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Subs more scarce, more valuable than ever

Kelloggsville — Angela Austin was first a substitute teacher two decades ago when she returned to the classroom after taking time off from full-time teaching to raise her children.

“I loved the challenge of getting to know the students and possibly making a small difference in their lives,” she said.

Now, 20 years later, Austin, who graduated from Ohio’s Cedarville University in 1998 with a degree in education, is back to subbing on a more regular basis, after spending time in recent years as a substitute intervention specialist in Wyoming Public Schools and a reading interventionist for Kelloggsvile Public Schools.

This school year she is a full-time substitute in a fifth-grade classroom at Kelloggsville’s Southeast Elementary, one of two full-time subs who came into the school for teachers on maternity leave.

For Southeast Principal Kelly Farkas, the presence of Austin and fourth-grade sub Edina Sokolovic meant one less worry when it comes to finding substitute teachers, a process that in some ways has grown simpler over the years but also more complicated as the pool steadily shrinks.

In 2018, the Michigan Applied Public Policy Research and the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research surveyed superintendents across the state and their findings were sobering.

At the time of the report, 64% of the districts that responded were unable to find enough substitutes multiple times a week.

Finding substitutes in a time of COVID-19 has only amplified the problem as numerous school closings last fall were in part forced by the combination of too many teachers in quarantine and not enough subs to fill the slots.

Edina Sokolovic, or “Mrs. S” to her students, is determined to build relationships with her students as a long-term substitute teacher (courtesy)

A Principal’s Process to Find a Sub

It’s a problem Farkas, who has been in education for almost three decades, knows all too well.

“On a daily basis,” she noted with a smile, “the job of getting a substitute teacher is mine.”

“Back in the day, you called in sick to your immediate boss, which was normally the principal or vice principal, and the secretary would then start calling from a list of substitute teachers for availability,” Farkas recalled. “And 99.9 percent of the time, a person was available and willing to come in and cover for the teacher’s absence.”

Things have changed since then.

Kelloggsville uses a tool called Frontline to manage the substitute teacher process. It allows teachers to put in their absence and a substitute teacher to pick up the absence, then that information is emailed to the building principal and secretary. 

“The first thing I do before getting out of bed each morning,” Farkas said with a laugh, “is get on my email to see if anyone is absent in the building.”

If no substitute has picked up on Frontline for a teacher absence, principals have to get creative and start calling on others in the building to cover. For Farkas, that can be instructional support staff, counselors, student service coordinators or sometimes even the principal. 

Over the past two decades Farkas has seen the number and coverage of substitute teachers decrease — especially, she added, in disadvantaged schools. A teacher shortage, school reputation, rate of pay and more all play into whether or not substitute teachers fill the critical void left when a regular teacher is absent.

As a substitute teacher, Angela Austin loves the challenge of getting to know her students and possibly making a small difference in their lives (courtesy)

Plus, the Pandemic

COVID-19 has exacerbated the problem.

“People are scared,” Farkas said, “and I totally understand. I have only had one substitute teacher pick up an absence this school year. We have to fill these absences internally, and that takes away from other programs in the school.” 

When it comes to finding a long-term substitute, say for something like maternity leave, the need is even more important, Farkas noted.

In such scenarios the teacher, principal and central office come together to find the best fit. And when the process works, Farkas added, it’s a magical moment and it’s the students who reap the benefits.

Southeast Elementary started the 2020-21 school year with two teachers pregnant, both due in early fall and both planning to take six months of leave.

With Austin and Sokolovic, who both had prior experience in Kelloggsville schools, filling the gaps, it’s students who most benefit, Farkas said, as that familiarity with a school system is critical when starting as a long-term sub.

Despite that familiarity with the district, coming on board during a pandemic is far from ideal, she noted.

“Not only did these teachers have to learn our student information system, PowerSchool; become familiar with all the daily operations of our school; quickly build relationships with the students,” she said, “they also had to understand the ever-changing protocols and procedures our school had to put in place because of the pandemic.”

‘We Are All in This Together’

Indeed, both Austin and Sokolovic began the year with face-to-face instruction but have had to pivot more than once already when Southeast Elementary switched to virtual learning.

Sokolovic, who has a degree in secondary education from Grand Valley State University, is in her first long-term post as a substitute teacher and admits that coming on board in a time of COVID has not been ideal.

“This year has definitely been very different,” she said. “I have managed to adjust to the new routines, and I keep telling myself ‘We are all in this together.’ It’s great watching them learn something new every day, and staying healthy and safe is one of the most important factors at this time.”

Sokolovic, or “Mrs. S” to her students, added that as a permanent sub, she feels like the class is hers, and she is determined to build relationships with her students.

“To be a good sub,” she added, “you need to take ownership and you need to be patient, flexible and understanding.”

Austin echoed those words: “Being flexible and willing to learn and try new things is pretty important as a substitute teacher. And with all the changes we have had to face this year, I have had to learn how to be both a classroom and an online teacher. Having so many of my co-teachers help has made learning easier, and being willing to change and adjust has kept me sane through it all.”

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Phil de Haan
Phil de Haan
Phil de Haan covers Grand Rapids and Kelloggsville and also is a general assignment reporter and the point person for the SNN Facebook and Twitter feeds. He hails from Exeter, Ontario, but has called Grand Rapids home since 1985. He is the son of a longtime public school teacher who taught both English and machine shop! Phil took both classes at South Huron District High School, but English stuck, and at Calvin College, where he met his wife, Sue, he majored in English and minored in journalism. His background includes both freelance writing and public relations work, including teaching an advertising and PR course at the college level. In the summer of 2019, he began his own freelance writing and communications business. In his spare time, Phil plays pick-up hockey and pickleball and tries to keep tabs on his two adult children. Read Phil's full bio

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