Teachers, like all workers, can become suddenly ill or have a family emergency. When that happens, an early morning call goes out a list of subs that have been screened and preapproved for duty. But school districts across Maine report that they are struggling to find enough subs to fill in every day.
Two years ago, Lewiston Superintendent Bill Webster says the district had a crisis on its hands. There just weren’t enough substitute teachers to fill in when needed.
On an average day, Webster says, the school could only locate enough subs to fill about two-thirds of the demand.
“At the end of the day, we may be good at educating in the classroom,” he says, “but that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re good at recruiting substitutes.”
The problem isn’t unique to Lewiston. Districts from Kennebec to York County all say they’re desperate for more substitute teachers.
Webster says two years ago, Lewiston was forced to hire an outside staffing agency to fill its substitute teacher needs, and get that 65 percent rate up above 90 percent. And even then, the problem persisted.
“The results of [the agency] were, at least on the surface, no better than what we were doing,” he says.
Webster doesn’t blame the company, though. He blames the economy. With unemployment rates so low, he says, it’s hard to find people who are willing to work two or three days a week as a substitute, for pay as low as $60 a day in some districts.
Webster says because there’s also a shortage of educators in the state, many good subs are quickly promoted. They become education technicians, and eventually full-time teachers.
The sub shortage, he says, has left schools scrambling to find anyone willing to fill in. And that’s a problem.
“Any required substitute that is not provided is creating additional stresses on a school,” Webster says. “In the worst case, it can have a negative impact on school climate.”
“It’s hard when someone really doesn’t know what it’s like to teach in a school, or how you even interact with kids,” says Janice Cerabona, a retired teacher and current substitute.
Cerabona says if a substitute doesn’t know how to handle a classroom, it can get quickly out of hand. She says she’s often required to use all of her skills as a former educator to keep kids in line.
“Kids will say, ‘I can do this or I can do that,’” she says. “And I’ll say to them, ‘Now, I’m gonna check with your teacher. So please make sure you’re giving me the correct information.’“
Administrators say retired teachers like Cerabona are their first choice in the pool of substitutes, but they are being forced to take steps to expand that pool. Many are upping substitute pay to as much as $100 a day. Some are advertising more on social media or loosening their criteria for who’s allowed to become a sub.
The other, more hands-on solution, is to show prospective substitutes exactly what being a sub is like to help them decide whether it’s right for them. Many communities host substitute “crash course” classes.
About ten potential subs have showed up to a recent class in Waterville. Some are retirees and some are new moms and dads re-entering the workforce.
Longtime sub Ron Merrill leads them through a kind of substitute teacher simulation, offering tips on how to deal with unruly kids. He also speaks with them about the realities of school, as a way to weed out the prospective substitutes who may not actually want to be in the classroom.
“If I have a bad day, I try to figure out, ‘What did I do wrong? What did I do?’” he says. “A lot of times, it’s not your fault. You’ve done everything you can. If you weren’t in there, if I was in there, probably the same thing would happen to me. So you don’t want to take this too personal.”
As the class wraps up, Merrill asks the students: How many of you still want to be subs after learning what it takes?
A few appear to waver, but the other six or so indicate that they plan on sticking with it. And that means they may get a call very early in the morning over the next few weeks and, in a small way, help ease the state’s shortage of good substitute teachers.
Education reporting on Maine Public Radio is supported by a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. You can hear more about the substitute teacher shortage on “Maine Calling” at 1 p.m. Wednesday — the guest is Nicholson Baker, author of “Substitute, Going to School with a Thousand Kids.”