Superintendent’s Take: 5 Ways to Improve Substitute Teacher Fill Rate

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A substitute teacher fills a teacher absence.

About the Author: Dr. Marilyn Shepherd is the former superintendent of Monterey Peninsula Unified School District (CA) and Golden Valley Unified School District (CA).

It goes without saying that it’s important for students to get consistent, high-quality instruction. Of course, for one reason or another, it isn’t always possible to have the full-time teacher present for every class, which is where substitutes come in.

Unfortunately, as the substitute teacher shortage has taken a toll around the country, it can sometimes be hard to get the coverage you need.

During my career leading Monterey Peninsula USD and Golden Valley USD, I used a number strategies to improve substitute teacher fill rate. Here are five of the most effective.

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Consult the Calendar

One thing that we did was really plan ahead. When we planned training or PD or anything like that, we looked at the calendar and referenced our collective experience. We analyzed the data of teacher absences and tried to avoid scheduling training or PD during periods of high absences among our full-time teachers — and when our substitute teachers might not be as readily available.  

Some that might be pretty intuitive — more teachers were out on Mondays and Fridays and before a big break, so we wouldn’t schedule PD/training then. But, interestingly, we also found that we had a big rise in classified absences during certain times in the year when there were more work opportunities in the community, so we tried to avoid stressing our staff resources then as well.

Bottom line — there are a lot of factors, some obvious, some not, that contribute to teacher absences, and it’s just really important to track that data and use it to inform planning.

Make Your Substitute Teachers Feel Valued and Supported

I’m a real believer in letting substitute teachers know they are appreciated when they come on campus. When our schools had a substitute on campus, we encouraged our principals to check in and say, “Hey we’re really glad you’re here,” and do what they could to support them. I found that substitutes always like to go to certain schools more than others, and the whole environment and how they’re treated is important. Treating them respectfully and with appreciation is really powerful.

I think the other thing is — and some sites and schools do it better than others — but supporting them with the information and classroom resources that they need to have a positive experience. Make sure your full-time teachers follow through with providing sub plans, and have a system in place to communicate important school procedures.

The other piece of this is letting your subs know that their input is valuable. Just like you evaluate your substitute teachers to ensure the right fit, encourage them to let you know what you’re doing well and how you can improve. This could be as simple as just a little card with three questions:

  • How were you treated at school?
  • How was your day?
  • Tell us what we could do better to support you.

Empower Site Leaders

We tried to take preventative measures by giving our principals tools to encourage their teachers from being out a lot, but also, again, trying to come up with ways to attract substitute teachers to their school when there were vacancies.

For one, we encouraged site leaders to recruit their own subs for their school. We also put systems in place so when teachers know they’re going to be out, they call ahead and put it on the calendar of a sub they know is a good fit for their students. It’s about planning ahead and communicating and really thinking it through and trying to recruit; even if the recruitment is just for your school, so be it. Be ahead of the game.

One part of that was communicating to our site leaders that the substitute teacher program is really important. In any system, there are site leaders who think that’s not part of the job, but a good leader is going to make sure it’s covered, because it’s better for everybody. When you have the substitute teachers you need, students benefit from better instruction, your staff benefits because they won’t have to give up planning periods to cover absences, and administrators won’t be called into the classroom.

Offer Competitive Pay to Substitute Teachers 

There’s only so many people who are qualified to teach in a given area. (Although with that being said, there are qualified individuals out there who probably would pursue substitute teaching if the pay was better.) What we typically do is monitor substitute teacher pay rate at neighboring schools and districts. We would make adjustments based on what the going rate was around us.

Ultimately, it is a budgetary issue. So as a school leader, you need to factor that in. You might get pushback from your colleagues about how much you allocate to hire substitute teachers. In that case, we have to ask: Is it a priority for our school or district to make sure we have substitutes and that we have a strong fill rate?

And if your teachers are in a union, the union will often speak up on that, too. The union wants good subs to come in and cover, but they also don’t want us to out-pay what their folks are getting. So it’s a negotiation with some nuance to it, where you have to be conscientious of how any pay adjustment might impact your relationship with your union.

With that said, increasing pay is definitely an option, and when you’re determining budget priorities, it should be important to make sure you have highly qualified substitute teachers, maybe above something else. That’s important.

We had that conversation annually. When the governor’s budget in California came out in January, the draft budget, we would start developing ours. You should be starting in February or March.

We typically have a substitute budget by site, which we would also monitor: Is there some kind of trend at a site that doesn’t seem to line up with our financial allocation? If there was something we didn’t like with fill rate, we would go back to the principal and reiterate the importance of creating an environment where people want to sub.

Consider Partnering with a Substitute Teacher Company

Of course, there were times when we couldn’t get substitute teachers when we needed them, even when we did everything right. That’s why having a backup plan is so important, which is where a company like Swing Education comes in.

It’s a whole new concept, really. Some of these substitute teacher providers like Swing can attract people who aren’t interested in working directly for a school or district. That might be due to reasons like flexibility, how and when they get paid, training, and those sorts of things.

It’s great that we now have organizations working to recruit and develop people who in the past maybe would not even consider subbing but are now becoming part of the educational system. I think it’s a great advantage that somebody is reaching out and doing that. As a school or a district, sometimes we don’t have the resources or the time, quite frankly, to do a lot of outreach. These organizations are bringing more people into teaching, which we need so badly.

The other part of this is that because they work with so many substitute teachers in a given area, organizations like Swing can be a good backup plan for times when we, for whatever reason, aren’t able to find a sub from our own pool. They provide a more efficient and effective way to reach a lot of qualified people, quickly.

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3 Comments on “Superintendent’s Take: 5 Ways to Improve Substitute Teacher Fill Rate”

  1. As a substitute teacher currently employed, daily pay rates are very important. I dont think school districts value experienced teachers coming in to sub as much as substitutes with very little experience.

  2. I enjoyed your article about subbing. Im a substitute iv’e worked as a sub for 9 yrs. I love my job its so rewarding to see the students respond to me with a positive attitude! I sub 7-12th grades.
    And some problems we have faced is respect for a substitute some students as you know love to walk over the subs! But i show the students that i am there to help them learn and not play! The students respect me for that! The ones that play get put out of class! Yes subs don’t get the full treatment as teachers? e don’t get the thumbs up as we should! But i wouldn’t give my job up . i love to see the achievements from the students! And when they graduate its like letting the baby birds fly away and explore the world.. It makes me cry with happiness when they say thank you for all you have done! Thats the true feeling of a substitute!
    So don’t be afraid when you step in the lions den the first day! Because those children are just kittens that want attention!

  3. I was appalled to see the hourly rate of pay for substitute teachers in a particular school district. I’m sure many freshmen will only take it as a last resort while seasoned and qualified teachers search elsewhere.

    One incentive that attracts workers to organizations is wagers.

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