• Ashan R. Hampton

The Substitute Teacher Dilemma

Updated: Nov 30, 2020


As violence committed by students against teachers and general absenteeism increases, public school administrators must contend with a growing demand for substitutes and a concomitant high turnover rate within this temporary employment pool. Among several others, one obvious reason for the shortage is, of course, school violence. As headline after headline announces the untimely death of one teacher and the brutal beating of another, who on earth would want to enter a public school?


However, as the economy fluctuates and unemployment benefits wane, more people are forced to seek survival jobs. In the past, substitute teaching provided a reliable, though paltry, source of immediate income. However, the employment process has become so convoluted and cost-prohibitive that many abandon the prospect of subbing altogether. Those who soldier through the training and fees for background checks often bristle at the harsh realities of today’s classroom, and subsequently take fewer assignments or unceremoniously quit.


Why would an unemployed person decline the opportunity to make money as a substitute teacher? The reasons might astonish some and enlighten others.

Substitute teaching requires the unemployed to pay for a job. Many school districts enlist private employment agencies to manage their substitute teaching staff, which require payment for background checks. Even if the district handles its own hiring, subs and full-time teachers alike must pay for state and federal background checks. In the state of Arkansas for example, applicants must submit state police, federal and child maltreatment central registry checks. The first two total $40.50. The child maltreatment check is processed separately and costs an additional $10.00.


For the average job seeker, $50.50 amounts to a fairly steep investment in temporary employment. For teachers and educational professionals, the fees are standard. For others with limited education, attempting to avoid fast food jobs, these fees might be surprising and cost-prohibitive.The application process for substitute teaching can be lengthy and a bit convoluted. Professional Contract Management, Inc. (PCMI), which handles school districts in Arkansas, Indiana and Michigan, provides a completely automated, online application and employee management system. Interested parties cannot simply travel to their local district office to apply.


Very little human contact is involved, unless the applicant initiates live communication. The entire application and training process takes roughly six to eight hours to complete, or more, for the technologically challenged. Afterward, a couple of months can pass between the time of initial application to final approval, depending on how quickly each state processes all background checks. For Arkansas, the wait can last up to 60 days. To put this in perspective, as districts lose subs, they must wait an inordinate amount of time to replace them. For willing applicants, 60 days without steady income is devastating.


Basically, there is a constant demand to draw from a very limited pool of substitute teachers.Although not a prerequisite for employment, successful substitute teaching actually requires prior classroom experience. This becomes sorely obvious to untrained instructors. Subs are expected to do everything that the regular teacher would throughout the course of the day, which amounts to more than babysitting. Subs must teach from lesson plans, grade papers, answer student questions, explain to first graders the finer points of subject verb agreement and Venn Diagrams, distinguish between block schedule lunch times and regular lunch times, and on and on these complex tasks flow.


A sub must accomplish all of this while keeping order amongst 25-30 students in one class. Thirty against one. Thirty fidgety, hungry, sleepy, talkative students against one, inexperienced, rattled, perturbed, glassy-eyed neophyte sub. The stress of it all can overwhelm novice substitute teachers and stymie their return to the classroom.Like most teacher salaries, the compensation for substitutes is fairly dismal. Each state determines its pay rate, which ranges from $35 - $190 per full day with half-days garnering half pay. Southern and rural areas land on the low end of the scale whereas larger, urban states score at the higher end. The rate for subs with a college degree in Arkansas is $65 (8.66/ hour); $60 (8.00/hr) without a degree and $90 (12.00/ hr) for long-term subs, regardless of education level. Subs receive no health or other benefits offered to regular teachers.


After taxes, most substitute teachers average $350 per week for all of their efforts. Essentially, job seekers can work in grocery or retail stores for about the same amount of money and less stress.Some teachers, students, staff and administrators do not respect subs or offer them adequate support to execute their jobs properly. Students typically perceive the presence of a substitute as an opportunity to misbehave or goof off, as if the sub is powerless against them. Many teachers snub substitute teachers and refuse to offer any assistance.


What is a sub supposed to do when the school secretary arrives 10 minutes after classes have begun to assign them to a classroom? What happens when the regular teacher does not leave lesson plans and no one offers alternative assignments? What happens when a student requires medical attention, but the nurse is absent? When a fight erupts in the classroom, what are the options for a sub with no phone or office call button in the classroom? Who can substitutes sue if they are hit or knocked unconscious? Often, subs are treated as second-class citizens and must combat the “you’re just a sub” mentality that pervades the culture of the school.


Given the hazards of public school education, who desires to work for such little pay, high stress and no reward? Some full-time teachers might exclaim, “Ha, welcome to my world!” Parents, concerned citizens and the gainfully employed outside of education might wince at the idea that those charged with educating and protecting students are subject to such unfavorable conditions. Either way, the substitute dilemma reflects larger persistent, systemic issues in public school education that need effective resolutions sooner than later.



Ashan R. Hampton is a long-time English instructor turned entrepreneur. Through her company, Onyx Online Education & Training, she offers digital courses and print books on grammar, proofreading, business writing and communication for personal and professional development to individuals and corporations. To find out more about Ashan's work, visit www.arhampton.com.


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