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Teachers Cannot Solve the Substitute Teaching Crisis. Nor Should They.

The logical next post in the substitute teaching sequence (see Part 1) would be to share ideas for teachers, school leaders, and substitute teachers. We heard from many people closest to the substitute teaching crisis who had ideas for easing the crisis in small and big ways. However, issues that affect entire school systems across our country should not be solved by the people who work in individual schools. Teachers cannot solve the substitute teaching crisis. Nor should they.

When the people closest to the work of schools – students, teachers, caregivers, building administrators – have to find solutions due to systemic problems, two things happen: these people take on a burden that is not theirs, and it becomes much easier for district leaders and government officials to ignore or deny the problem. A prime example is when a district’s mandatory masking policy suddenly becomes optional, leaving many teachers, caregivers, and building administrators to deal with the fallout. Our society expects educators to perform miracles. Sometimes they do. They shouldn’t have to.

We have spoken with Edjacent designers and members, as well as people outside the field of education (e.g., a military leader, an engineer, a human services grad student), and we have sourced some ways to address the substitute teaching crisis at a systemic level. Teachers, substitutes, and school leaders can certainly advocate for these solutions, but they should not be responsible for them. 

Substitute teaching swap

It is difficult to explain to classroom teachers what it is like to be a substitute teacher. Teachers with good intentions typically write plans knowing how they want them to be received without knowing the needs of the reader. They pour hours into creating plans and are often frustrated by the results when they return to their classrooms. After experiencing what it is like to enter a classroom of strangers, I found the sub plans hard to understand and follow. One way to address this issue is to offer classroom teachers the opportunity to substitute teach in each other’s classrooms, preferably across grade levels and buildings, so they can experience what it is like to teach from other people’s sub plans and get feedback on their own plans. This can prevent judgment and resentment of substitute teachers and create empathy, understanding, and better proficiency writing plans that actually work.

Substitute teaching lesson plan bank

A related option is to create lesson plan banks, created by practicing master teachers and capable substitutes under the supervision of instructional specialists or coordinators from the central office. The teachers and subs would be PAID for this extra work. The plans could focus on meaningful reviews of previously learned concepts and would be accessible by any classroom teacher or substitute at times when the teacher is not able to plan or the substitute cannot access plans. These exemplar lesson plans would include feedback forms so they could be checked regularly and revised over time.

Substitute teaching routines

Experts from each grade level, school, or content level could create predictable routines for substitute days. Students would learn these routines as they learn other routines – like fire drills – and substitutes would be trained in the routines (see elementary and secondary sample routines). Classroom teachers and substitutes would be allowed to deviate from routines as they see fit, but the routines would provide a level of stability for students and teachers alike. 

Substitute teaching coordinators, coaches, or lead teachers

One leadership role in schools or school districts where the substitute crisis is most acute could be a substitute teaching coordinator, coach, or lead teacher. This person would provide an orientation for new subs and check in on them throughout the day. They would also gather feedback, train classroom teachers, and provide insight to building administrators. Lastly, substitute teaching coordinators would communicate with each other across the district to identify patterns and opportunities for improvement and innovation.

Substitute teaching “zones”

Large school systems could be broken into smaller zones for substitute teaching specialization, allowing substitutes to build rapport within the zone they work in. Nothing buoys the spirit of a substitute teacher like a student greeting and remembering them days or weeks later! These kinds of connections sustain ALL teachers, and substitutes are no exception.

Central office substitute learning rotations

Strategic use of central office personnel could not only fill subbing vacancies, it would also teach these leaders important lessons about the communities they serve. Departments could identify explicit goals that could be addressed by using substitute teaching opportunities as a “laboratory”.  For example, instructional technology leaders could pilot a new tool, commit to using a learning management system in innovative ways, or try out a new pedagogical approach with actual students before presenting solutions to teachers.

Parent and community substitute teacher rotations

This suggestion actually comes from a parent who does not ever want to substitute, but acknowledges his role in helping solve the crisis. He suggested allowing a pair of parents or community members to substitute for a day in a voluntary capacity to understand what it is like to lead a classroom. Parents or community members who want to come back could be coached to create model lesson plans that showcase their professional knowledge, like an all-day career day, or would be paid to take half-day assignments in buildings to learn what goes into educating a room full of students. Pending further training, they would be added to the school’s sub list.

Micro-credentials for substitutes and classroom teachers, tied to tangible incentives

Professionalizing and incentivizing specific skills tied to successful substitute teaching in schools could go a long way toward addressing common issues and rewarding classroom teachers and substitutes who go above and beyond. These micro-credentials could be used as “tags” when teachers are selecting substitutes or when substitutes are choosing where to spend their days. They could also accumulate into bonuses, like pay or flex days.

Substitute teaching specialization

There are so many specialties available to educators. If we suspect this crisis is going to continue indefinitely, it may be time to investigate the skill set needed for success in this very specific role so we can share best practices and set everyone up for success.

Paid student teachers and high school internships

Student teaching has a huge economic impact on college students who are used to working while going to school. Student teachers work more than 40 hours per week, just like actual teachers, but are not paid. If we paid future teachers to substitute and set them up for success, they would have a ready-made skill set when they become full-time teachers without sacrificing their livelihood before they enter a low-paying profession.

These are just a few long-term ideas that might help ease the substitute teacher crisis at a systemic level. If you have other ideas or comments about these ideas, please share in the comments below. We’d love to hear from you!

In my next post, I’ll talk about ways school leaders, teachers, and substitute teachers can make small changes to create better conditions in the short term.


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