Subs are hard to come by. It’s crippling us.
Nearly two-thirds of all staff absences aren’t getting filled.
The most stressful part of my day occurs around 6.05AM each morning. I’ve finished my morning workout, made my coffee, and logged in to the website that tells me how many staff will be absent.
With almost 80 staff members, from part-time climate staff to full-time teachers, it’s almost inevitable that at least someone will be sick, have a sick child to care for, or have some other urgent reason to take off. On top of that, around 9% of all positions are still unfilled, with over 100 schools having 5 or more vacancies.
When staff do take off or a school has a vacancy, they use a website managed by Frontline Education to to log their absence and request a sub from Kelly Educational Services, the organization our district uses to hire and assign substitutes.
Problem is, they’re just not getting them.
We often look at “fill rate” as an indicator of substitute efficacy. In September of 2019, the last “normal” September we had, we filled just over 50% of the 63 substitute jobs. While that fill rate is substandard compared to national averages, this year we filled just 37% of the 67 absences. And that’s with a full-time building sub (she’s filling a long-term absence).
When subs don’t show up, and they’re not showing up at historic levels this year, other teachers in the building must give up their preparation periods to cover the classes.
When teachers have to cover classes, it ensures the students are at least safe and cared for — but it’s rare that much teaching and learning occurs. Subbing in a class is tough work. Teaching is hard enough when you’ve built strong relationships with students, established clear expectations and consequences, and understand the content thoroughly. Substitutes, even if they’re in-house teachers, often have none of those advantages. In my almost 20 years in education, I’ve seen a handful of teachers be able to step into a class with zero preparation, manage behaviors effectively and engage students in actual learning.
Most concerning, though, is what happens when teachers end up covering classes every day. They don’t have time to prepare their next lesson, meet with me, analyze student work, make copies, review data from the latest round of tests, input grades, meet with parents, decorate their classrooms, make a cup of tea, or go to the bathroom. In other words, they get exhausted. And when they get exhausted, they’re more likely to get sick, miss work, and start the cycle all over.
This past week, with seasonal sniffles going around and the tolerance for a cough or runny nose at all-time lows, we had several staff out — and lots of coverages — each day. By Friday, we were exhausted. And some were frustrated. It’s reasonable that some might start to wonder if colleagues are just unnecessarily taking time off. And might that lead those forced to cover classes to resent their colleagues? Of course.
But it doesn’t need to be this way. A few years ago we outsourced subbing to save money and improve fill rates, but it hasn’t worked. Instead, we’ve created a system that provides generous PTO and no substitutes to fill the inevitable absences, leading to more distrust and burnout among staff.
So how could we fix this? At the local level, I could certainly do more to improve fill rates. Consistent emergency lesson plans, clearly-defined seating charts, and easy-to-understand explanations of our classroom management policies help subs feel prepared and be more successful. When they’re successful, they come back — and tell their sub colleagues. I can also do more local recruiting. We had a climate staff vacancy that’s typically centrally-staffed. I put a notice out to our families and had at least a dozen people reach out. And we’re moving forward with one of the candidates—a parent!
Ideally some of these processes are centrally-managed. We made a step in the right direction by adding a building sub. But some districts, like Lower Merion, have two full-time substitutes assigned to each of their schools. We could create a suite of ready-to-deliver substitute lessons for every grade. We could create the minor leagues of teaching. We could establish more consistent behavior management systems across the district. And sure, we could pay more. Subs currently make around $160/day — not chump change, but in a competitive market and crisis-level sub shortages, a pay bump might attract more qualified substitutes.
I’m not convinced it’s the pay that drives qualified sub candidates away from Philadelphia. We’ve got a lot of systemic challenges (many documented on this newsletter!) that make teaching tough work. And when we don’t fill substitute roles, we make it even harder on teachers. And when they’re overwhelmed, it’s our students that end up losing.
Thanks for reading. Have a great week.