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Substitute teachers are an important part of a school's ecosystem, impacting educators as well as students

Are substitutes the answer to the teacher shortage?

Substitute teachers are an important part of a school's ecosystem, impacting educators as well as students

Key points:

  • Substitute teachers are already critical to the school environment
  • Could funds be allocated to help substitutes find a long-term path to teaching?

California is investing $350 million in teacher residencies, recognizing the need for effective teachers, which too many of our classrooms are missing. But this big bet isn’t working. Why? Too many people can’t afford to take on the financial liability to train for the position.  

If we know the approach isn’t working, we need to look toward another solution: Substitute teachers.  

The average K-12 student spends one year of their education with a substitute. However, 56 percent of substitute teachers receive no training. Every day in America, there is a need for 250,000 substitute teachers, but 77 percent of school districts report acute substitute staffing challenges. It’s a reminder that students don’t get do-overs; every day of their education matters.  

Substitute teachers are an important part of our school ecosystem. They impact our students, as well as the well-being of our teachers. Not having effective substitutes–or, let’s be honest, any additional person with a college degree willing to help–is also impacting teachers unable to pursue professional development without sacrificing their student’s learning.  

What if we put some of this investment in residencies into professionalizing substitute teachers and giving them a pathway into long-term teaching?  

Every school has a budget for substitute teachers. It’s a necessity. All schools spend time and money on substitute teachers, but few schools steward those educators to become full-time teachers. Principals simply don’t have the time or resources to train substitute teachers, to offer benefits and paid time off, and to help them navigate complicated credentialing processes. Substitute teachers are poised to become great teachers–if we can give them the boost they need. Some principals have found ways to develop their substitutes into full-time teachers, but it’s too few and far between.  

What if we could do this at scale? We can. Here’s how.  

Forge partnerships with districts to use those same substitute teacher funds differently. Hire substitutes to work full-time and give them the training they deserve. Provide them with a professional salary, with benefits and paid time off, not a “gig economy” role or a paltry resident salary (30 percent of teacher residents experience food insecurity–clearly not an acceptable condition for aspiring teachers).  Most crucially, help substitutes earn a debt-free credential. The average educator entering the profession has incurred $65,000 in student debt. Educators deserve to enter this field on solid financial footing, allowing them to stick out teaching as a career. 

This is a way to create a new pathway into the teaching profession, ensure schools have a pool of trained substitutes available, and remove barriers into the profession for aspiring educators. This is also a way to recruit the educators we most need in our schools to represent our students, and to recruit those who may not have had the opportunities to enter this profession otherwise. These groups include educators of color, first-generation college graduates, immigrants and children of immigrants, single parents, etc.  

For the schools, this means more effective substitute teachers available in the short-term and a better pool of new teachers in the long-term. For substitute teachers, this gives them not only the respect they deserve but also the opportunity to try the profession and get to know a community before becoming a teacher of record while earning a fair salary.  

This is just one promising solution to our teacher shortage.  

Programs like this will open the door to a more equitable and robust teaching community, but they are not the complete solution. We need funding, support, and more widespread resources to train the current and future generations of teachers and their students. And if our current bets aren’t working, we need to try something new. Our students and teachers deserve solutions now.  

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