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5 Ways Collaboration Can Support Teachers in a Substitute Shortage

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“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” ~ Helen Keller

Good substitute teachers are worth their weight in gold. An experienced substitute can walk into any classroom on any day and make a difference in students’ lives and learning. They can bring a fresh perspective while providing continuity and leadership when a permanent teacher must be out of the classroom.

The importance of substitute teachers makes it obvious why the ongoing substitute teacher shortage is an issue that must be addressed. One thing that can help is to provide a robust system of substitute teacher onboarding that can serve as an onramp to hiring new teachers while boosting teacher effectiveness and teacher retention. We have included topics and learning tracks in the Alludo PD content catalog that may be used to train substitute teachers and prepare them for their time in the classroom.

One of the things we know to be true is that providing permanent and substitute teachers with opportunities to collaborate with one another and school staff can support everybody in the system and lead to better student outcomes. Here are five ways that collaboration serves as a support system during a substitute teacher shortage.

Table of Contents

  1. Why Are Substitute Teachers Quitting?
  2. Does the Sub Shortage Hurt Student Learning?
  3. What Do Substitute Teachers Desire in Their Jobs?
  4. 5 Ways to Improve Substitute Teaching with Collaboration
    1. #1: Create a Culture Where Teachers and Subs Can Share Ideas
    2. #2: Provide Incentives for Teachers to Co-Plan Lessons
    3. #3: Encourage an Open-Door Environment
    4. #4: Incentivize Collaboration on Multiple Levels
    5. #5: Provide Emotional Support When Needed
  5. Alludo's Take
  6. Support Teachers with Collaboration in Your School District

Why Are Substitute Teachers Quitting?

There is a critical staffing shortage of qualified substitute teachers in the United States which, when compounded by the ongoing teacher shortage, presents a difficult challenge to school districts of all sizes. So, why are substitute teachers quitting? Understanding the reasons can help us understand how to better support all teachers during the shortage.

Here are some of the reasons that substitute teachers may be leaving the profession:

  • Difficult work for low pay. Substitute teachers play an essential role in providing student education. One study found that students spend between 5% and 10% of each school year, or as much as one full school year between kindergarten and graduation, with substitute teachers. For all their importance, substitute teachers are underpaid and often underappreciated. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average substitute pay in 2020 was just $17 per hour.
  • Lack of preparation. It’s not uncommon for a new substitute teacher to arrive at school with no information that would have allowed them to prepare for their time in the classroom. On top of that, they may not be provided with basic resources that include a school map, a daily schedule that includes class time and any additional tasks such as cafeteria or playground monitoring, or information about crucial emergency and safety procedures.
  • Lack of professional development. According to an article in The Atlantic, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, only about half of all school districts in the country provided any professional development for substitute teachers, and only a few of those provided important instruction related to classroom management or effective substitute teaching strategies.
  • Unreliable, unsteady work. Substitute teachers may struggle to make ends meet, since they’re often not sure when they’ll be working or for how long. The reality of being a substitute is a reality that involves financial stress and unpredictability, both of which may lead to substitutes seeking employment elsewhere.
  • Lack of benefits. On a related note, substitute teachers typically do not receive benefits such as paid healthcare or paid vacations. In today’s competitive job market, it’s difficult for school districts to compete with jobs that include generous benefit packages.

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It’s easy to see why there’s a shortage. Substitute teachers are overworked, underpaid, and often not provided with the support they need to excel at their jobs.

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Does the Sub Shortage Hurt Student Learning?

77% of assistant superintendents and school administrators told EducationWeek that they have had difficulty hiring enough substitute teachers. The shortage presents an obvious staffing challenge, but what about the impact it has on student learning?

Let’s start with the COVID-19 pandemic. While most students are back in school full time as of 2023, teachers at every level are still coping with the learning losses that occurred when students were learning from home. There are ongoing quarantine requirements that may require teachers to be out for two weeks after being exposed to COVID-19 and the lack of qualified substitutes may put students even further behind.

Lack of consistency in schools can also negatively impact student learning and outcomes. Even the best substitute teachers may not be able to provide students with the same level of support that they get from their usual teachers.

The substitute teacher shortage is also having an effect on teacher burnout and turnover. A January 2022 study published by the NEA revealed that up to 55% of teachers were considering leaving the profession due to burnout and a significant number of those cited the lack of qualified substitutes as a contributing factor.

According to research from MIT, spending time in classrooms with uncredentialed teachers for long periods can negatively impact student learning and test scores in reading and math. Conversely, students with long-term, credentialed teachers are less likely to experience learning loss.

