To retain great substitute teachers, focus on nurturing the relationship

To retain great substitute teachers, focus on nurturing the relationship

Brittna Valenzuela

Vice President, Southwest Practice Leader, Kelly Educational Staffing

While substitute teachers are the newest essential worker, the shortage of teaching talent is not new. The pandemic has simply put a spotlight on what many of us in the field of education already knew: there’s a national teacher shortage. This fall, the demand for substitutes has climbed dramatically because of COVID, with some schools asking Kelly Education for double and triple the number of substitutes they request in a typical year.  

Because it is so competitive, districts, schools and individual principals have to find ways to persuade substitutes to choose their school. Substitutes are in the driver’s seat when it comes to deciding where and how they want to work. This means schools and districts are often competing for the best substitutes.

Given my role as Southwest Practice Leader with Kelly Education, I hear a lot of substitutes’ stories about their experiences. And I can tell you the secret to attracting and keeping substitutes: it’s all about creating a positive experience. Here’s what I suggest for administrators who are struggling to attract and retain qualified subs.

Create a substitute-friendly culture. When a sub arrives (especially if it’s their first time in a school), make sure they get a warm welcome from the school principal or someone designated to get them set up for the day. This could include an overview of the school, key processes, and class lesson plans. I recommend that someone be assigned to check on a substitute teacher to see how things are going and ensure they have everything needed to be successful. In summary, how you begin can be the start of a positive partnership which could be beneficial for the school, principal, and the substitute teacher. Schools need qualified subs and subs want the opportunity to contribute to their communities.

Set them up for success. Substitutes want to be supported in ways that allow them to teach, not just keep order in the classroom. For that, they need access to all tools and resources like updated lesson plans, training on applicable technology platforms, and they need a resource who can help them with questions or concerns. If at the end of the day they feel like they’ve done a good job and are valued, they’ll be more likely to return.

Foster the relationship. Get to know the individual who is coming to help you. What do they do for fun? What are they passionate about? Substitutes have the same basic needs as everyone else—to feel valued, recognized, and a sense of belonging. If you treat them accordingly, they are more likely to pick up that hard-to-fill assignment.

Provide a safe environment. COVID protocols are important, but safety goes beyond that. It includes making sure that substitutes feel physically safe as they enter and exit the building and the grounds. Just having to navigate an unfamiliar campus can be stressful. Substitutes should feel comfortable in their work environment.

While creating that positive experience is crucial, competitive pay is also very important. Pay rates are typically determined by the district. Therefore, it is also critical that pay rates are competitive.

Many of these recommendations may seem basic and fairly easy to achieve. However, administrators often overlook them. If done consistently, they could make a huge difference.


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