Michigan schools say they can’t find enough substitute teachers

More and more public schools are struggling to find someone to lead classes when teachers are out – a sign of a growing teacher shortage and a humming economy where people can find more lucrative jobs. (Shutterstock image)

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Michigan schools are increasingly unable to find enough substitute teachers to fill their classrooms, a shortage that threatens to impact learning in the state’s already struggling public education system.

A survey of school leaders released Monday by Michigan Applied Public Policy Research and the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research, both  at Michigan State University, found that 86 percent of Michigan school district administrators said the supply of short-term substitute teachers has decreased in the last five years.

Related: Taught by substitute teachers, Michigan students relied on YouTube for lessons

“There is a very broad-based perception that there is an acute shortage of substitutes and the problem appears to be getting worse,” said Nathan Burroughs, an MSU researcher and one of the authors of the survey findings.

That same survey found that almost two-thirds of traditional school districts (64 percent) that responded to the survey have classrooms for which they can’t find substitute teachers at least “several times a week.”

When that happens, schools must scramble to fill those classrooms with existing staff – typically with teachers who give up their planning periods (a time when they plan lessons and grade papers) and school administrators, creating a ripple effect throughout the building.

How often that happens is on the rise. Since the 2015-16 school year, the “fill rate” for substitute teachers (the percent of the time schools can find a substitute to fill a teacher absence) has dropped from 93 percent to 86 percent, according to data released to the House Fiscal Agency by EduStaff, the largest school staffing company operating in the state. About 450 districts and charters fill substitute teaching positions through EduStaff. 

“If a teacher is ill and you can’t find a qualified substitute, learning is going to be impacted,” said Dave Campbell, superintendent of Kalamazoo Intermediate School District.

The survey, which included responses from 177 traditional school districts, representing 42 percent of the state’s students, was released two weeks after a Bridge Magazine investigation into a growing use of long-term substitutes to lead Michigan classrooms. The use of long-term substitutes – who need only 60 college credits (the equivalent of an associate’s degree) rather than the four-year degree required of certified teachers  – has grown 10-fold in the past five years.

The shortage of short-term substitutes revealed in the MSU survey and the increased use of long-term substitutes both are at least partially a result of a growing teacher shortage in some parts of the state and in some subject areas.

A decade ago, schools seldom had trouble finding substitute teachers, and generally those substitutes were certified teachers who were either retired or recently graduated from college and still looking for a full-time post, said Ernest Tisdale, Michigan director for Edustaff.

“Now, everything has switched,” Tisdale said. “There’s a teacher shortage (and) my pool (of available substitutes) is individuals who aren’t necessarily interested in education or have an education background. Eighty perent of my sub pool are individuals who are working to subsidize their income and more money-oriented than anything.”

For people looking to make a few bucks, there are places they can make more money today in an era of low-unemployment rates, said Kalamazoo’s Campbell.

Substitute teacher pay in Michigan is typically $80 to $85 a day – the equivalent of about $11 to $12 an hour.

“We just don’t pay substitute teachers much,” Campbell said. “Any time the economy is good, we have trouble finding paraprofessionals, bus drivers, substitute teachers, because you can make more at Costco.”

Edustaff’s Tisdale said the short- and long-term substitute teacher shortage is primarily in urban and rural areas today, but, “if we continue the same trend we’re on, there’s going to be a bigger need and it’ll start to happen in the suburban districts.”

Related: Michigan desperate for Pre-K educators. And pays them poverty wages.

To try to address the shortage, the Michigan Legislature in 2018 lowered the threshold to qualify to be a substitute teacher from 90 college credits to 60 credits, and loosened rules that made it difficult for retired teachers to work as substitutes without endangering their pensions.

Survey results of school administrators however don’t indicate the substitute shortage has improved.

According to the survey:

  • 85 percent of school districts have classrooms in need of a substitute teacher that can’t be filled at least once a week.
  • 67 percent report a growing need for substitutes, and 37 percent have a “much greater need” than in the past.
  • 86 percent report a reduced supply of substitutes.

One legislative effort to further address the shortage of substitute teachers would allow student family members who have a high school diploma or a GED to serve as substitute teachers. The bill, introduced by Rep. Brad Paquette, R-Niles, a former teacher, is awaiting a hearing in the House Education Committee.

