Anybody who works in a school is aware of the substitute teacher shortage. To call it a shortage is really putting mildly. Some schools aren’t simply “having trouble” finding subs. They aren’t finding them period. Those schools are having to double up classes, have teachers teaching during their prep periods, and even staff classes with administrators.
The catalyst for all of this is of course COVID-19. That’s not surprising as coronavirus has basically been the catalyst of most of the bad things that have happened since 2020. However, I assert COVID is actually not the underlying cause of the sub shortage. The truth is being a sub is hard. Everyone has seen some TV show or movie where students realize they have a sub and hilarity ensues. Honestly, that depiction isn’t that far from the truth. There is not a lot of people lining up to become a sub. So, we were always at risk of a major shortage and now that risk has been realized. Now that there is a shortage it might be time for schools to look at why being a sub is so difficult and they don’t have to look far… perhaps just in the mirror.
Schools and by extension teachers do not set subs up for success.
A sub is expected to come in and manage behavior and keep students that they don’t know on task for a certain amount of time. At certain schools it may even be their responsibility to transition kids from place to place. Given that this is the case, they need to be given directions that are clear, but low lift. Often times teachers leave plans that vacillate between the two extremes of the spectrum by leaving plans that are too close to what the regular teacher would be expected to perform or plans with too little direction which creates gaps for students to take advantage.
Substitute A comes to school and is expected to carry out the same lesson that the absent teacher was going to do. An algebra lesson with teacher led examples and practice, complete with cold calls and checks for understanding. This teacher doesn’t know the student’s names, has no context of their knowledge gaps and by the way … may not know algebra themselves. This lesson will at best flop and probably lead to behavior problems.
Substitute B comes to school and is told the kids are silently watching a movie. Maybe they will get lucky and have a well-behaved class, but they are more likely to have a class that is entirely uninterested in the slow moving Ken Burns documentary. That class will also turn into a behavior problem.
Schools and teachers need to give their subs plans and directions that fall into the Goldilocks zone, easy enough to execute but also enough to keep kids relatively occupied.
I have had to cover classes that were not mine a lot this year. Some classes were ones where I didn’t know the students. Being a teacher still gives me some advantages over a traditional sub but here is what I like to see when I have to sub in a class:
- Clear directions that minimize the amount of time I have to talk to students.
- Self-explanatory work in a packet or they can easily access via computer that will take the entire class period so I don’t have to manage downtime.
- Independent work because group work is hard for even a regular classroom teacher to handle and it creates talking which creates behavior gaps to exploit.
- All relevant information to keeping the class running smoothly. Where are the extra chromebooks? Who do I call if a student is disruptive? Which student can I ask for help with something? Where are the pencils?
I’ve been a teacher for eleven years. So, I know what it is like to create sub-plans and not take them seriously. After all, you aren’t going to be there to deal with the fallout. But that kind of attitude is one of the reasons the job is so hard and why we are in a shortage now. Schools need to make sure teachers are leaving good plans and that they are supporting subs while they are in the building.