Opinion | Michigan’s substitute teacher shortage hurts kids, says Up North supt.

Louis Steigerwald

Louis Steigerwald is superintendent of Norway-Vulcan Area Schools in the Upper Peninsula.

While Lansing dithers in getting around to putting a (hopefully) winning budget together, schools continue to struggle to find quality teachers to lead classrooms. The decisions, or lack thereof, made in the Capitol have real world outcomes on children in Michigan’s schools.

The challenges being faced by Michigan’s public school districts have not dawned upon us suddenly. They have long been studied and forecast —several times over. Michigan residents should be incensed that lawmakers have failed, for many years running, to come up with a plan to improve funding for Michigan’s schools.

Right now, especially for districts located outside large cities, there is essentially no pool of available and desirable teaching candidates. This holds true for pretty much every discipline and content area from elementary teachers to teachers in the arts and sciences. Special education? Forget about it. There hasn’t been an adequate supply of special education teachers for I can’t remember how long.

What is happening in many districts is that schools that can afford it are poaching teachers from nearby districts. Obviously this fills a vacancy in one place while creating one in another. The donor districts are typically small districts that already have trouble filling vacancies.  

What are schools doing when they have no desirable applicants for a position? The first thing most schools will do is look to see if there is a recently retired teacher in the area who might want to help. Sometimes that works. Next, schools look to their reliable subs to see if one of them might want to fill in until a replacement can be found. This speaks to the next problem.

Because graduating students with education degrees are being hired as soon as they graduate (and sometimes before), there is virtually no pool of substitute teachers. When recently surveyed, 100 percent of superintendents in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula responded that they cannot find the substitute teachers they need on a day-to-day basis. This has led to schools counting themselves as “lucky” if they can find someone, anyone, to fill a chronic vacancy on a consistent basis.

If schools cannot find a substitute, the next choice becomes placing students in online courses. I’ve been around for a long while now. Some students do well in an online environment. Most do not. No online course can replace an excellent teacher in the classroom.

The core problem in all of this is a very basic economic one. The marketplace of potential teachers entering college is saying “No” to teaching as a profession. This is due to wages and benefits for teachers having long lagged behind other degree-requiring fields. Today’s graduates are exiting college with thousands of dollars in student loans. The pay in education does not allow them to enter into their professional lives and meet their needs or aspirations.  

One might think that the party that sees itself as the party of business would understand this very simple economic reality. Instead, schools get told to do more with less. So long as Lansing politicians believe less means classrooms with fewer and fewer qualified teachers in them, they are getting exactly what they are budgeting for. So long as Michigan parents want their kids to receive the best education possible, though, they should be angry with politicians who continue to ignore real answers for what troubles Michigan’s children and schools.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission.

If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Monica WilliamsClick here for details and submission guidelines.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Dear Reader: We value your thoughts and criticism on the articles, but insist on civility. Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. Violating these standards could result in a ban.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Thu, 09/12/2019 - 9:10am

When Substitute Teachers get about $10.00/ hour in Holt, Michigan you can work at McDonalds and earn more.

Thu, 09/12/2019 - 9:38am

It also does not help when the majority of teachers (that I know) openly complain about the profession to others and their students, yet they continue to stay in the position themselves. I am not saying that I do not disagree with their comments and frustration, but collectively when so many are doing this, for the span of their career, it WILL poison every person they tell, leading to a decline as a career choice.

Steven Camron
Thu, 09/12/2019 - 10:01am

Julie, I agree that teachers can sometimes be their own worse enemy by talking down on the profession. Some teachers I knew avoided the teachers lounge for lunch because they couldn’t stand the negativism coming from their colleagues. I tend to think that every profession has some people who denigrate their field. But I also think sometimes teachers “absorb” the unfair criticism in the culture and fixate on it. Anyway, working conditions and pay need to improve. Imagine some districts haven’t even seen step increases let alone raises for over a decade, and teachers are still expected to us their own funds to make up basic supplies cuts.

Thu, 09/12/2019 - 10:36am

This argument could not be more true. You could also take this same argument and apply it across Mental Health, and Michigan roads. We get what we pay for. The politics of the day (and especially the current State House and Senate) is to cut, cut, cut. At what point does it pay. Wise up, quality everything costs more money, not less. I would gladly see my State taxes increase, for a better quality of life. Simply spend wisely and thoughtfully. Look around, Michigan is becoming a "Dollar Store" state.

