Districts struggle with substitute teacher shortage

MECOSTA COUNTY — Every school year, there are a few days when Crossroads Charter Academy Superintendent Chris White goes into what he calls "problem-solving mode."

Recently, problem-solving mode kicked in when White had teachers away from the schools for professional development (PD) days and additional teachers were absent due to illness, resulting in not enough substitutes to cover classrooms.

"If it's just one or two teachers sick, we're okay," White said. "But to have a PD day away from school and teachers sick, we may need five or six subs."

Though White said this is not a frequent occurrence, he sometimes needs to scramble to find enough substitutes, including pulling paraprofessionals away from the group of students they are working with that day.

White said he has enough paraprofessionals in the school who can sub, but every once in a while, he covers a class for an hour or two before a substitute can fill in.

"We need subs at pretty much every level," White said. "We need subs for special education, for paraprofessionals and recess aids. It's a fulfilling experience."

White is not alone in the search for substitutes.

Big Rapids Public Schools Superintendent Tim Haist also has noticed the decrease in available substitutes.

"It's been a struggle over the past couple of years to get subs," Haist said. "On days we are short on substitutes, we use teachers who are on their prep hour, or paraprofessionals."

As a way to help attract more substitute teachers, Reed City Area Public Schools raised its rate of pay at the beginning of the school year, said Superintendent Tim Webster.

However, it's still not easy to get substitutes.

"One can only speculate the reasons why," he said. "You could pay $500 a day to a substitute and still wouldn't have enough."

Webster explained when the state added five additional days to the school year, it left very few options for districts to incorporate the required professional development for teaching staff and still meet the required days for students must attend.

"There's a crunch on PD," he said. "We used to have some extra teacher work days, but now the state shorted teachers on professional development."

The situation gives RCAPS very few options.

"When you're going to do professional development, you have to pay for people to come in after school, and we do that type of stuff," he said. "Quite often, on days when professional development is scheduled, when you need five subs because fifth-grade teachers are going to work on curriculum, you have subs working for those PD days, which makes the sub problem even more strenuous."

Big Rapids Public Schools, Chippewa Hills School District, the Mecosta-Osceola Intermediate School District, Morley Stanwood Community Schools and Reed City Area Public Schools all use EduStaff to find substitutes.

EduStaff offers pre-screened, quality substitute and permanent candidates in all classifications, according to the company's website.

Clark Galloway, president of EduStaff, said his company has noticed a decreased pool for substitute teachers.

One of the main issues for the shortage in his opinion is fewer teaching graduates coming out of college and into substitute teaching while awaiting a permanent position.

"I would say 10 years ago, 80 percent of subs were already certified in education, taking substitute jobs to hopefully land an eventual full-time teaching position," Galloway said. "Today, I'd say it's the opposite. I'd guess 75 percent of substitutes are non-certified, returning-to-work moms who hope to make difference and earn income."

To follow this trend, EduStaff also has shifted to offering training, analysis and other services to help get more people qualified to be in classrooms.

"People in small towns or villages may not look at their school district as an employment opportunity," Galloway said. "But recent retirees, farmers, part-time workers  — these are all people who may make great substitutes. We are trying to communicate to the public right now that schools are great, safe places to have employment and earn income."

Galloway estimates as many as one in 10 Michigan classrooms don't have a day-to-day substitute to cover a classroom. A lack of substitutes can cause a "scramble plan," with administrators rushing to find a teacher to cover on prep hour or even principals stepping in to teach.

"Districts are finding unique ways to make it work," Galloway said. "But by that point, it's already too late — we didn't have a sub for them. Right now, it's a joint effort with districts and EduStaff to cover the need."

The shortage has been felt statewide, resulting in legislative action in Lansing. In January, Rep. Jim Tedder, R-Clarkston, and Rep. Steve Marino, R-Harrison Township, co-sponsored  House Bill 4069, which would lower the qualifications necessary to become a substitute teacher.

Currently, anyone wishing to substitute must have at least 90 semester hours of college credit from a college or university. Tedder and Marino's bill changes those requirements to read "at least 60 semester hours of college credit or an associate degree from a college, university or community college." Additionally, the bill would allow the 60 hours to be from more than one institution.

The bill was sent to the House Committee on Education Reform, chaired by Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Saginaw Township.

"We'll take it up soon," Kelly said. "We've been doing a lot of preliminary information hearings but we've started to run bills and that one should be up in the next few weeks."

Kelly has heard from his constituents about this problem and believes superintendents in the 94th District will welcome the changes. Rep. Michele Hoitenga, R-Manton, also had heard from school officials in this area.

"It wasn't a topic high on my radar, but now that it is, I'll be talking to teachers about it," she said. "I'm going to seven different schools to read to classrooms and I am going to be asking teachers about this bill and their opinions on it. I really want to be educated before I vote yes or no.

"It does look like a credible bill with some steam behind it," she continued. "I do believe it would help with the shortage if it's passed. We have really good people in our district who would make amazing substitute teachers, but maybe they don't have the time to get in the hours. Hopefully, this will encourage people to get at least 60 hours. I think it will attract a wider pool of people."