Schools grapple with substitute teacher shortage


School has been back in session for just under two months, but Dubois and Celestine elementaries’ Principal Brenda Ferguson has already had to substitute teach three days.

Ferguson is not alone. Local administrators frequently cover classes when teachers have to miss work as schools grapple with a statewide substitute teacher shortage.

“It is awful,” said North Spencer Superintendent Dan Scherry.

Administrators think a variety of factors are creating the shortage. The area’s low unemployment rate contributes, as does fewer people pursuing careers in education.

In the past, Scherry said, the area was home to licensed teachers who hadn’t found a full-time position, and administrators could call on those individuals to cover classes. Now, the teacher shortage has made it so that licensed teachers have an easier time finding jobs. The low unemployment rate in the area also makes it so fewer adults are available throughout the day to substitute teach.

In Indiana, substitute teachers are required only to have a high school diploma, a background check and a substitute teacher license from the state, making it a good option for people looking for part-time work. As local companies have expanded, however, some people who used to substitute teach have found other employment.

Constraints in potential substitute teachers’ schedules make administrators’ short candidate lists even shorter. Take, for example, Ferguson’s list of nine subs for her two schools. Some of those substitute teachers require advance notice, removing them as an option when a teacher calls in sick two hours before school starts. Others are only available certain days, and many are on the list for multiple schools and corporations.

Often, Ferguson can’t find a substitute and has to rearrange her staff’s schedules to cover classes. In those cases, she’ll ask instructional assistants to cover classes or ask teachers to sacrifice their plan periods to cover classes. Sometimes, Ferguson, like other area administrators, will teach classes herself.

“I’m blessed that my staff works well together,” she said.

Ferguson is not alone in having to find creative ways to cover classes. At Dubois Middle School, Principal Ryan Case said he sometimes asks counselors to cover classes or consolidates certain classes. Administrators at North Spencer are exploring how to use e-learning to cover classes, and classes are often asked to go the library or study halls when substitutes can’t be found.

Like his colleagues, Cedar Crest Intermediate Principal Mark Jahn has become a master at rearranging schedules to cover classes.

“We just try to juggle schedules and make the school day as effective as it can be,” he said.

When teachers need longer leaves of absence, such as for the birth of a baby or other long-term health issues, it’s even harder to find someone to cover the classes. In those situations, Greater Jasper Superintendent Tracy Lorey said, administrators really need licensed teachers who can plan lessons and run classes like full-time teachers. In the past, those positions would go to recent college graduates in search of their first, full-time work, but such candidates are now hard to come by.

Schools try several things to attract substitutes. Recently, several corporations raised pay for substitute teachers. Administrators will also ask retired teachers to help out. Ferguson posts on social media and reminds her teachers to ask stay-at-home parents if they’d consider becoming substitute teachers.

The hardest part of the substitute teacher search is getting people through the door the first time. Once they sub, Case said, they’ll usually come back.

“It’s getting them in to see what we’re doing in the schools,” he said. “They like interacting with the kids.”

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