When Omicron started spreading, America’s schools were already understaffed. Since the start of the pandemic, teachers across the country have retired early or quit for other professions, exacerbating a long-standing substitute and teacher shortage. Now increased absences have pushed the situation to a breaking point: There simply aren’t enough substitutes.
Desperate school systems are raising pay and lowering requirements; in Kansas, for example, any 18-year-old with a high-school diploma is eligible to apply to sub. Administrators are begging parents and college students to consider the role. Overworked teachers are being asked to monitor classrooms during their lunch breaks and conference periods, which many use for grading, lesson planning, and meetings to track the progress of students with special needs. Classroom aides, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, front-office staff, and even superintendents are being called away from their standard duties. New Mexico has asked members of the National Guard to think about stepping in, and Oklahoma has offered openings to state employees.
Implicit in these responses is the assumption that one doesn’t need training or experience to be a substitute—but that’s just not true. “It’s insulting,” Natalie, who has years of experience as a substitute teacher in Illinois, told me. “Basically, they’re telling me, ‘Any Joe can be pulled off the street and do what you do.’” (Natalie, along with the other substitutes and teachers I spoke with, requested to be referred to by first name only to protect their jobs.) That cavalier attitude toward subbing, unfortunately, isn’t new; for years, many schools have treated substitute teachers like babysitters rather than educators.
Even before the pandemic, for instance, substitutes were typically thrown into classrooms with almost no preparation. About half of all school-board members and administrators surveyed by EdWeek Research Center in December 2019 and January 2020 said their districts don’t offer subs any professional development. In the districts that do, only 11 percent of respondents said they offer classroom-management training, and only 8 percent cover effective teaching strategies. When I asked Jesi, a parent in Washington State who answered her child’s school’s call for subs, if she’d thought about what she’ll do when she gets in front of the classroom, she said she hadn’t considered it. She feels comfortable with public speaking and believes she’s good with kids but she doesn’t have any official teaching experience. “I hopefully understand the material,” she told me. “I know that things have changed a lot in the last 10 years since I've been in school.”
According to Amanda von Moos, the co-author of Substantial Classrooms: Redesigning the Substitute Teaching Experience, many subs aren’t given any practical information about the school building, such as where to go to the bathroom, park, or eat lunch. Hopefully they know which class they’re filling in for, though assignments may change on arrival at the school, which Natalie calls “job catfishing.” If the sub is lucky, the teacher who’s out will have left a plan for them—and if they’re even luckier, they’ll have some knowledge of the subject they’re supposed to teach. Regardless, they have to reach students who do not know or trust them.
Teaching in these conditions can be nearly impossible. But then, some schools never expected their subs to teach in the first place. This might seem like it would lower pressure, but it can actually make the job harder; bored students, many subs I spoke with noted, are more likely to cause havoc than those who are absorbed by their assignments. And of course, plenty of substitutes actually want to teach. Too often, though, schools seem to define success as “anything less than chaos,” von Moos told me.
Now many schools are unable to meet even that standard. Teachers told me about teenagers roaming the hallways or left unattended in classrooms. Several described “mega-classes,” in which students whose teachers are absent are gathered en masse in gyms or auditoriums. Rachel, a high-school history teacher in Fort Worth, Texas, told me she was once the only adult in charge of about 10 classes—roughly 150 students total—in her school’s gym, though a nearby P.E. teacher volunteered to help her, and two other administrators stepped in toward the end of the period. Mask mandates in schools are banned in Texas, and many students didn’t have any sort of face covering on. Students were supposed to be working on online assignments, but Wi-Fi service was spotty at best. A group of upperclassmen in AP statistics, whose teacher was out with COVID, asked Rachel for help deciphering their lesson—but she couldn’t offer any useful guidance. (Rachel later got COVID herself.) Saundra, who teaches at a different high school in Texas, told me she encourages students slotted into mega-classes to sit in her classroom instead. She won’t always be able to help them with their assignments, but “at least I know where they’re at,” she said.
Hopefully, the tumult will subside once cases begin to dip—but some problems seem likely to linger. Students missing important lessons may struggle to catch up when their teachers are back. Teachers who have been burnt out for years might leave the profession altogether. And if unsupported substitutes start quitting too, the shortage could worsen, continuing the entire cycle. “We’re always told how badly subs are needed,” Natalie told me, but there’s a disconnect between their actual value and how they’re treated; she’s considering whether she might be more respected in a different field.
Substitute teaching relies in part on a gig-economy model in which subs take jobs at different schools each day. But the most successful placements tend to be in schools that subs have a lasting relationship with, von Moos said; students trust them, and the teachers making the sub plans know what they’re capable of. Investing in more permanent roles like this—with higher pay, better training, and support from a manager—could set both subs and students up for success. Losing some continuity during a teacher’s absence is inevitable, but under the right conditions, substitutes can absolutely carry out lesson plans and keep kids engaged. In other words, they can do so much more than babysit.