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Administration & Leadership

Leading Through a Staffing Shortage

A lack of substitute teachers has educators feeling strained, but there are things principals can do to help.

November 12, 2021
Illustration concept for juggling
Scott Laumann / The iSpot

Late fall is typically when school administrators and teachers fall into a familiar rhythm, but staffing challenges in schools have made that rhythm hard to find this year.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the local and state education job sector lost 161,000 jobs in September. Educator job vacancies in schools have made it difficult for school leaders and staff to find a familiar stride. Having unfilled teaching positions, let alone having to cover absent teachers, has made school life challenging. Few staff members’ roles are as defined as they once were. The “other duties as assigned” clauses in job descriptions have taken on new meaning. It’s first important to remember that leaders must be more agile and more adaptable if we are to navigate the daily uncertainty that staffing shortages create.

“A couple of times this year, I’ve had teachers have to go into the library to monitor someone else’s class while they teach theirs,” said Greg Cole, a high school principal in Nevada whose school has seven teacher vacancies. “They have to teach their own Algebra I class, for instance, and they volunteer to accept another Algebra I class that same period in the library and teach them both.”

Other principals throughout the country share that they are experiencing a shortage of substitute teachers. Their difficulty arises when they must cover instructional staff members who are absent from work. The difficulty covering absent teachers intensifies the higher the school’s poverty level.

“I feel like I’m putting together a jigsaw puzzle some mornings when it comes to covering absent staff,” said Christine Richards, EdD, a middle school principal in New York. “We often don’t have enough substitutes to come in. We have to prioritize and determine which classes have students with the highest needs, ensure those classes are covered, and ask teachers to cover the rest.”

As school leaders, we have to remain flexible when traversing staffing challenges and help staff members do the same. We can’t control which teachers or their family members get sick. We also can’t control all the mechanizations that lead to a candidate being placed into a job vacancy. We have to do the best we can to help as many children as we can with the staff members who work alongside us every day.

The Academic Impact

It’s important to remember to be courageous and creative in how we help students learn standards amid a staffing shortage. Teaching is an art and a science. These are times that may require more artistry from us. The impact of staffing shortages may create challenges outside of your or your staff’s experience.

The situation is taking a toll on teachers. They are exhausting the time and energy they have to help their students learn. As administrators, sometimes we must ask teachers to go consecutive days without taking their scheduled planning and preparation times to ensure that every child has access to classroom teachers.

Sometimes the substitute shortage affects a school’s professional development opportunities.

“We can’t find subs,” said Steve Brand, a high school principal in Iowa. “We have to handle professional learning differently because I can’t find substitutes to come in for a day to cover a department so that we can learn together.”

Stephanie Brant, an elementary school principal in Maryland, echoed this sentiment.

“When substitute teachers don’t pick up jobs in my school, the staff development teacher, the reading specialist, the assistant principal, the school counselor, and I cover for the shortage of substitutes,” said Brant. “It takes us away from supporting the work of teaching and learning. Our faculty depends on us to facilitate conversations and provide resources. It trickles down to kids because teachers don’t have quick access to those resources or supportive conversations with resident experts.”

Some schools, districts, and states have found ways to mitigate educator shortages. Utah retained teachers throughout the pandemic, despite many teachers leaving districts throughout the United States.

“I haven’t had to ask teachers to give up their collaboration time,” said Milton Collins, an elementary school principal in Utah. “I have zero teaching vacancies this year. We have been fortunate to be able to get experienced subs when teachers are out. I have paraprofessionals that are trained to take over a classroom for a day if needed.”

Adjusting Expectations

To help leaders and teachers to navigate daily staffing uncertainty, districts must be mindful of what they ask educators to do with fewer people. When short-staffed, schools don’t know if staff absences will upend the best of plans, and administrators can’t count on asking teachers to dedicate their prep times to collaborate to meet new directives their districts may demand.

Ramona Esparza is a retired high school principal and vice president of the Leadership Institute of Nevada. She reminds administrators to balance the need to improve learning and the uniqueness of leading during the Covid-19 pandemic, which has affected many functions of schools, such as staffing.

“Leadership matters,” said Esparza. “This is the time for districts to attend to the needs of teachers and leaders. Leaders need to attend to the socio-emotional needs of employees. This pandemic has brought so much trauma into people’s lives. As leaders, our students, families, and staffs are still addressing trauma, loss of loved ones, food insecurity, and so much uncertainty that we need to adapt, [and] be agile to address these needs first. How do we find the balance leading empathetically while maintaining a focus on academic learning? If we navigate them simultaneously, rewards will be in student achievement.”

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