Illustration of a teacher emerging into a classroom from a whiteboard, indicating new ways of finding substitutes
© Alex Green
School Leadership

Modernizing the Search for Substitute Teachers

As the number of people working as substitutes drops, companies are finding innovative ways to help schools manage the staffing challenge.

November 1, 2018

At Rawlinson Middle School in San Antonio, Assistant Principal Patti Vlieger gets to work every morning at 6:15. In the two hours and 15 minutes before school starts, she’ll be monitoring teacher absences and using the district’s Smart Find software to locate replacements—substitute teachers.

Sometimes it goes smoothly, she said, and other days, “it’s 8:15 and I’m still looking.”

Finding substitutes is by nature an often frantic task. At most campuses across the country, a staff member spends the first hours of their workday making sure absences are covered, preferably by a qualified educator.

It’s a task made more difficult by the shrinking pool of available talent: The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that, in 2017, over 611,000 Americans worked as substitute teachers. Their pay was up slightly from 2014—to a median annual wage of $28,270—but the number of people working as subs was down by about 10,000.

Their labor adds up to a substantial bill for school districts. Northside Independent School District, where Vlieger works, budgets around $10.6 million per year for covering teacher absences in the 105,000-student district.

So it’s no surprise that some districts are using technology to modernize the sub search, or even to eliminate it altogether.

There’s an App for That

Founded in 2015, California-based Swing Education brings substitute teachers into the gig economy—the ever-expanding menu of services delivered through one-off digital work orders to independent contractors.

“It’s almost like an Uber for teachers,” said Charlotte Torres, personnel analyst for Milpitas Unified School District in California. Her district uses Swing, which allows Milpitas to post a teaching opportunity to a pool of prescreened, trained subs who Swing says have undergone background checks.

From 2014 to 2017, the number of people working as substitute teachers in the U.S. dropped by about 10,000.

To serve administrators like Torres, Swing makes use of the modern ability to generate large data sets to answer questions such as: Does a district have a hard time finding subject specialists? Long-term subs? Is there a campus with a magnet program that will have specific needs? Are there factors in the community that make certain holidays more likely to generate absences than others? How does the district plan to handle professional development? Using its aggregate data to predict which days will have the greatest need, Swing places subs on standby ahead of time.

Torres values the ability to plan ahead. Swing’s sub pool—1,500 people across the Bay Area—is far larger than Milpitas’s in-house list of 500. (Swing currently operates in Washington, DC and parts of California, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Texas, with a total of 3,000 subs—so half of them are in the Bay Area.) The expanded list saves Torres a little bit of time in the morning, but the bigger advantage, she said, is having more subs available on those days with a large number of absences.

Those standby subs—like other workers in the gig economy, including not just drivers for Uber and Lyft but also freelancers grabbing odd jobs on TaskRabbit and Upwork—are taking a risk that they won’t get a day’s work, admits Valerie Meyer, Swing’s vice president of marketing, who claims that Swing has enough data to make it a pretty safe bet. Districts can provide data from recent years, allowing Swing to analyze their needs and prepare accordingly. “We know with a fairly high degree of certainty that they will work that day,” Meyer said.

The subs are independent contractors. Since they’re not employees of Swing, they face all the hazards of the gig economy—no benefits or employee protections, and no guarantee of a livable income.

Meyer points out that subbing, whether through Swing or not, has always been a gig-like job that worked best for a particular kind of worker—those who were using it to supplement their income, test-drive a new career in teaching, or tweak their teaching careers by trying out different kinds of schools and districts. Some have been retired educators who just like being in the classroom now and then.

That’s how Haley Brucato of Campbell, California, heard about Swing—her grandmother is a retired educator who has been on Swing for three years. While the lack of health care and other benefits might be a deterrent for some, at 26, Brucato prefers the flexibility of being able to pursue other interests. She has a degree in an education-related field, and wants to explore different kinds of schools and locations in the Bay Area before taking a permanent position. She also wants to travel and take short-term gigs in other fields.

“It works out well for what I want to do,” Brucato said.

Brucato’s Swing income supplements her income as a part-time special education therapist—she said she makes more in a month subbing than in her support staff role. Because of the heavy saturation Swing has in the Bay Area, Brucato has been able to sub as much as she wants. But she says that subs in Washington, DC, one of Swing’s newer markets, post on the app that they have a harder time working as much as they want to.

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Handling Teacher Absences Without a Sub

Administrative streamlining and vacancy fill rates, however, don’t get to the heart of what bothers Robert Harris about teacher absences. He believes students benefit from learning from their regular teacher—even when that teacher isn’t in the classroom.

“Without high quality instruction, when a teacher is absent the instructional program is running in a deficit model,” Harris said.

As head of human resources for Lexington Public Schools in Massachusetts from 2007 to 2017, Harris used Google Classroom to create a staff position he called ELF (electronic learning facilitator). Instead of being taught by a substitute, students went to the auditorium to be supervised by one teacher, the ELF. They used their Chromebooks to complete assignments with materials left by their teacher on Google Drive. Attendance was taken electronically, and the students worked on their own.

“It got very sophisticated on the technology side, but very simple on the user end,” Harris said.

With around five teacher absences per day, the system worked well in the upper grades, Harris said. For longer term substitute positions and lower elementary grades, the district could still pull from its sub pool, which was not stretched as thin.

There’s still no replacement for a teacher.

Harris wanted to see the model go further, he said, so he left Lexington in 2017 to found a human resources consulting company called Edudexterity, which markets the ELF model and performs other services. The young company has a handful of clients in the United States and one in Israel and is in talks with several schools in New York City. Harris said it’s tough for schools to imagine such a system at first, but he believes they’ll see its value if they try it.

“I think that some of that reluctance is due to educators and educator associations being afraid that it ultimately affects the size of their workforce,” Harris said.

As in many industries, automation and technology carry concerns for those in the teaching force. While few people currently envision a totally teacher-less system, some blended learning models—self-paced classrooms where students work with instructional software—do decrease the need for additional teachers, classroom aides, and other paraprofessionals.

As to whether his model paves the way to blended learning on a larger scale, Harris is ambivalent—it’s not his goal, he said. For those who are crusading for the blended model, he does suggest ELF as valuable tool.

“There’s a lot of talk about individualizing instruction—in order to do that, students need to take agency for their own learning,” Harris said, adding that the ELF model “promotes that.”

Meanwhile, back in Lexington, the schools still use the ELF model, but they’ve made a change to how it’s staffed, according to Monica Visco, who succeeded Harris as head of HR. Rather than a certified teacher, the ELF is simply a trained facilitator.

The administrative ease is definitely a plus, she said, but she doesn’t think that what the students get in the auditorium is in any way equal to what they get when their teachers are present.

“There’s still no replacement for a teacher,” Visco said.