The Art and Science of Getting and Keeping Substitute Teachers

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The Art and Science of Getting and Keeping Substitute Teachers

Four years ago, San Bernardino City Unified School District simply didn’t have enough substitute teachers. Some days, as many as 100 classrooms lacked a teacher. The district did its best to provide educational opportunities for its 53,000 students, but absences negatively affected learning and staff morale.

“We couldn’t maintain a good level of learning,” says Marcus Funchess, the district’s human resources director and a former principal.

That was then. Now, the district has 1200 teachers in its substitute pool (up from 700), a daily fill rate of 99 percent (up from 95 percent) and “people knocking on the door to get in,” Funchess says.

These four action steps helped San Bernardino successfully address its substitute teacher shortage:

1. They simplified their substitute teacher hiring system.

Upon analysis, “we noticed that we didn’t have a clear system for hiring guest educators,” Funchess says. So, the district decided to regularly advertise for substitutes and interview candidates biweekly. Importantly, program specialists who work within the district conduct the interviews. Questions for candidates included: Why do you want to work in San Bernardino? And, how might you handle specific classroom situations? The goal isn’t simply to place a body in the classroom, but to identify substitute teacher candidates who will be successful in the district.

The district also streamlined the onboarding process. In the past, it used to take “months to get people in,” Funchess says. Now, guest teachers can be in the classroom in as little as two weeks.

2. They stressed that substitute teachers get respect.

“We realized that our guest teachers weren’t being valued or treated in a way that indicated we view them as professionals,” Funchess says. “And we realized that teachers might not be coming to or applying to our district because of the way they are being perceived.”

In an effort to increase respect, the district stopped using the term “substitute teacher,” opting for “guest educator” instead. The district also began celebrating Substitute Teacher Appreciation Week, which coincides with Teacher Appreciation Week.

“We dedicate a full week to highlighting the good work our guest teachers are doing,” Funchess says. Each of the 72 schools in the district is required to publicly honor contributions of guest educators. Some host breakfasts, some give awards, and some simply have administrators visit each teacher to say a sincere thank-you. 

3. They added resident guest educators to work full time.

Absences are inevitable. So, San Bernardino encouraged each school in the district to hire a few resident substitute teachers; these teachers work full time at the school site, filling in as needed. When there are no teacher absences to fill, resident guest educators help in classrooms or provide intervention services to small groups of students.

Because resident guest educators spend all of their time at one school, they are familiar with the staff, students, and school culture—which means they can hit the ground running and help students move forward when their regular teacher is absent. The resident guest educators benefit as well; they receive a regular paycheck and develop camaraderie with other teachers and staff.

4. They provided training for all substitute teachers.

Perhaps most importantly, San Bernardino provides formal onboarding and professional development to each of its guest educators.

“Before they go out to work, they participate in a two-day onboarding, where they get the nuts and bolts of what we expect from them and what they might encounter,” Funchess says. Topics covered include social-emotional learning, restorative-justice practices, classroom management, and de-escalation techniques. Professional development is offered three times per year.

Guest teachers receive pay for their time. “We feel like it’s well worth the money,” Funchess says, “because education and learning should continue even when the permanent teacher is not there. If the guest teacher isn’t well prepared, that won’t happen.”

Investing in guest teachers has elevated the quality of the district’s teaching force and decreased teacher turnover. In the last two years, the district has offered permanent teaching positions to approximately 125 guest teachers; all but a handful are still on staff.

“Small things add up, gain traction, and become part of your culture,” Funchess says. “Now we have guest teachers applying like nobody’s business.”

These four steps made a huge difference in San Bernardino, and they can make a difference for your district as well. Treating substitute teachers with respect by developing a system, training, and special place for them adds up to having the capacity to support student learning every single school day.

Posted by Jennifer Fink

Jennifer L.W. Fink is a freelance writer who specializes in education, health & parenting. She's also the founder of BuildingBoys.net.

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