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Yelling, Crying and Hugging: All in a (Sub) Day’s Work

Editor’s note: As schools in Kent ISD and elsewhere struggle with a shortage of substitute teachers, School News Network reporter Steve Vedder shares his experiences as a longtime sub for Kentwood Public Schools.

Sub Shortage Continues; Bills Aim to Widen Pool

By Erin Albanese

Wyoming Public Schools Superintendent Tom Reeder sometimes has to staff a classroom with an interventionist, art teacher, or principal when a substitute teacher isn’t available.

“(The substitute teacher) shortage is slightly worse than last year,” Reeder said. “We have continued to look at improving issues. There is no easy solution.”

There’s a substitute teacher shortage nationally, and in Michigan there are between 10,000 and 12,000 teacher absences a day, leaving 800 to 1,400 unfilled classrooms, said Clark Galloway, president of EduStaff, a company that provides educational staffing including substitute teachers to more than 300 school districts statewide. EduStaff successfully fills an average of 88 percent of Michigan classrooms that need subs every school day. That’s 5 percent less than last year.

In Kent County, however, where EduStaff places subs for all 20 public school districts except Kentwood Public Schools, the fill rate is 90 percent. That’s up from 86 percent two years ago, when a different agency provided subs to Kent ISD schools.

Three factors have led to a shortage of substitute teachers in Michigan: college education programs have seen a major decline in enrollment; an improved economy means fewer people are turning to subbing for work; and, since 2010, the Michigan Legislature has put heavy restrictions on public school retirees subbing.

Ron Koehler, assistant superintendent for Kent ISD, said that in 2010 there were nearly 24,359 college students enrolled in teaching preparation programs, but just 11,099 in 2015.

“Ten years ago 80 percent of our substitute teachers were newly graduated certified teachers from Michigan college education programs. Today 78 percent are uncertified,” Galloway said, noting that the typical sub is a 43-year-old stay-at home-mom re-entering the workforce. “The dynamics of who’s in the classroom are different.”

When no is substitute teacher is available, districts have to scramble. They often rely on other teachers to give up planning hours to cover the class, or administrators fill in. Worst-case scenario is class time turns into babysitting hour and students lose out on instruction, Galloway said. “It’s very much a disruption to classrooms,” he said.

Lawmakers Propose Solutions

A package of house bills under consideration by the Michigan Legislature aims at addressing the shortage. Sponsored by State Rep. Holly Hughes (R-Montague), it would do the following:

  • make it easier for a retired teacher to work for a substitute teacher staffing organization or for a district directly, when current law has barriers or fees to a school district to hire a retiree;
  • decrease the required number of college credit hours for subbing from 90 to 60 credits;
  • allow subs to teach in a subject matter or field in which they have achieved expertise and hold professional licenses or certification without the college credit requirement.

“We are looking for an army of individuals to serve in their local districts,” Galloway said.

Districts decide on the pay level for subs, and some are offering incentives. Pay ranges from $70 to $100 a day. There are many positives to subbing, including spending the day with children.

“If you’re looking for a great place to work, flexibility and a safe environment, consider your local public schools,” Galloway said.


2015 School News Network Article on Sub Shortage

It may have only been a middle school physical education class, but the student was upset with one of my calls as a substitute PE teacher/referee in a flag football class.

He was mad enough to begin yelling at me when I detected a blur of motion to my right. A second student flashed past me and smashed into the yellingyoungster with a vicious crash that would have made any NFL linebacker proud.

When it was all sorted out the first student found himself in trouble for screaming at teacher, and I later found the second one holding back tears inside the principal’s office. I couldn’t help but ask him why he would risk certain punishment by smashing headlong into his classmate.

“Because,” he answered, “you’re not supposed to treat teachers that way.”

So you wanna be a substitute teacher, eh? Well, welcome to my world.

Take it from someone who has been in the business of subbing in physical education classes for over 20 years: Here’s what that world is like, and it includes no shortage of both positives and negatives.

