

Despite the high demand, substitute pools keep dwindling, as former substitute teachers walk away from their jobs and fewer new candidates apply to take their places. This is a trend that I am wholly unsurprised to see, and one that I wrote about last year while working as a long-term substitute in the early days of the pandemic.

As a long-term substitute teacher at a middle school, I felt valued in my workplace. I enjoyed the variety of tasks I was asked to do. I developed meaningful relationships with the faculty, staff, and students. But despite the fulfillment I felt in that role, I knew the low pay, lack of benefits, and lack of job security was unsustainable. As the school year ended and full-time teachers prepared to take some much-needed time off, I spent the final weeks of the school year applying for hourly kitchen positions to secure my income through the summer. Other supplementary staff at the school shared their own summer plans with me, which included tutoring, online teaching, and retail work. After a traumatic and exhausting school year, our wages didn’t allow us any time to recoup. The burnout and frustration in the classrooms was palpable.Substitute teachers leaving the profession is simply part of this moment.

In response to the shortage, many districts have increased their substitute pay with some districts more than doubling their daily wages. But the memories of suddenly being left jobless and without income are all too fresh for some of us. As COVID began its massive spread in early 2020 and schools scrambled to make the switch to online learning, the plight of substitute teachers and hourly school employees largely felt like an afterthought. Many of us depended on daily work to survive and were left to navigate the unemployment system alone with very little information regarding our futures at the schools where we had been working. This frustration was further compounded by lack of access to employee health care during those early days of a generational public health crisis. And health concerns may very well be another reason many subs don’t return.

Substitute teaching has long been heralded as an ideal part-time position for retired teachers. Many of those ex-teachers are in an age range that puts them at higher risk for COVID infections and many may have decided that the prospect of getting sick is no longer worth it. Even substitutes who don’t fall into high risk categories may be tempted to take jobs where they encounter fewer people and can therefore limit their risk of exposure to infection. This is especially true for substitutes who move from school to school daily.

Risk of infection played into my own decision to take an adjunct position at a large university rather than returning to my long-term substitute job at a middle school. Though I am once again in large classrooms and encountering hundreds of people a day, the university has strict vaccination mandates for faculty, staff, and students. For others who have worked as substitute teachers in the past, there may simply be openings in other fields that didn’t exist before, as the U.S. undergoes a massive wave of resignations that has caused a worker shortage across countless other economic sectors.

These resignations get to the heart of this substitute teacher shortage: Workers throughout the country are fed up with stagnant wages, lack of job security, and poor conditions. From Kellogg workers striking in Michigan to restaurant workers unionizing in Memphis, the labor movement in the United States is having an important moment. Substitute teachers leaving the profession is simply part of this moment.

Though higher wages and reduced requirements for licensing may help fill near-empty substitute pools in the short term, these feel like inadequate solutions. True job security for substitute teachers means a living wage, increased paid time off, health insurance, and long term contracts. These improvements would not only increase the size of the substitute pool but also improve the quality of supplemental instruction within classrooms. Lowering the bar on eligibility requirements may help bring valued community members into schools, but it also runs the risk of placing children in the care of authority figures with little prior knowledge of classroom management, diverse learning styles, and mental health.

Reversing the substitute teacher shortage is an enormous issue that requires big policy changes and restructuring at and beyond the state level, but what better way to advocate for students than to advocate for those people responsible for educating them?