4 Ways to Improve the Substitute Teaching Experience 4 Ways to Improve the Substitute Teaching Experience

4 Ways to Improve the Substitute Teaching Experience

Erin Werra Erin Werra Culture Correspondent
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School leaders have long lamented the lack of available substitutes. In the highly competitive search for talent, it is necessary to stand out from the crowd. Whether it’s a planned absence or a last-minute early morning call, play your cards right and subs could be jumping for joy to get a gig in your district.

The way a new sub feels in your school is a pretty good indicator of how well your school culture resonates, and it will have a direct impact on his or her willingness to come back. Why should a sub choose you over the other available options?


1. First impressions

Before substitutes ever set foot in your schools, they have probably already checked out your online presence. Do your social media feeds and website accurately represent your culture, or are they of the more cookie-cutter variety? Is a casual search more likely to reveal positive comments and reviews or a sea of complaints? The trend here is no different than that of full-time staff—your digital presence is fast becoming the most important factor for first impressions.

Once they do decide to apply, how intense is your application process? Where traditional onboarding has revolved around procedures, paperwork, and logistics, the best schools are leading with mission, purpose, and mentorship. Those first days speak volumes to a new employee, even a temporary one—what story will you tell?

A welcoming first impression goes a long way to make a substitute feel like a true member of your team. The more empowered a sub is, the more invested they’ll be in their duties for the day, and the more comfortable they’ll be on subsequent days.


2. Technology and support

There’s nothing worse for a sub than feeling like a burden when trying to get his or her bearings. Some of the things you take for granted—like the location of your restrooms, teachers’ lounge, and supply closets—can make the difference between a frazzled sub and a comfortable one. Consider handing out something as simple as a small, handheld map, handbook, or other collateral for substitutes' reference throughout the day.

Security access to student information systems is another area worthy of consideration. How will your sub take attendance, submit hot lunch counts, or stay in the loop on critical alerts if all of those things are happening in a system they can't get into? Granting access is easy, but doing so within the bounds of FERPA protections takes a little more work. Now is a great time to review your temporary credentialing process and software documentation.

Looking to the future, we fully expect these concerns to be handled via secure mobile app, much like so many of our other day-to-day activities. Geolocation/geofencing and push notifications are just two of the emerging technologies with the potential to serve not only substitutes, but everyone who sets foot in your building. Imagine a world where all subs could get the information they need from their phone before they even accept an assignment. Doesn't it seem likely that such a world would be affected by fewer sub shortages? The technology already exists and some districts have even taken steps in that direction. It's just a matter of time before this dream becomes the real-life standard.


3. User-friendly communication

Absence is inevitable. Whether it’s a planned excursion for professional development or an unexpected 24-hour bug, the day will come when each teacher will need a substitute. Depending on the circumstances, detailed lesson plans may not always be an option, but that doesn't mean subs need to settle for hasty communication.

From a leadership perspective, step one is to set the expectation of up-to-date seating charts. The temptation for students to play games with subs shoots through the roof when names and seating arrangements are a mystery. Whether the chart is located in your aforementioned student information system or you have an old-school manual backup, as long as it's accurate and accessible, your sub will have one less hurdle to clear.

When possible, it's not too much to ask for specificity and clarity in substitute lesson plans. This makes for a great topic at department meetings. Like anything else, reinforcement and follow-up can drive consistency, so you don't end up with the one teacher who leaves notoriously vague or indecipherable notes every time they need to be out. In the event of a particularly tough class, teachers may benefit from an open forum discussion on how best to prepare their students in advance of an absence.

On the flip side, how much guidance are substitutes getting about what and how they should communicate back to the teachers they're filling in for? Simple, readily accessible templates can be a godsend. Free-form has its merits, but most subs will appreciate an organized list of topics (think activities, behavior issues, student feedback, etc...). You don't hear many teachers complaining about substitutes' notes being too detailed. By standardizing the feedback process, you can at least raise the bar on the minimum.


4. Incentives and recognition

Nobody is in this business for the money, but when subs have options, pay plays a role. Grand Island Public Schools in Nebraska has introduced an incentive pay program to attract subs to their district. Substitute teachers will earn an additional $150 if they work a certain number of days per month. In Chicagoland, districts have turned to offering perks for exclusivity after years of losing subs to neighboring districts in the same county.

If your budget is stretched as thin as it can bear, the simple act of recognizing great substitutes can go a long way. Their job isn’t easy, and they don't often get to enjoy the rewarding experience of seeing the long-term impact their efforts have on student growth. Did you know if you find a particularly stellar sub, you can always nominate them for Substitute Teacher of the Year? At the very least, an old-fashioned thank you note can make your subs feel valued for their flexibility and service.

Substitute teachers serve districts in a unique way. Give them a reason to choose yours, then double down on why they should come back. The strongest district cultures can weather even the most challenging economic downturns because they have taken the time to deliver positive experiences and position themselves as desirable destinations. Have you?

Read more about the shortage of substitutes and learn more strategies to attract great people.

Erin Werra Erin Werra Culture Correspondent
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