Many schools find substitute teachers in short supply

By AMELIA HAVANEC

Capital News Service

LANSING – Many school administrators across the state and the private companies that provide substitute teachers are concerned that they can’t find enough of the right people for the job.

However, it’s unknown whether the shortage is due to a lack of quantity of substitutes, or the quality of them.

“We occasionally hear anecdotal evidence from districts about their inability to find substitute teachers,” said Bill DiSessa, a communications specialist for the Department of Education. “On the other hand, we also hear, anecdotally, from other districts or from the substitutes themselves that they can’t find substitute jobs.”

But there’s no direct evidence of a statewide shortage, DiSessa added.

On the issue of quality, according to Joseph Lubig, the associate dean for teacher education and director of education at Northern Michigan University, a candidate needs only 90 college credit hours to be eligible for a position.

“Those credits can be from any area, whether it’s sociology, nursing or anything,” Lubig said. “It’s a little frustrating for us in the education world that you wouldn’t really have to have any coursework in child development and classroom management.”

But on the quantity front, many eligible substitutes are pressured to pay additional fees for training and licenses through private contractors, companies relied on by schools to supply substitutes to their district, he added.

“We haven’t made it any easier,” said Peter Haines, superintendent of the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District. “The work is tougher than it used to be because the expectations are significantly higher.

“The focus on improving instruction and protecting every critical moment of instruction is pretty consistent across the state,” Haines said.

Lubig said it used to be that intermediate school districts coordinated substitute teachers for their local public school districts. But a lot of those school districts have turned to placement agencies and leave the stress of finding a last-minute substitute up to them.

Haines said, “The reason for private companies is because it’s primarily budget-driven. We employ substitutes directly, then they’re also earning service credit in the school employees’ retirement system, which means we’re paying a significant portion over their daily wages on their behalf.”

Haines added that the change has meant savings for many districts that had to make drastic budget cuts several years ago.

And substitute teaching is not for the thin-skinned, Lubig said. “I mean, you’re coming in and trying to manage a population of 30 students for maybe an hour or maybe 24 elementary kids the whole day, and you’re trying to build relationships with them.

“It’s stressful.”

Ron Stoneman, superintendent of Manistee Area Public Schools, says his fill-rate for substitutes is around 75 percent. “We would expect higher from an outside company.

“When we can’t find substitutes, then we ask our administrators and other staff to fill in for the missing faculty,” Stoneman said.

A career in education is not as attractive as it used to be, according to Steven Cook, president of the Michigan Education Association (MEA), the largest school employee union in the state.

University education degree programs are churning out fewer graduates, and more and more teachers in the field want to retire, he said.

“However, there are a number of folks who have teaching certificates they earned 10 or 15 years ago, and for whatever reason they want to get back into the profession,” Cook said.

Experts say that some districts struggle to find qualified substitute teachers. But retired teachers make ideal candidates, Cook said.

They’ve proven they can take the pressure from real-world teaching experiences, and they’re willing to update their licenses to get back into the field, according to Cook.

Retirees can significantly reduce the substitute shortage. A law passed in 2012 allowed those who retired after mid-2010 to return part-time without reducing their pensions.

But that law expired nearly 18 months ago, prompting legislators to address shortages for substitutes and full-time teachers in some subjects, and to replace the expired law.

A replacement bill passed the Senate in November and would benefit both school districts and retired teachers by filling both the substitute and full-time teaching gaps in subjects with a critical shortage of teachers until mid-2018, supporters said. It’s awaiting final action.

Rep. Jon Bumstead, R-Newaygo, a co-sponsor of the bill, says there are substitute teacher shortages in Lake, Oceana and Newaygo counties. “This bill is another tool in the toolbox to fill the gap.”

Northern Michigan University’s Lubig said, “It’s going to be a huge help because we have this amazing pool of experienced people who know these schools really well and probably know a ton of the kids and their families and want to come back and help.

“That will relieve some of the stress of this situation,” he said.

FOR CNS EDITORS:

HB 4059 http://legislature.mi.gov/doc.aspx?2015-HB-4059