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By Amanda von Moos

Strengthening substitute teaching in California


his school year has not turned out as expected. Substitute teaching systems faltered throughout the pandemic and failed during the omicron wave. Keeping schools staffed has required district leaders to solve a moving puzzle, often by filling in themselves.

The system that we’ve relied on for more than 100 years to provide staff coverage when a permanent teacher isn’t there — substitute teaching — like so many other things, failed during the pandemic.

If we are honest with ourselves, the system never really worked all that well. It wasn’t designed for student learning or to create good jobs. In pre-pandemic times, just 80 percent of teaching jobs were covered and that varied dramatically by school, reflecting systemic inequality. Substitute teaching is the original gig economy job, characterized by high autonomy and flexibility, little to no training or support, a high degree of professional isolation with no guarantee of income or professional growth. Its chief strength has been keeping costs low.

This year, the true cost of that model caught up with us. People just aren’t willing to take or stay in stressful jobs where they don’t feel valued. We’ve long lived with huge turnover in our sub pools — pre-pandemic, the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing issued a staggering 67,000 permits each year. But this year, most districts saw a huge drop in applicants to refill our leaky buckets. Many districts responded by significantly increasing pay, sometimes doubling it. But we’ve learned that pay isn’t enough, and right now, substitute teachers don’t feel set up for success.

The impact of the substitute teaching model is also catching up with us. By the time they graduate, students will have spent a full year with substitute teachers. As the system relies more on substitute teachers, their lack of training and supervision means that students experience less learning and more chaos in their school day. While there are many fantastic substitute teachers, the system isn’t designed to support greatness. Only 11 percent of districts offer substitute teachers training in classroom management, their core job function.

a women stands between two young adult students, all three look at a laptop screen
Each year, more students are taught by long-term substitute teachers, many of whom receive no basic training or grounding in the curriculum they are teaching. It’s a hard job and substitute teachers are often devastatingly aware that the students in their care deserve better.

So, where do we go from here? We need to be thinking about both strengthening our current system and what it will take to redesign it. It’s been reassuring to see that districts who have long invested in best practices related to substitute teachers have weathered this year better than their peer districts. But those districts would be quick to tell you that they still need to do more, and that they aren’t able to cover all of their sub needs. The role of a substitute teacher must be redesigned to improve their impact on students and to make the job more attractive.

What works

Substitute teacher professional development: The strongest systems invest in substitute professional development. Los Angeles Unified School District is a great example of this, having invested consistently in sub PD for many years, resulting in a more stable pool. To be effective, sub PD needs to be designed for the unique role of the substitute teacher. For example, while best practices in classroom management center on routines and relationships, many of these strategies won’t work for day-to-day subs. Sub PD also needs to be ongoing to support substitute teachers building their teaching practice, not just one-and-done before they start working. Substitute teachers are a regional workforce, so county offices are especially well-positioned to manage sub PD resources.

Strong and consistent sub plans: An often-overlooked part of substitute teaching is the information that subs get when they arrive — information about how the school and classes work, and most importantly, a plan for the day. Sunnyvale Unified has improved sub coverage by focusing on strengthening sub plans. This not only improves the likelihood of a strong instructional day and also signals to substitute teachers that they are valued and that the school took time to prepare for them.

Substitute teaching is the original gig economy job, characterized by high autonomy and flexibility, little to no training or support, a high degree of professional isolation with no guarantee of income or professional growth.
Smooth and easy hiring process: Finally, if you want to build your pool and compete in the gig economy, you’ve got to have a smooth hiring process with few speed bumps. As soon as you finish reading this article, pull up your district’s website and look for the hiring instructions for substitute teachers. Are they easy to find? Can you understand them? Are they up to date (look especially at the options to meet the basic skills requirement)? If you are looking for an example, West Contra Costa Unified has a very clear step-by-step process on their website. Next, think of ways to reduce out-of-pocket expenses for prospective subs. It’s fantastic that CTC is waiving the $100 application fee for new permits this year. Can your district cover fingerprinting? Reimburse for purchasing official transcripts or TB testing? That $100 annual permit can be a financial burden for continuing subs. If you want to retain subs, consider reimbursing it.

Next steps

To build the staffing resilience that California needs in the coming years, we will also need to look at redesigning the job of substitute teachers. It’s clear that in the years ahead we will need to rely on our backup systems more and more. It’s also clear that we’ve got to do a better job of getting people into education — as teachers or other school staff. When people are interested in working in education, they often sign up to substitute teach as a first step. It’s the easiest way to put a toe in the water. But today they are dropped into an under-designed, under-supported role which sends the unmissable message that their work is not important. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Amanda von Moos is co-founder of Substantial, a nonprofit dedicated to transforming substitute teaching through training and support for both substitutes and districts.