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Sep 20, 2022

Superintendent’s take: How to improve your sub fill-rate

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, it isn’t always possible to have a full-time teacher present for every class. This is where substitute teachers come in.

However, as the substitute teacher shortage has taken its 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 of strategies to improve substitute teacher fill rates. Here are five of the most effective.

Consult the calendar

One thing that we did was plan ahead. When we planned training or personal development (PD), 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 were intuitive: more teachers were out on Mondays, Fridays, and before a big break. We also found that we had a big rise in classified absences during certain times of 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 that contribute to teacher absences and it’s important to track that data and use it to inform planning. 

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Support your subs

I’m a 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 glad you’re here,” and do what they could to support them. Treating substitutes with respect and with appreciation is powerful and has them wanting to return to your school.

You can also support subs by providing them with the information and classroom resources that they need in order 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.

Finally, let your subs know that their input is valuable. Just like you evaluate your substitute teachers to ensure the right fit, encourage them to also provide constructive feedback. This could be as simple as a comment card with a few 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 excessive absences, and also helped school leaders 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 for 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 being proactive, communicating, and trying to recruit. Stay ahead of the game.

Another part of that was communicating to our site leaders the importance of a substitute teacher program. A good school leader is going to ensure classrooms are covered because it’s better for everybody. When you have the substitute teachers you need, students benefit from better instruction, and your staff benefits because they can focus on their actual job functions.

Offer competitive pay

There are only so many people who are qualified to teach in a given area. That being said, that number might increase with better pay. We typically monitored substitute teacher pay rate at neighboring schools and districts and made adjustments based on what the going rate was.

Ultimately, it is a budgetary issue, and as a school leader, you need to factor that in. If you get pushback from your colleagues, we have to ask ourselves: is it a priority for our school or district to make sure we have substitutes and that we have a strong fill rate?

If your teachers are in a union, they will often speak up on that too. The union wants good subs to cover classes, but they don’t want us to out-pay what their folks are getting. 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 leave room to hire highly qualified substitute teachers.We had that conversation annually. When the governor’s draft budget in California came out at the start of the year, we would start developing ours. 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 the fill rate, we would go back to the principal and reiterate the importance of creating an environment where people want to sub.

Partner 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. This is where Swing Education comes in.

Substitute teacher providers like Swing 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, and training.

It’s great that we now have organizations working to recruit and develop people who in the past maybe would not even consider subbing. As a school or a district, sometimes we don’t have the resources or the time to do our own outreach. These organizations are bringing more people into teaching, which we need so badly.

Because they work with so many substitute teachers in a given area, Swing is helpful for when we 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.Get help covering absences with Swing — get in touch to learn how.

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