Who's Teaching Your Children? The Answer May Be Multiple Choice

Dec 22, 2017

Illinois public schools face a teacher shortage, and officials increasingly are turning to substitutes when full-time educators are unavailable. But what effects does this have on education, particularly when substitutes themselves are becoming harder to find? In this week’s Friday Forum, WNIJ’s Chase Cavanaugh looks for some of the answers.

When you think about substitute teachers, the first image that probably comes into your head is somebody filling in for an educator who fell sick. This may be the most common reason, but substitutes also are responsible for taking over for more mundane situations, such as professional development.

Lee-Ogle-Whiteside Regional Superintendent Robert Sondgeroth said a lack of subs hindered such efforts for some of his office’s initiatives.

“Districts were hesitant to give their teachers release time to come for our professional development activities, even if we would pay for the substitute,” he said, “because we couldn’t get the substitute.”

Robert Sondgeroth

For Sondgeroth, the problem started three to four years ago, and it’s caused a trickle-down effect because finding substitute teachers has become more difficult in general. Full-time teachers often lose their planning period if the school can’t find a substitute. Sondgeroth said the planning period is particularly important because not all students learn the same way.

“You use that plan period after you’ve had a couple of classes to realize, ‘Okay, this didn’t work so well here, so I’m changing things up here, and this is how it will work better for the next class,’” he said. “Well, you don’t have that.”

This goes double for team teachers and specialists, such as regular teachers coordinating Individualized Education Programs with Special Education colleagues. But a cancelled planning period means more work for a teacher after hours and forces the district to give them overtime pay.

In situations like this, the class doesn’t have to be cancelled. But all class sessions must have some type of supervision; so, if the pool of substitutes is completely exhausted, Sondgeroth said sometimes even administrators may have to take over classes.

“It’s definitely a different situation for them,” he said. “I think that, every once in a while, it’s not bad at all for them to get into the classroom. The problem is, while they’re in the classroom, their other duties are being neglected.”

Thus a lack of teachers and substitutes contributes to less education at all levels. Normally, when there’s a teacher shortage, there would be an economic incentive to go into the field, but Sondgeroth noted that isn’t the case now.

“If you have a chance of teaching or going into the private sector -- and you’re thinking of this as a freshman or sophomore in college -- you look at that and you say, ‘Why would I want to go into teaching with all the problems they’re having with paying teachers?’” he said. “The teaching salary is lower, the pension is not as good as it used to be.”

As for substitutes, the most common issue in attracting new blood is a lack of awareness of what it takes to become one. State rules currently require only a bachelor’s degree, and some districts are holding fairs to recruit potential candidates.

Lori Fanello

One example is the Winnebago-Boone Regional Office of Education. Superintendent Lori Fanello said prospective candidates can fill out their paperwork for substitute certificates and interview with each school district in a single location.

In her region, districts offer varying pay rates depending on need. They range from $85 per day in Belvidere to $115 per day in Rockford. This, according to Fanello, provides incentives for substitutes to work in more challenging districts.

But registration can get expensive, particularly for those with student debt.

“The application fee is $50, and then the registration fee is $60, and then they have to be fingerprinted, another $45, and they have to have a TB test and a physical,” Fanello explained. “It does add up, but if they get some of these positions in some of the districts, in two days of subbing, they’ve paid for that.”

To address that problem, the Illinois General Assembly approved legislation that reimburses the substitute application fee after 10 days of teaching. Fanello said substitute teaching can be attractive to those who are underemployed, out of the labor force, or those who want to work the same hours as their children.

“A lot of small districts have some of those stay-at-home moms with bachelor’s degrees who will come back and sub for their child’s district,” Fanello said.

The other group of subs consists of people with a full-blown teaching certificate, known officially as a Professional Educator License. DeKalb County Regional Superintendent Amanda Christensen noted that some of these substitutes are recent graduates.

Amanda Christensen

“They’re not going to get that full-time job in the middle of the school year,” Christensen explained, “and so they will frequently substitute and gain that experience from January through June in looking for a full-time position in the next school year.”

Others are retired teachers who want to continue in the educational system. Christensen said often they can provide useful expertise in a particular subject, especially if they stay long-term.

“Finding a retired teacher, or a retired foreign-language teacher, and getting them to substitute, that’s like gold,” she said, “and so we do have some substitutes who really cater to just particular content areas.”

Unfortunately, retired teachers are limited to 100 days of instruction out of a 180-day school year (in Winnebago County, subs are on-call for 173 days on average) if they don’t want their pensions to be affected. This makes it difficult to retain them for long-term courses.

No matter what type of candidate, however, school districts will continue to have a need for more substitute teachers if the pool is exhausted and full-time staff have to step in. Christensen said fiscal year 2015 was particularly bleak.

“We only had 346 subs in our pool that fiscal year,” she said, “and that was the year I was getting frantic calls from principals saying 'I can’t do my job because I have to sub.'”

Last year, DeKalb County had 414 subs on call, but it was nowhere year Fiscal Year 2010’s peak of 625. As for Winnebago County, the Rockford district began the year with 53 vacant teaching positions, and 28 are being covered by substitutes. The Harlem district also has five openings for specialists, such as two bilingual educators.

This chart shows the number of teacher vacancies at the beginning of the 2017-2018 school year for the districts in the Winnebago-Boone Educational Service Region.
Credit Chase Cavanaugh/WNIJ

Sondgeroth said the recruitment problem can be exacerbated in rural districts, when travel time makes it difficult to attract new candidates.

“In Paw Paw, there’s not as many people that live there, same thing with Creston or Eswood,” he said. “They have their pool, but once that’s used up, it’s hard to get people to come in.”

Sondgeroth said the Illinois Regional Superintendents of Schools Association surveyed for teacher shortages and found the problem to be spread evenly throughout the state.

As long as there are shortages, districts will need more substitutes. They’re needed both to shore up a lack of staff and to ensure that students are receiving the highest quality instruction when the regular teachers do have to be absent.