What we can see from these sources is that the substitute teacher shortage is more than an administrative inconvenience. It’s a contributing factor to decreases in student achievement and may also increase teacher turnover and burnout.

Teacher Happiness Report

What Do Substitute Teachers Desire in Their Jobs?

Before we reveal how you can support teachers during a substitute shortage, let’s review what substitute teachers want from their jobs:

  • Training/professional development. People who choose to become substitute teachers do so because they want to help students learn. Providing an onboarding system and ongoing professional development opportunities can help substitute teachers do the best job possible and provide them with a potential onramp to become full-time teachers.
  • Compensation/benefits. It should come as no surprise that receiving fair compensation for the difficult work they do and getting benefits is high on the list of what substitute teachers want from their jobs.
  • Recognition. Many substitute teachers feel they don’t get the recognition they deserve for their hard work. They walk into new classrooms every day, familiarize themselves with students and lesson plans quickly, and provide guidance, leadership, and compassion to students.

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A lack of recognition, which is often coupled with the mindset that substitute teachers are little more than glorified babysitters, is what leaves many professional subs to seek employment elsewhere.

5 Ways to Improve Substitute Teaching with Collaboration

Here are five ways to support teachers during a substitute shortage.

#1: Create a Culture Where Teachers and Subs Can Share Ideas

The first step is to create a cultural framework where teachers, including both permanent educators and subs, can share ideas and resources. Here are some examples:

  • Create a school Google Drive where teachers can share resources, lesson plans, and insights.
  • Create teams across a single grade level or subject, so teachers whose experiences overlap can find one another and share ideas.
  • Use a buddy system to partner teachers for mutual support and collaboration.
  • Establish a mentoring program to allow new teachers to learn from more experienced educators.

When collaboration is encouraged and incentivized, teachers are more likely to lean on each other for support.

#2: Provide Incentives for Teachers to Co-Plan Lessons

Teachers in separate classrooms may be teaching the same material and when that’s the case, it may be useful for those teachers to work together as they plan lessons. They can share ideas, get creative, and help one another to build dynamic and engaging lesson plans that inspire their students.

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#3: Encourage an Open-Door Environment

Collaboration is easiest when administrators take the lead and encourage teachers to be open to collaboration. Because each teacher enters the classroom alone, it’s easy to fall into a pattern where they think they need to do everything else alone, too. An open-door policy allows teachers at every experience level to seek guidance and feedback when and where it’s needed.

#4: Incentivize Collaboration on Multiple Levels

A study in Gifted Child Today identified benefits of certain types of collaboration among teachers. These types of collaboration made a difference in student learning:

  • Consultation. Teachers can go to one another for advice regarding anything from lesson planning to classroom management.
  • Co-planning. Teachers work together to create lesson plans and activities.
  • Co-teaching. Teachers partner by visiting one another’s classrooms, also known as the push-in method.
  • Coaching. Experienced teachers coach new or less-experienced teachers to help them perform their best.

Administrators can encourage and incentivize all types of collaboration by providing teachers with resources and rewards for working together.

#5: Provide Emotional Support When Needed

Because teacher burnout is an ongoing problem, it’s important to consider that creating an environment that fosters collaboration may also serve as a way to reduce teacher stress and burnout, both of which contribute to teacher turnover. 

Collaboration at school means that teachers are surrounded by peers who can provide a sympathetic ear, a shoulder to cry on, and shared experiences that may help others feel supported and appreciated.

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Alludo’s Take

Here at Alludo, we understand that supporting teachers is the key to improving teacher retention and student outcomes at the same time. That’s why we have included topics that tie to teacher collaboration in our professional development content catalog as well as features that encourage collaboration, including Alludo Message Boards.

Many of the school districts who use our platform have asked us to create specific tracks and programs for substitute teacher onboarding. A case in point is the Yucaipa Calimesa JUSD. The onboarding system they use has been so successful that it has turned into an effective onramp for new teacher hiring and building capacity—and we can do the same in your school district.

Support Teachers with Collaboration in Your School District

Collaboration among teachers has the potential to bring out the best in educators at every level, including both permanent and substitute teachers. The ideas we have included here can point you in the direction of creating a collaborative and supportive school environment that minimizes turnover and helps teachers feel supported and appreciated.

Do you need assistance supporting teachers with collaboration in your district? Alludo is here to help! Click here to get your free trial of our learning platform, Madagascar, with our curated professional development catalog included.

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