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Tue, 08/27/2019 - 8:43am

Student family members (why that distinction?) with a high school diploma or GED to become a substitute teacher. Really? No college at all is fine?

Jack Atkinson
Tue, 08/27/2019 - 9:09am

As the article points out, a person can make the same pay at Costco. Really, I subbed in a couple of districts where it was $80/day. Ann Arbor was/is the cash cow, at $100. On a related note, the "teacher shortage" isn't necessarily all that it appears to be. Yes, there is a shortage...of special education/needs professionals. Anecdotally, I would say that 75% of posted positions are for this. Also, there is a "shortage" in those districts where people are just plain reluctant to work, due to the conditions.

Mary Rossman
Tue, 08/27/2019 - 9:42am

Why don't they just raise the pay, instead of lowering the standards for substitute teachers.

Tue, 08/27/2019 - 10:47am

That would make tremendous sense. Lowering the standards is a slap in the face to the qualified substitute teachers. School didtricts need to raise the pay!!!

Tue, 08/27/2019 - 11:21am

Subs don't have to be certified in special ed to sub there.

Tue, 08/27/2019 - 11:31am

I wonder what the teaching model is and why, it sounds like it is still a focus on a single person [teacher] for a classroom of students much the same model we have all experienced for generations.
It seems to be more of an administrative efficiency structure than a learning structure or a resource sensitive structure.

I wonder if the 'educational' community is looking to change the classroom teaching model, I wonder if they have looked outside the public education system for a diversity of perspectives on the issues/problems facing the classrooms today.

Bill Bresler
Tue, 08/27/2019 - 12:00pm

The pay is lousy and many of the students are savages.

Tue, 08/27/2019 - 12:26pm

When I was a kid in school whenever we had a substitute teacher the attitude of most of the students was "this is a goof off day", figuring they were not going to learn anything and the teacher wouldn't put forth any serious effort.

Prof Ken Zeeland
Tue, 08/27/2019 - 1:03pm

I taught for 37 years. There was always a surplus of certified substitute teachers. {to be certified as a substitute you don’t need a four year degree]. Today the problem is that the years of certified teachers receiving poor salaries, years of teachers being blamed for why taxes are “too” high, for why their students failed the state tests that the kids knew didn’t mean a thing to them and then using the kids performance to lower teacher’s salaries even more, has caught up with us.

Then after teachers had retired their pensions, that were promised never to be taxed, are being taxed and their cost of heath care is rocketing up because the Republicans have for years refused to fully fund the Michigan Public School Employee Retirement System has left the state with an unconstitutional “unfounded accrued liability” [over $15,000,000,000!].

Given all that. Why would anyone entering the universities today even consider getting a teaching degree? We, professional certified teachers, told the Republican Controlled State Legislatures for years that the state would pay for their profligate habits. Do you think that when the Republican Legislature wants to reform education that they ever ask teaching professionals what they would advise? No they ask Betsy DeVos, whose only real qualification is that she is a rich man’s daughter and the wife of another rich man and a big Republican donor! Well now the bill is coming due!

What do they want to do? Now they are saying “Let’s transfer the sales tax on motor fuel that is earmarked for the public schools to the Department of Transportation to repair our highways! We all know the schools can just get by with a little less. Why, Mississippi still has worse schools than Michigan, so what if our schools once were in the top five of the nation, we really cut taxes for the very rich!” Oh I wonder who will see their taxes remain low or even get cut more! Our children will pay the price for all these shenanigans!

Jim Dewey
Tue, 08/27/2019 - 8:58pm

Every word you wrote is true, Prof. Ken! Yes, our children will pay a price for what has occurred in education in the last 15 years, but Michigan will pay in spades much longer with the decrease in living standards that inevitably come with a less educated population. We’re on the path to making Mississippi look good.

Wed, 08/28/2019 - 12:30am

You have three flaws in your argument; pay is the only thing , certification is the only criteria for having the job, and teachers need not be like the rest of us and have to prove our value every day, describe our value, and work to increase our value to our employers.
I wonder how you spend your money, do you base it on perceive value, base it on who has longevity, base it on delivered results.

