Thursday, February 02, 2023

When teachers miss school, finding substitute teachers is an increasing challenge that needs a closer look by journalists

Image generated by artificial intelligence system DALL.E 2,
with directions from Carmen Nobel of Journalist's Resource
Sub vacation: Term used by students when a substitute teacher is present instead of the "real teacher."

By Heather Close
Institute for Rural Journalism

I was a substitute teacher in Monroe County, Indiana, from 1998 to 2000. I covered K-12. Here are some items to consider: Students stole the TV remote, so initially I struggled to start their physics video; once I manually turned the TV on, they kept changing the channel. More than one student went to the bathroom and never returned. A middle-school boy climbed wall shelving filled with Bunsen burners. I sent Spider Boy to the principal. She sent him back with a note to me that read, "I don't have time for this." I did not return to that school, ever. That's why this resonated with me:

"Last school year, almost 3 out of 4 public schools reported higher rates of chronic teacher absenteeism, or teachers missing 10 or more days of work, according to the U.S. Department of Education," reports Denise-Marie Ordway of The Jounalist's Resource, a free academic research group from Harvard Kennedy School. "At the same time, 77% of schools reported having more difficulty finding substitutes to fill in while regular teachers were out, with 61% saying it was 'much more difficult' than it had been before Covid-19 began to spread. . . . As kids make their way from kindergarten through their senior year of high school, they spend an estimated total of almost a whole academic year being taught by subs, on average."

Some areas are going to extremes. "In 2022, staffing shortages were so severe, some public schools closed temporarily and the governor of New Mexico called on National Guard troops to help cover classrooms," Orway reports. In 2022, "The federal government provided $122 billion in emergency relief to elementary, middle and high schools to 'to keep schools safely open, tackle learning loss and mental health.' Since then, many school districts have raised substitute pay or considered it. To expand their pool of applicants, districts in several states have lowered their educational requirements notes a January 2022 report for the National Council on Teacher Quality."

Filling instruction time with adequately trained substitutes needs attention. Orway writes: "Jing Liu, an assistant professor in education policy at the University of Maryland, warned that increasing pay will not, on its own, improve the overall supply of substitute teachers. He urged journalists to investigate the issue more closely." Liu told Ordway, "Similar to regular teaching jobs, substitute teachers care about their earnings as well as working conditions. Some consistent factors that affect substitute teachers’ willingness to teach I consistently find in my study are the challenge of managing student behavior and the lack of support from school administrators and staff members.”

Ordway writes: "To help journalists better understand and cover this topic, we’ve summarized several academic papers and reports that examine teacher absenteeism patterns, substitute recruitment and substitute teachers’ job preferences. You’ll find those summaries below."
  • School district leaders expect the demand for substitute teachers will grow over the next few years. One big reason: As Baby Boomer educators retire, they are replaced by younger educators, many of whom will start families, requiring them to sometimes take parental leave and time off to care for sick children.
  • There are significant differences in teacher absentee rates across school districts. For example, teachers in the District of Columbia missed an average of 6.9 days of school in 2016-17. In Newark, New Jersey, teachers were out an average of 16.7 days.
  • Even before Covid-19, children spent considerable time with substitutes. As kids make their way from kindergarten through their senior year of high school, they spend an estimated total of almost a whole academic year being taught by subs, on average.
  • Veteran educators miss class more often than less experienced ones. High school teachers tend to have higher absence rates than elementary school teachers.
  • In addition to student misbehavior and a lack of support from other school employees, a long commute is another reason subs don’t take jobs at certain schools. The perceived safety of the neighborhood around a school is another factor.
  • Teacher absences are most detrimental to students during the weeks leading up to end-of-year exams and on exam days.
  • When teachers leave their jobs mid-year, their students show smaller gains in math and language arts than kids whose teachers stayed the whole academic year. Teacher departures are more harmful to elementary school students than middle school students.

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