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Addressing the Substitute Teacher Shortage

According to the AASA, The School Superintendents Association, “the shortage of substitute teachers, both in quantity and quality, across the country has never been more severe.”1 In New York State, Niagara Falls Superintendent Mark Laurrie said, “I’ve never seen a substitute shortage in my 35 years in education look like this—ever.”2 Many school districts across the country are finding it increasingly difficult to find substitutes in all of the subject areas and especially in special education.

Help wanted

The substitute teacher shortage is a growing concern amongst districts across the country. The impact has proven to be a burden to teachers, school administrators, support staff and has trickled down to affecting students as well. Without available substitutes, teachers are being asked to cover more classes during their free periods. In some schools, administrators have had to divide up classes and move students to other teachers’ classrooms, increasing the student-to-teacher ratio. In addition, teachers are afraid to call in sick. When there aren’t enough subs to cover, support staff such as teacher aides, special-content teachers and paraprofessionals are being asked to watch over a class. Over time, overcrowded classrooms, no sick days, interrupted routines and related stress can lead to teacher burnout, turnover, and student disruption.

Why the shortage?

The root of the shortage can be explained by simple supply and demand. There’s a increased demand for substitute teachers, and not enough qualified candidates available to fill the positions.

There are many factors that have contributed to the lack of available candidates. Here are a few noteworthy reasons behind the substitute teacher shortage:

  • Many substitute positions offer low pay, even though many candidates have four year degrees.
  • Some districts offer generous teacher contracts with extended leave and sick time.
  • Teachers are being pulled out of their classrooms for training during the school day, resulting in an increased demand for subs.
  • We are in the midst of a competitive job market where there are many alternative employment opportunities for potential substitutes.
  • Smaller class size has increased the need for full-time teacher positions, thus reducing the number of certified teachers in the substitute pool.
  • It used to be easier to become a sub, but now, many states require subs to earn additional certifications beyond a four year degree (which the candidate has to pay for).
  • Less college students are pursuing degrees in education.
  • Teachers are leaving the field to pursue new careers.

The Light at the End of the Tunnel

Proactive Ways Your District Can Help Solve the Substitute Teacher Shortage

Light at the end of the abandoned train tunnel

While the above information might cause concern, there are so many things that you can do to help solve the problem. Start with this list of best practices.

Lower requirements for candidates to qualify for sub positions. In many states, a four year degree and a teaching certificate is a requirement to be a substitute teacher. In New York, certification is strongly preferred but not required. Many districts within the state require at least a bachelor’s degree, but according to BOCES, there are some districts that only require candidates to have a number of college credits. In other states, a high school diploma is all that is required.

Be selective about when to schedule teacher trainings. In 2017, the Assistant Superintendent for Instruction in the South Colonie Central School District Tim Backus said he “was surprised to see one exceptional teacher had missed 17 days of school in a single year. When he dug deeper, he learned that 10 of those absences were from the district pulling her out of class to train other teachers.”3

Consider how much time you pull teachers out of regularly scheduled classes to hold trainings, curriculum planning or other educational sessions. To reduce the need for coverage, plan these meetings for after school hours or on designated staff development days.

Give teachers incentives for unused sick days. St. Johns County in St. Augustine Florida uses an average of 230 subs per day! They pay teachers an extra $100 for each sick day not used during the school year or allow teachers to roll over the unused days to the next year.4

Increase pay. If your school district’s budget allows, you can compete with neighboring districts by offering more pay per day.

Recruit heavily. Partner with local colleges and universities to attract the best and brightest. Advertise job fairs or open houses on social media to attract community members. You may even want to consider working with a temporary placement firm to help fill vacant positions on short notice.

Train your subs. Studies show that when substitute training is conducted regularly, both the number of applicants and employee longevity increase significantly.5 With training, subs with acquire the skills necessary to help manage classrooms. They’ll also become familiar with school procedures, logistics and other emergency protocols. Plus, subs want to be more than just babysitters that fill time with busy work. Training will help subs be able to implement and carry on with the lesson plans and curriculum started by the full time teacher.

