Substitute teachers have never been more critical—or more underpaid
By Cheryl Courier
Teaching is a profession “that remains stubbornly underpaid and undervalued.” That line from “What It’s Like to Be a Teacher in 2020 America” has stayed with me.
It isn’t news to any of us who work in education. But it is a pithy explanation of why there’s a chronic shortage of not just teachers but also substitute teachers. Even before the pandemic, districts were able to fill only 54% of the 250,000 teacher absences every day, according to research Kelly Education did with the EdWeek Research Center earlier this year.
The pandemic, of course, has only made the problem worse. Some substitutes who would have stepped up in the past have the same hesitations about health and safety as everyone else right now. Others took different jobs when schools went remote last spring and didn’t need them anymore. If we don’t have enough substitutes—and we don’t—who will show up in classrooms to teach the kids?
So let’s talk about pay. The EdWeek research showed that substitutes make $97/day (median). That’s about $13/hour, and in some places, they make as little as $9/hour. As one district administrator pointed out, that’s not even enough for a substitute to cover their childcare costs for the day. Meanwhile, Hobby Lobby just raised its minimum wage to $17/hour--and it offers employee discounts on merchandise.
School districts are aware that low substitute pay is a problem. Still, I know of many that haven’t increased it in 20 years. Twenty years! If substitute pay had kept pace with inflation, substitutes would be making $19.63/hour today. Districts simply haven’t had the money, and they likely aren’t going to have it anytime soon, since more than half expect to decrease spending next year.
Talent companies like mine that provide schools with substitute teachers can’t raise the pay rates for substitute teachers. Those are set by school boards, so until they approve higher pay, our hands are tied.
If school districts can’t increase substitute pay, what’s the answer? I think it comes down to what we, as a society, value. If we value education, then we need to be willing to fund it. The disparity between what we pay professional athletes and what we pay teachers and substitute teachers doesn’t make any sense to me. Athletes entertain us but teachers educate the next generation of leaders.
Still, there are ways to move in the right direction. Here are a few:
- Raise awareness. I’m doing that by writing about it, but you can do it by having conversations with other parents. That’s a great starting point!
- Ask questions of school board members and administrators. Ask about teacher absences and how your school covers them. This affects the quality of education and you have a right to know. Ask how much your school pays substitutes and lobby for better pay.
- If you have a passion for this, contact your local state representative. Educate them about what’s going on at your own school. Express concern about the teacher shortages and the low pay for both fulltime teachers and substitute teachers.
At the very least, schools can make sure substitute teachers are treated well. I worked with a school that struggled to get substitute teachers. Substitutes would go once but wouldn’t go back. The district appointed a new principal and suddenly subs loved to teach there. I asked the new principal what she did, and basically it came down to showing appreciation and respect. She welcomed every substitute teacher (or visiting teacher, as she called them) at the front desk. Then she sent an administrator to check later to make sure the substitute had everything they needed for the day and to introduce them to the teacher next door.
It’s just one example of how being considerate of substitute teachers and treating them with respect gets results. And it’s free!
If you have been teaching your own children at home during the pandemic you know it’s not easy. You’ve probably also learned that any issues with your child may not necessarily be their teacher’s fault. It’s time to step up and get involved to ensure your child’s continued success.
Most of all you’ve probably learned teachers are not paid enough, especially when they have to be teacher, social worker, and nurse to their students.
I implore you not to read this article and move onto something else. Review the action items and get involved. The education of future generations is on the line.
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