Wed, 08/28/2019 - 11:57am

Prof., Except some problems to your entire narrative, this didn't start in the last 10 or even 20 years... schools have been on a slide since the 1980's (actually 60's and 70's?)s! Remember "A Nation at Risk"? In 1983 that was in the Reagan Admin warning about our visibly failing schools. I'm not sure Betsy was a factor then since she was maybe 15? Surprisingly the US has been at the top of the heap for educational spending the entire time. (Google US spending vs. OEDC nations). And we've gotten what? The only thing one can say with certainty is that our education system has been dominated by you on the Left, though NEA, AFT, the Collegiate education depts. establishment and bureaucracy, and DOE for the last 50 years. And surprisingly enough Michigan has had among the highest paid public-school teachers in the country through most of that time and even today in many measures. You're right the system is broken and has been a long time, but your solution is throwing more money at it or what?

Sandra Zukowski
Tue, 08/27/2019 - 4:09pm

I've been a substitute teacher over the years and I never stick around for some very good reasons: No paid days off, so if you are relying on the income there are holidays (Christmas and Spring Break) and conference days and random days off where you will just get no pay; no health benefits, so somehow you either have to have a spouse pay for benefits for you or be poor enough to get medicaid (easy to qualify for medicaid and foodstamps as a substitute teacher); and last but not least, some schools throw you to the wolves when it comes to behavior support, so subs just won't take those jobs because they have a choice.

Wed, 08/28/2019 - 3:53pm

Add no contribution toward the retirement fund. I subbed for 8 years (I have a BS degree) before I left in 2004 for a full time job with a non-profit. This was before subbing was privatized. Money from my check was deducted for the Michigan School Employees Retirement System but the school didn't contribute a dime. I made $75/day.

Kevin Grand
Tue, 08/27/2019 - 8:04pm

“We just don’t pay substitute teachers much,” Campbell said. “Any time the economy is good, we have trouble finding paraprofessionals, bus drivers, substitute teachers, because you can make more at Costco.”

If these educational "experts" cannot solve this most rudimentary problem, they have no one else to blame for this but themselves.

Al Churchill
Tue, 08/27/2019 - 8:07pm

It isn't just substitute teachers that are missing from our schools.
To the point of going back to school after a tough four years of tool and die apprenticeship schooling and on the job experience leading to journeyman status and earning a degree in education at Eastern Michigan University, this writer became totally immersed in things education.

Since 1980 and "a Nation At Risk", our schools, teachers and their unions have been hammered mendaciously as failures.
The fact is that, in the eighty's, as now, is that when demographics and poverty are factored in, especially the degree of parental involvement in a students education, American kids do as well as Finland and other top performers on international tests.

Given the beating that teachers and schools have experienced, it is no surprise that fewer students are entering the teaching profession. It is also a fact that, within five years of entering the profession, half of those in that group leave to pursue another occupation

Frankly, I don't know why anybody would want to become a teacher today, either full time or as a substitute. Until we start giving American schools and educators the respect and stature that they, authentically deserve, there is going to be a shortage of people willing to take an undeserved beating.

Wed, 08/28/2019 - 7:07pm

You think just like those who's complaints about education and the educational professional you are upset with. You seem to ignore the people that our education system is supposedly created for, the student. Why should we believe more money for education and significant increases in pay will improve students learning while ignoring the students, their roles/responsibilities?
We hear that 'wealthy' districts do better and 'poor' districts do poorer, why aren't we hearing how educational 'professionals' are looking pass the 'wealth' and 'poor' to see why the students do better in one and not the other. They ignore that wealth is a benefit from and a reinforcement of learning, academic success, staying in 'school'. Why should we believe it is only the money 'wealthy' districts and not the learning experience of the parents that can be a significant influence on how their children learn and how they apply what they see in their parents every day?

Tue, 08/27/2019 - 8:24pm

It got worse when they started privatizing all the subs. It used to be that a lot of subs were getting experience for a future teaching job and could earn retirement credit while doing it.

Thu, 08/29/2019 - 1:05am

If they paid subs more then they would likely have a choice of more highly qualified candidates. I don't understand how schools systems didn't budget for paying at least a living wage to subs. Subs that work through contracting companies get no benefits, sick days, vacation.