Kevin Grand
Thu, 09/12/2019 - 12:31pm

Still a little fuzzy pertaining to how districts can budget for teacher salaries, but when those teachers are not present (and no one is being paid), the money is not in school budgets to pay substitutes an adequate salary?

Why is that?

Steven Camron
Thu, 09/12/2019 - 5:26pm

Typically the budget set in the winter for the following school year (July-June) is somewhat tentative. As in this year, schools budget without certain knowledge of the final per pupil funding in the state school aid act, which is the majority of operational annual funding. So there is always speculation involved, including the number of students projected (usually based on previous fall and winter counts) and the number of teachers and other staff needed. Most of the time some wiggle room is built into the budget, but relatively small changes in projections present difficulties. Substitute salaries are usually set for individual districts by the school administration unless private substitute agencies are co tracked with. Some schools can afford to pay more than others, leading to competition for scarce personnel. Money budgeted for vacant teaching positions may not be spent in other areas without amending the budget or are used to pay long term subs.

Kevin Grand
Thu, 09/12/2019 - 8:37pm

Mr. Camron,

Thank you for the quick response.

Would you happen to know why the budgets cannot be amended?

Since the money is obviously there, it doesn't make any sense why the districts are prolonging their own problems?

Sun, 09/15/2019 - 1:54am

Kevin, to go back to your original comment, in the case of short-term subs the classroom teacher is already on the payroll and being paid a salary even if they are absent. The reasons for the absence may include sick leave, personal days, coaching or other extra duties, or professional development. For example, with the advent of the third-grade reading law, elementary teachers have been asked to attend professional development that is specific to this law, but which does not rise to the level of a contractual "professional development day" in which students do not attend school at all. Therefore subs are needed to fill in for the elementary teachers who are out of the classroom. In these cases the district is paying the salary of the classroom teachers as well as the hourly or daily rate for the sub.

In the case of long-term subs, even some of these instances involve paying both a salaried teacher and a sub simultaneously. The most common examples are maternity leave or extended sick leave. In the case of a teaching position being filled by a sub because a district is unable to find a certified teacher to fill the position, you are correct that there has been money budgeted for the position. If this were simply an economic issue, a district could raise sub pay and still save money, since typically subs to not require the district to contribute to health insurance or retirement, However, sub pay must take into account the fact that often a district is paying for both the classroom teacher and the sub, as mentioned above, and also the fact that subs are generally either less skilled or less experienced than the teacher they are subbing for. In any job pay is generally commensurate with skills, education/training/certification, and experience, as well as demand for the position in question, I think it is legitimate to expect to pay less for a substitute with 40 hours of college and little experience or skills in classroom management, subject matter, etc. Finally, for what it is worth, I do not know a single school board member, superintendent, or building principal who would not prefer to have every classroom taught by a certified teacher who is experienced in the appropriate grade level and/or subject matter, every day of the school year.

Sun, 09/15/2019 - 11:24pm

One would think that leaders of any organization would understand their role and fulfill the responsibilities associated with that role.
There are three core functions/activities that a leader needs to do to form a successful organization; articulate a vision of the future [what success will look like], engage all stakeholders in developing the means/methods for achieving that vision, and verifying the effectiveness of the programs/organizations used achieve success.
In this article we see how helpless leaders of our schools feel, and they only see the past as success.
The leaders of our schools need to act like proven leaders in successful organizations survived for generations and are still succeeding today. They need to learn how to ask the right questions and then listen.
School leaders need to recognize their world, our world, has changed, and should be asking how to change with it. As an example, it was mention about people not choosing to enter teaching because of perceived low entry level salary and benefits, maybe the question should be what can be career opportunities for a teacher with five years of proven successful experience and then listen to the answers. What if those five years can be a stepping stone into other fields, more lucrative field, more innovative fields? What would the value be to schools if they had an abundance of teachers for five years, and new applicants every succeeding year? The schools may only keep a few for a whole career, but getting a wave of enthusiastic new teachers for five years seem to be significantly better than what we are hearing about now.
The next question may be about how to create cadre of volunteers that could be drawn be a pool for short-term or long-term substitutes.