Tap into the retiree pool. There are many members of your district’s community that are paying school taxes, are retired and are qualified to substitute teach. This pool of candidates might be looking for a small job that he/she can do from time to time to make a little extra money or get back into teaching.

Attract out of state teachers. Requirements vary from state to state. So why not make requirements seamless? For example in Illinois: “To make it easier for out-of-state teachers to work in Illinois, the legislation provides full reciprocity for out-of-state applicants seeking Professional Educator License (PEL). The law seems mostly geared toward attracting substitute teachers, allowing former teachers whose PELs lapsed due to failure to complete professional development requirements to substitute teach.”6

What are other districts doing about the substitute teacher shortage?

This resource from the National Education Association show the Status of Substitute Teachers: A State-By-State Summary.


Research indicates that frequent teacher absences produce significantly worse student outcomes.7 However, education is a world that is people centered and that will always have a need for substitute teachers. By being proactive and having strategies in place to deal with this issue, you’ll be a step ahead.

1. Smith, G. (n.d.). Dealing with the Substitute Teacher Shortage. Retrieved September 19, 2018, from

2. Plants, R. (2018, September 06). Substitute Shortage for Some School Districts. Retrieved September 19, 2018, from

3. Bump, B. (2017, December 08). Absent teachers cause for concern amid substitute shortage. Retrieved September 19, 2018, from

4. Gibson, T. (2018, September 02). There was a substitute teacher shortage last year. This year, the district is ready. Retrieved September 19, 2018, from

5. Smith, Dealing with the Substitute Teacher Shortage, 2018

6. Kramer, M., & Gatehouse Media Illinois. (2018, September 01). Illinois teacher shortage has districts ‘feeling the pinch’. Retrieved September 19, 2018, from

7. Bump, 2017

6 Responses to “ Addressing the Substitute Teacher Shortage ”

  1. Randall Simpson Says:

    We should be addressing the real problem. The reason why great teachers like my self and many others are quitting is because the students run the school. There is no discipline, responsibility or consequences anymore. Not to mention state exams are super easy and I end up passing most students along anyway due to fears of being sued because there child couldn’t come to class and take notes and write their name on their paper.

  2. Jennifer Jordan Says:

    Thank you for your candid and honest feedback. It’s always informative to hear about teacher’s first hand experience!

  3. Laura Lautner Says:

    While some of this article is accurate, there is also much missing. I have both a bachelor’s degree in education (English 7-12) and a master’s degree in education (reading k-12). My teaching certifications have expired, as I left teaching to run a business. When I sold my business, I decided to substitute teach in New York, specifically my former high school, Hamburg Senior High School in Hamburg, NY. Because my certifications expired I’m considered an “uncertified” sub making only $90/day. I also cannot sub long term assignments. The icing on the cake was the removal of the waiver for the 2019-2020 school year allowing me to work more than 40 days in a district. NYS cuts off uncertified subs after 40 days. I can however move to another district for 40 days. So I have to leave a school I’ve subbed at for 3 years, where I know the staff, the students, the flow and energy of the building to sub at a new school. Don’t even ask me about trying to get my certification back because that’s even more ludicrous. So I’ve taken my masters in education and once again shelved it and turned to pet sitting to earn a living. NYS has lost an amazing substitute teacher through policies that don’t benefit students and low wages that certainly don’t benefit the professionals they desperately need.

  4. Jennifer Jordan Says:

    Thank you for your insight and feedback! It’s always informative to hear from teachers and get real examples to inform school leaders about how to address challenges.

  5. Jessye Heilman Says:

    I agree with Randall Simpson and as a Substitute Teacher I can attest to the abuse expected to be endured. One district pays minimum wage although I have a Bachelor’s degree.

  6. Tracy Powell Says:

    I am certified to teach but it seems teachers are not in demand as so many think. I’ve invested money into testing and renewal over the summer. Only to be hired as a substitute again.

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