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Local school districts addressing Substitute Shortage

More still needed, officials say

Lori Ball, a full-time substitute teacher for this school year at Negaunee Public Schools, teaches a second-grade classroom. Local school districts have struggled with getting subs in a variety of ways. (Photo courtesy of Julie Peterson)

MARQUETTE — It’s a scenario most students will encounter sometime in their school years: coming into the classroom the first thing in the morning and seeing a strange face.

A substitute teacher fills a need when a teacher wakes up in the morning and feels ill, or cannot get to school for whatever reason.

This can be challenging in a number of ways.

The Marquette Area Public Schools Board of Education at its November meeting decided to make substitute teaching more attractive in the district, at least financially.

At the meeting, MAPS Superintendent Bill Saunders said the current rate of $75 is in line with what most other regional districts are paying.

The added inducement, though, was that a substitute teacher who works six days in a pay period receives a $100 bonus.

“That’s the rationale behind it,” Saunders said at the meeting. “It may not work, but it’s something to try, see if it works. If not, we may have to come back at some point in the future and look at a different way to continue to try to attract more substitutes in that area.”

In a Thursday telephone interview with The Mining Journal, Saunders said a strong economy can hinder the district’s efforts in attracting subs.

“Those that are looking for work can find places to easily be employed,” he said. “So it’s just more competitive for us to try to get substitutes, certainly, when there’s a lot more full-time employment opportunities for folks.”

Saunders said the incentive bonus is picking up steam.

“Some folks are showing a little more interest,” he said. “So that’s a positive sign, but at the same time, we still have shortages throughout the district.”

NICE Community Schools Superintendent Bryan DeAugustine said the district pays $75 per day for a sub, which he said is comparable with other districts.

He does, however, acknowledge a few challenges.

“Fridays and Mondays tend to be particularly difficult,” DeAugustine said. “And one of the problems is there are fewer subs in the pool.”

Teachers taking more time off than ever before has contributed to that situation, DeAugustine said.

“That’s not a knock against teachers at all, but I think what’s happened with the decline in pensions, and the amount of money that they pay for their health insurance, the newer generations of teachers have started to look at days off during the school year as kind of a fringe benefit rather than just an emergency,” he said.

He pointed out this situation is nationwide and not just in the Upper Peninsula.

“Upwards of 28, 30% of teachers are missing 10 or more days,” DeAugustine said. “When a student does that, that makes the student chronically absent.”

He said teachers are operating under the terms of their contract and are not negligent in any way.

“It’s just a fact of life,” DeAugustine said.

The issue might not be just in education; he noted professional athletes have missed more games than their predecessors because of a “rest-and-recovery” attitude, and in manufacturing, the days of someone never missing a day of work in a year, or only a handful of days over their careers have changed.

Whatever the reason, the NICE district has to deal with it.

“We do have days where it’s pretty tight,” DeAugustine said. “It’s especially a problem when there’s a big regional conference going on and then teachers from the districts around the area are all getting that day off to go to this event, and that makes it really tough because the pool is only so big and we share the resource of having subs come to our schools to fill in.”

DeAugustine said NICE teachers are good about helping each other out during absences, particularly during their preparation periods. However, that works best at the high school level; at the elementary level, someone has to be there all day with the kids.

Negaunee Public Schools Superintendent Dan Skewis said like all districts in Michigan, it struggles to find subs at times.

“We were fortunate this year, with nine maternity/paternity leaves, to have filled all assignments with quality substitute teachers,” Skewis said in an email. “We did get approval from our school board last August to hire a full-time substitute teacher for the entire school year. This helped fill the different long-term leaves that we had and will continue to have for the remainder of the year.

“The sub shortage is tied to not as many college students choosing education as their field of study. Because of this, those who do go into teaching find jobs fairly easily, so they’re not available to sub.”

NPS pays $80 per day.

Skewis said the district has been fortunate to have been able to fill gaps with quality substitute teachers.

