The ongoing shortage of teachers and substitute teachers was a major factor for the schools that put off full-time, in-person reopening until this week.
Even for districts that have been fully open all year, finding substitutes has been a major challenge – and it has been for years.
Schools have offered small increases to substitutes’ daily rates this year, but have found those have not made much difference. Around the country, the districts that have been able to recruit more subs have found they have had to offer substantially more pay to attract substitute teachers, and other districts are experimenting with “permanent” sub positions offering training and benefits.
At some level, said Barrett Christina, director of the New Hampshire School Boards Association, schools are pinched by the workforce shortages plaguing many low-paying industries in New Hampshire.
“You can drive by a McDonald’s or a Target, and they’re advertising higher hourly wages” than what most substitute teachers are paid, he said.
Pay that isn’t keeping up with retail jobs and other sectors is a major factor in the shortage of substitutes around the country, said Shannon Holston, chief of policy and programs with the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington, D.C. policy research group, especially this year.
Rates have gone up in recent years. Manchester subs made $70 per day in 2016, and can now make $85 for a day at school. In January 2020, the district lowered the bar for substitutes, requiring only a high school diploma for short-term subs. But district spokesman Andrew Toland said the district is still struggling to find people to staff classrooms this year.
Pay in many districts around the state, according to postings on the New Hampshire School Administrators Association website, is under $100 per day.
In Nashua, where short-term subs make $115 per day, human resources director Dana O’Gara told the Union Leader earlier this year that substitutes were still hard to find.
Christina said he has seen districts around the state try to raise pay this year, bumping daily rates by $10 or $20, sometimes using stimulus money.
A school district in New Jersey decided to go further.
“We wanted to entice people to come to our schools,” said Donna Reichman, assistant superintendent of schools in Wayne Township, a district of some 8,000 students not far from New York.
The school board in Wayne voted to raise the daily rate for subs from $100 to $150 in the fall. But the shortage persisted. Then, the board voted to pay subs $200 a day, $225 for a certified teacher.
“The final increase to $200 and $225 got us the response we needed,” Reichman said. The school district aggressively marketed the openings, and Reichman said people stepped up — especially parents.
It was a significant investment, she said, but the return was staying open. Staff shortages due to teacher quarantines have forced temporary switches to all-remote learning for many districts this year, including those that started the year with full-time in-person learning.
Reichman said the school district used federal stimulus money to pay the difference between the old and new rates. When the stimulus money is gone, Reichman said she expects the pay rate will drop again. But said she hoped the people who started substitute teaching will remain engaged and available to fill in for teachers in the years to come.
“We attracted a lot of subs from the community, new people who have never subbed before and are finding it really enjoyable,” Reichman said, especially people with children in the schools. “I think there will be sustainability having more community involvement, regardless of what the rates are.”
Holston said across the country, the average hourly rate for a substitute teacher is $13 an hour, though pay around the country can range from $8 to $26 per hour.
“One thing districts do is increase that, make it more competitive,” Holston said. “Stimulus funds have helped with that.”
Another strategy, Holston said, is providing benefits to substitute teachers.
“The health benefits are just as important, if not more, than general pay or compensation,” she said. She cited larger school districts in Texas, Virginia, Florida and California that have provided benefits to substitutes.
In New Hampshire, SAU 24, which educates children from Henniker, Weare and Stoddard, employs a small force of “permanent” substitute teachers, who would work 180 days this school year and receive pay and benefits, and do not have to be certified teachers.
While a long-term sub fills in for one teacher for weeks and takes over lesson-planning and instruction, the “permanent” subs of SAU 24 are rarely in the same class for more than a few days at a time, and work off the teacher’s lesson plan — so it’s less important that they be certified, Assistant Superintendent Natasha Kolehmainen said.
The stability of those jobs appealed to people, said Kolehmainen. Subs in her district don’t make more than substitutes elsewhere, but they’re guaranteed a job every day in SAU 24 — and are eligible for benefits, including health insurance.
“They don’t have to be scanning the different school districts every day to see who needs subs,” she said. “In a school district of our size there’s always at least one person out on any given day.”
Holston said one often-overlooked way to retain substitutes is to provide more training, both so that they can feel more prepared to take charge of a classroom, and to adapt to changes like remote learning.
Almost half of substitute teachers – 44% — receive no training at all, Holston said. “If you’re not prepared, then why come back?”
Reichman, the New Jersey assistant superintendent, said she thought lack of experience and formal training were keeping potential substitutes out of classrooms – but the higher pay helped overcome those fears.
Holston said training substitutes can also help schools hire full-time permanent teachers. People can test-drive a classroom to see if they might want to become educators, and districts can get to know people who they might want to hire one day.
Even if a substitute does not want to become a full-time teacher, Holston said making substitutes feel like they’re not disposable can help keep them around.
“How districts value the subs is an important strategy to consider,” Holston said. “Districts who see this as a pipeline have more success than a ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ attitude.”