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As more teachers leave the profession, substitutes become even more essential

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The concept of the substitute teacher has been altered because of the pandemic-fueled teacher shortage. Getty Images

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Since the pandemic began in earnest here in the U.S. in March 2020, people working in public education have been quitting their jobs at a higher rate, on average, than they had previously.

Some schools are turning to substitutes to fill teacher vacancies, at least in the short-term and are actually starting to view the job of “substitute” in a whole different light.

For example, a couple weeks ago, the technology teacher at North Junior High School in Evansville, Indiana quit. So, Principal Ryan Merriwether is considering using the school’s permanent substitute to fill in. 

“We are putting substitutes in a position where they become the face of the school now,” said Merriwether. “Substitutes are being asked to do more than what they were initially intended for.”

Merriwether said it’s always been hard to find substitutes, and the pandemic has just increased the need. He created that permanent substitute position so it’d be less of a scramble when he needed someone. That person would also know who the kids are and where the staplers live.

“If they’re subbing in the same school, over and over again, to where they get to know the kids and the community and the staff, I think they become a real asset to the essential functions of making sure the school can stay open,” he said.

In Montgomery County, Maryland’s largest school school system, and one of the biggest in the country, the district created a pilot program with a group of permanent substitutes. It meant there were several working in a particular building.

“Oftentimes, substitutes feel like they’re a singleton,” said Travis Wiebe, who supervises hiring for Montgomery County Public Schools. “When they had someone else who was in the same role as them, they were able to connect with one another and even share strategies or ideas.”

Just as the job description of a substitute’s changing, so are the resumes of people doing it. 

Nicola Soares is president of Kelly Education, which is part of the staffing firm Kelly Services, and is seeing lots of people from other fields try subbing. 

“This job has evolved. I consider it to be a professional position,” said Soares. “We’re seeing a number of people who are kind of considering it, or they’ve gotten burnt out of their own current profession, but are still very purpose driven, looking for a second career.”

For example, they’re seeing lots of people from health care try out subbing. Soares said this is an opportunity for former nurses to give teaching a chance – and one way for schools to get people with science backgrounds in the classroom.

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