“Because of this, I don’t feel there is a negative effect,” he said. “However, it is our wish to not have to use subs too frequently, due to the consistency of having a regular classroom teacher, especially at the younger levels. In addition, we want to make sure our special needs students have a stable environment. Depending on the students’ needs, a different teacher in front of certain students can cause anxiety, which creates behavior issues.”

Gwinn Area Community Schools Superintendent Sandy Petrovich said the board of education at its December meeting voted to increase substitute pay from $72 to $85 to attract subs to the district.

“We realize that we are a few miles from Marquette,” said Petrovich, who noted the increased pay will give people extra money for gasoline.

She said the Gwinn school district uses WillSub to facilitate its substitute teacher management. When people want to substitute in the district, they must go through an application process with that third-party contractor.

“We don’t hire them directly,” Petrovich said.

Through WillSub, potential substitute teachers can indicate where they want to sub, she said. When regular teachers need a sub, they log in the system for the day they need one, and the request goes through the third-party contracting company.

The potential substitutes can enter the systems to see the openings, Petrovich said, or they request notifications through texts or phone calls.

Going to a third-party contractor as opposed to doing it in house — the way the district used to handle substitute situations — is more efficient, she said, because a principal doesn’t have to spend an hour on the phone in the morning trying to find substitutes for classes for the day.

Does having a substitute detract from the day’s education for the affected students?

“Certainly it’s not the same as the regular teacher,” Petrovich said. “But we try to ensure that quality education continues as much as possible through the detailed plans that teachers leave, and try to pre-select some of those subs.”

Finances important

Carrie Meyer, superintendent of Ishpeming Public Schools, said the district pays $75 per day, which doesn’t include extra fees and other expenses that bring the daily amount to $100.

She said there “definitely” is a shortage of substitute teachers, not only in her district but elsewhere in Michigan.

“It’s a common conversation among administrators,” Meyer said.

At IPS, other teachers sub during their preparation time, and sometimes classes even are doubled up, she said.

“I think if we could pay them more, I think it would be more enticing to sub,” Meyer said. “However, a lot of our districts aren’t in great financial shape.”

That said, Meyer noted IPS can’t afford to pay more than what it’s already offering.

In October, Michigan State University’s Institute for Public Policy and Social Research announced research that indicated Michigan is experiencing a shortage of substitute teachers.

This leaves school district superintendents unable to fill temporary vacant positions several times a week during the school year.

According to the study, more than 60% of superintendents questioned said they had to move students between classrooms, ask administrators to handle classes or pull instructors of specialized students into less familiar duties.

“All of those have a very disruptive effect on the schools,” lead investigator Nathan Burroughs, Ph.D., was quoted as saying. Burroughs is a senior research associate in the MSU College of Education’s Center for the Study of Curriculum and with Public Policy Associates in Lansing.

The research team discovered the number of people to perform substitute teaching duties has declined while there’s a demand, with Burroughs pointing out every region of the state and every kind of school reported having generally the same problem.

He said subs typically have come from the ranks of retired teachers and people seeking full-time teaching positions, but changes to state retirement laws make it harder to attract retired education professionals. Also, fewer people want to go into teaching in Michigan anymore.

The research recommended:

≤ redrafting laws to encourage retired educators to seek out substitute positions;

≤ investigating opportunities to create a pool of permanent subs available at certain times to send to classrooms where teachers are needed;

≤ reviewing private organization efforts to hire subs; and

≤ conducting research to learn about the effects of learning environments and outcomes under substitute classroom management.

“It was a smart move by the Michigan Department of Education to lower the credit requirement, 90 down to 60 credits, in order for people to sub,” Skewis said. “Hopefully, this will help remedy issues districts face when trying to find quality substitute teachers.”

He hopes more students entering college choose education as their profession.

“A concern that smaller schools throughout the state are seeing is they’re not able to fill vacancies with qualified teachers,” Skewis said. “Fortunately, this hasn’t been a problem for us yet.”

However, he noted if the downward trend in students choosing teaching professions continues, “it will eventually affect us all.”

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is cbleck@miningjournal.net.