Fri, 08/30/2019 - 11:15am

What if a [high school] teacher had a volunteer that provided 3 hours a week classroom teaching each week on a subject matter such as chemistry, physics, math and then if the teacher had to be away for a day or so that volunteer was available to become a substitute for that brief time? Would that have merit in addressing the substitute short fall? Could it be similar to baseball team have a minor league team to draw from as needed, or how an employer may have a contracting service that could expand staffing as events require?
Consider the value to the students, they would be regularly getting a different perspective on an academic subject, the substitute would be learning the class and developing skills in managing the classroom and adapting to individual learning needs of the students so they could step in for the short-term and keep the flow of learning.

Sun, 09/01/2019 - 1:09pm

This is an interesting idea, but it would be impossible to implement. You can't really believe there would be enough volunteers to provide this extra teaching and then serve as a substitute when needed. You are suggesting that there are enough people who would work for free in each school to provide multiple hours of instruction in multiple subject areas. If you rethink that and suggest that volunteers may not work, and we should pay them instead, you will then be accused by some commenters of wanting to "throw more money at the problem."

Mon, 09/02/2019 - 5:34pm

Thank you for reading and considering my ideas. I would like to start a conversation why it is 'impossible.'
Let me start is by offer some questions. Why do you doubt that such volunteers exist, have you asked? What makes it 'impossible?" There are many STEM retirees, and more each year , wanting to help kids to better understand science and enjoy it. My STEM degree put me in a position to volunteer and work without pay, and I believe that half of the kids in school today could do what I did, so why do you doubt that there aren't many more like me? You need to understand that many retire because they want control of their time, getting up every morning by 7 and working late and regularly flying around the country year in and year out is reason enough to decide to retire, but that doesn't preclude their volunteering and stepping in to fill temporary needs. I have yet to find retiring caused one to forget all they had learned and done, including how to work and how to engage a room full of people that had their minds made up and really didn't want to be there. What knowledge and skills do you think volunteers lack, what can't they learn, what haven't they learned and practice that would make it 'impossible' to be a substitute teacher for a day or a week or a month in a chemistry or physics or even a calculus class?
Let's have a conversation, including all that are interested, and start by challenging me with questions and concerns.

Fri, 08/30/2019 - 8:08pm

There is more than one problem in play here. Yes, there is a shortage of sub teachers in Michigan, but there is also a good reason for that: full time staff aren't showing up for work! In my other life, I worked in a school HR department where I fielded calls every morning from teachers calling off. 20 years ago that's the way it was done. Then my job was re-tooled as systems were brought in that allowed staff to call off with a couple clicks of a mouse. No more human interaction. I can't speak for all schools in Michigan, but I know where I worked the increase in call offs increased nearly 35% the very first year that we went to the new system. Then we added PD days on days instruction was taking place and we would see 20% of teaching staff not in the classroom that day in addition to the normal call offs. Some times this was a building grade level PD day, some times a district PD day for maybe all English teachers, and some times a county-wide PD day which was the worst!

Each day a full time staff member is out of the classroom, our children's education suffers. It interrupts the flow and sets the lesson plan back a day. In a typical year a teacher receives (not necessarily uses) 10 sick days, a couple personal days, 6 snow days, a couple PD days, 6 days of student testing, a couple screw off days (last couple days of school, day before Christmas break, etc). So now our instructional days with kids learning in front of the teachers hired to teach them has fallen from 180 to 150.

Administration can't control the call offs - that is more of a work ethic thing and we in American education are sort of losing that - but they can do something about scheduling days when full time staff are pulled from the classroom which drives the needs for subs up. Its another case of trying to find a solution to the wrong problem. Solve the root cause of absenteeism of teachers in the classroom and that takes care of the sub problem.

Tue, 09/03/2019 - 7:30pm

I truly understand the plight of the student and the administrators who feel shortchanged b y reliance on long term subs. I worked long term twice since 2013, covering whole semesters. The kids said I was too tough 'for a sub'. Relying on my advanced education -Masters Degree, I learned subjects I was not expert in along with the students. We relied heavily on book material, but using online material to make coursepacks, staying for teacher development classes helped immensely. Getting support from certified teachers made it possible to develop lesson plans, grade papers, host PTA meetings and encourage parental support.
I was truly motivated to get the most out of my students in Forensic Studies, Astronomy, Earth Science, Current Events, Biology and Health. I can honestly say I knew enough and remembered enough to make it through. They even posted my grades as final- for 9th graders and for Seniors.