"Our list is very short," said middle school principal Deb Gillman, who says she starts to panic if she has to find more than one substitute teacher or if she hasn't found one by 6:15 a.m. Recently, she had to piece together a teacher by using two subs for half of the day apiece.
"Once you've used everybody on your list, then you look internally," she added.
Elementary school principal Todd Burlingame called finding a substitute a game, as he estimates that 75 percent of the teachers on lists for the Paynesville schools are on lists in other districts as well. "It's a battle," he said. "It's who gets to the phone the quickest."
"There's just not enough subs in the area," he continued. "It's a game that everyone is playing." However, if he knows in advance, it becomes much easier to find a substitute. That's why Burlingame encourages his staff to call as soon as they know that they will be too sick to go to school.
At the moment, the shortage of substitutes might be most acute at the high school, which has needed up to four long-term substitutes, a number that principal John Janotta called unusual. Add in temporary illnesses, and one day recently, the high school had seven substitutes out of a staff of 32. "The biggest thing," said Janotta, "is the flu started to hit last week."
"Other schools are having similar kinds of concerns," said superintendent Howard Caldwell. "In my discussions with other superintendents, I think they're having the same type of problems."
Caldwell and the principals expected the shortage to continue, mainly due to the strong economy. "There's basically full employment out there for anyone who desires it. I don't think there's a big market out there to do short-call substitute teaching."
With the economy running at nearly full employment, a limited supply of teachers means a desperate demand. The shortage is apparent in hiring as well. Gillman said when she came to Paynesville, just seven years ago, typical job openings would receive at least 50 applications. Now they receive only ten.
"Your best kids,"Ęsaid Burlingame, "are going into other fields where they can make more money."
"We used to have people...subbing in hopes of getting a full-time teaching job," agreed Janotta. Now, substitutes are increasingly retired teachers. This works well, but some will be heading south for the winter and others are limited to how much they can earn, either by a retirement package or by taxes.
Helping offset that may be an influx of college graduates in December, who may be looking to substitute until they can get a full-time position next fall.
Gillman has 13 teachers on her substitute call list. But four have gone south, one will work only in the afternoon, another has a regular part-time job, and another will be having a baby.
Burlingame has 20 names on his list but many have stipulations about what grades or subjects they will teach. With its more general curriculum, the toughest positions to fill in the elementary school are the specialists: music, physical education, and special education.
In the high school, subject areas are more specialized but the recent shortage has made that a secondary concern.
In the face of that shortage, the high school has started to use limited licensure short-call substitute teachers. Substitute teachers can gain a license from the state either by being a certified teacher or by having a four-year college degree and applying for a limited licensure.
According to the Department of Children, Families, and Learning (CFL), which oversees the teacher licensing, a one-year limited licensure is available to people with four-year degrees. The cost is $47, with $25 for fingerprinting. Applicants also must arrange to have their original college transcripts sent to the state.
The school district must sign the application on the back to indicate a need for substitute teachers.
The limited licensure is only for short-call positions. They may only spend 15 days in a certain classroom. They then have to be used in a different project.
An official at CFL said there are more applicants statewide as schools are "in desperate need for subs all over."
Currently, the high school has two limited licensure substitute teachers. Without them, Janotta said he would have been short teachers earlier in December.
To cope with the shortage of substitute teachers, larger school districts are hiring extra teachers to work as substitutes on a full-time basis, according to Caldwell. Burlingame said his previous school district, in Virginia, Minn., was considering hiring one teacher with high school certification and another with elementary education certification. Both could fill-in at the middle school, too.
The advantage to the school district is having a guaranteed replacement teacher, who would get accustomed to the school routine. The teacher would get benefits, not offered to substitutes, and would not have to answer the phone at 6 a.m. They could arrive before school and need only to find where they will be needed that day. If no substitutes were needed, the teacher could work as an aide in another classroom.
While our school district might not be big enough to warrant full-time positions, another approach is to offer incentive pay. Caldwell--who said our school district's substitute teaching rates are average for the area--noted that Eden Valley-Watkins is giving a teacher a special substitute rate. In return, that teacher has to check if EVW needs her before subbing in another district.
Burlingame said another approach is to offer incentive levels. For instance, after a teacher subs in a district 20 times in a school year, you could raise their pay, say, $5. After 30 times, you could offer another raise.
Having familiarity to the school is important, according to Burlingame. New substitute teachers need to learn the routine: what the schedule is, where the cafeteria is, whether to walk their kids to music class, et cetera. "There are a lot of those things that we as a regular staff take for granted," he said. "We've got to make them feel comfortable because we want them to come back."
"Their job is tough," he continued. "They never know where they're going to be from day to day, if that phone is going to ring."
"We really do rely on our subs," agreed Gillman. "We really need them and we're glad they're here."
Janotta said that substitute teaching is one of the hardest jobs at the school, with no continuity, little familiarity with their pupils, and students who are not always interested in working hard.
"For the most part, we've been able to find substitutes," concluded Caldwell. "It is getting more difficult."
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