I have worked only in Kentwood Public Schools, which, unlike other Kent ISD districts, hires its own subs. It works like this: Regular teachers who are unable to work are encouraged to contact the system’s sub caller the previous night, at which point that person will begin calling to find potential subs.

The problem from a sub’s standpoint is that teachers occasionally wait until morning to decide whether they can come in. Thus the sub caller begins making a second round of calls at about 5:30 a.m. If you get that call and accept the job, you definitely hit the ground running that day.

Take it from any sub, that’s a tough way to earn about $70 to $100 a day, the pay range in West Michigan depending on the district. All but Kentwood have their subs supplied by EduStaff (see related story).

Steve Vedder has been a physical education substitute teacher for more than 20 years

Plenty of Rewards

In an era when schools are pleading for qualified subs to teach math and other academics, my primary duty is no more complex than keeping track of students whose inclusion in a gym class could be the highlight of their day. They get an hour’s break from the rigors of AP calculus to shoot baskets, snatch up badminton racquets or simply walk around a gym with a friend, catching up on the latest gossip.

Granted, it doesn’t sound like the toughest job in the world — until you consider the flipside. It’s like the flag football story. You have young people who ordinarily abide by the rules and are model students under their regular teacher (let’s call them Jekylls). But once free of their regular teacher’s rules, they suddenly seem bent on testing the patience limits of substitutes (let’s call them Hydes).

The latter are remarkably talented in making up entirely credible stories at a moment’s notice, only for the substitute to find they aren’t so credible. They’re also stubbornly opposed to any kind of rule they deem inappropriate, often refusing to work while possessing an uncanny ability to zero in and exploit any chink in the substitute’s armor.

So why would any sane person agree to be a substitute teacher? For many reasons.

For instance, there’s professional experience. I’m not a teacher, but anyone who aspires to join the teaching profession should first work as a sub. Subbing supplies perfect real-world experience, insight into the pros and cons of working with young people in the education process, and the reward of helping deserving students successfully move along to the next level.

I can’t imagine anything more satisfying than working with a motivated young person. Their energy and enthusiasm is infectious. There is simply no, um, substitute for it.

I’ve had elementary students who make a point of hugging you for your efforts, astute middle school students who go out of their way to help you, and high schoolers who truly have an interest in what you do outside their classroom.

Discipline, on the Other Hand …

On the other hand, a sub is in a tough position. Students many times don’t respect an unknown teacher. So what you have is, at best, a standoff. A substitute may be willing to meet the student halfway, but often that isn’t reciprocated.

So what’s the incentive for students to toe the line for a sub? Often times there is none. You simply keep your fingers crossed that the good students outweigh the rest and plunge ahead with your day.

It may sound strange, but I’ve found the best strategy for keeping kids in line is to give them rope, as long as the class as a whole isn’t disrupted. I’ve found the best strategy is to simply reason with them, a plan that works best with high schoolers and worst with middle schoolers — largely because of the physical and maturity levels of your typical 12- or 13-year-old.

I don’t mean to paint a bleak picture here. There are plenty of positives: the energy of working with motivated youth, the flexibility of picking the times you work and, of course, the extra cash that everyone can use.

You also feel you truly are appreciated by school administrators and teachers who recognize you are fulfilling a difficult task, one that would make their day even tougher if you weren’t there.

So you pick your spots, use the paycheck as mad money and hope you’re doing some good.

And, oh yeah: Never try to officiate a flag football game and teach at the same time.

EDUStaff - Substitute staffing solutions
EDUStaff – Substitute staffing solutions

Supplying Subs to Local Schools

  • EduStaff provides substitute teachers and other educational staffing for 19 school districts in Kent ISD, as well as for more than 300 school districts statewide.
  • Besides supplying prescreened substitutes and permanent contracted employees, it provides other services including hiring, interviewing, administrative services and professional development.
  • Its website includes an application form, training requirements and other information. To learn more, go to EduStaff.org.
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