Administration & Leadership

How to Give Substitute Teachers Effective Support

Administrators can be intentional in their approach to ensure that substitute educators feel acknowledged and valued.

May 29, 2024
alvarez / iStock

I was contorted into triangle pose at yoga the other day when my teacher suggested a small adjustment: moving my right hand about an inch to the left and slightly bending my back knee. To my delight, these subtle shifts made the pose much easier and more enjoyable. This experience prompted me to consider the subtle shifts that I see, as a practicing substitute teacher, happening in public education that are creating noticeable change and growth.

As a substitute, I constantly make tiny adjustments to improve my teaching practice and create a better learning environment for students. Whether it’s trying out a new attention signal, implementing cooperative learning structures, or refining my attendance-taking strategies, I observe the significant impact of these subtle shifts. Recently, I’ve noticed that innovative school and district leaders are making small adjustments to how they support substitute educators, which have led to transformative outcomes.

Having worked closely with my local state and union leaders to support emergency certified substitute educators for the past three years, I’ve noticed that  administrators and leaders who recognize and empower their substitute teachers not only retain exceptional substitutes, but also attract future, full-time classroom teachers. Whether you’re a district-level leader, human resources professional who supports substitutes, building principal, or front office professional who interacts daily with subs, try the following three subtle adjustments—plus some action steps—to better support your substitutes.

1. Acknowledge Substitutes’ Importance and Provide Relevant Professional Development

It’s important to acknowledge the significance of substitute teachers in students’ education. According to Substantial Classrooms, a nonprofit in California with a mission to unlock the potential of substitute teaching, the average American public school student spends one full year with substitute educators during their K–12 experience. This startling data should encourage district leaders and administrators to shift their perspective and prioritize support for substitutes, as it directly impacts student learning and outcomes.

One effective action step is offering professional development (PD) opportunities and creating a sense of community for substitute teachers. This can include inviting them to relevant teacher PD sessions, organizing substitute-specific trainings, and establishing regular communication through newsletters. Hosting informal gatherings for substitutes to network and discuss challenges can also foster a supportive community. 

Substitutes are hungry for training. Here are some other sub support and community-building ideas:

  • Sending a monthly or bimonthly communication for your substitute educators that offers social and emotional tips, instructional suggestions for the classroom, leadership and PD opportunities, and a heartfelt thank-you to these hardworking educators.
  • Hosting informal gatherings (with food) for the subs in your district periodically throughout the school year. Give them a chance to network and discuss current challenges. 
  • If you are a leader at the building level, I suggest setting aside a staff meeting specifically for brainstorming strategies on how to create a culture of inclusion for substitute educators.
  • Ensure that all subs in your district are provided with official badges, bathroom keys, sub plans, building procedures, emergency plans, email addresses, and other important information so that they can excel in their role.

2. Acknowledge SUBSTITUTES’ Ability VIA Leadership Opportunities

Our nation’s substitutes are diverse, educated, and caring. At the regular SubCommunity gatherings for substitute educators that I facilitate, I meet doctors, lawyers, artists, writers, parents, scientists, professional clowns, and retired teachers. Substitutes, nationwide, are highly educated, diverse, and interesting. I recently facilitated a gathering for substitute educators in Spokane, Washington. Of the 55 substitutes who registered for the event, three had associate degrees, 21 had bachelor’s degrees, 30 had graduate degrees, and one preferred not to answer. 

The substitute teacher pools are filled with highly educated individuals who are passionate about education and incredibly diverse in all ways—ethnically, racially, and generationally. These skilled and creative individuals can and should be a big part of the solution to our current teacher shortage. 

If you are a district leader, empower your subs with leadership opportunities. I worked as a classroom teacher and as an instructional coach and district leader prior to working as a substitute educator.

One of the major differences I’ve noted in my role change is in how I’m treated by school staff, as well as the opportunities (or lack thereof) that I am offered. As a classroom teacher and instructional coach, I was treated as a valued professional and given many chances for growth and leadership. As a sub, I’m not. I’ve had to create, seek out, or actively request leadership opportunities as a substitute teacher. District leaders, create and offer your substitute teachers chances for leadership and growth by doing the following:

  • Noticing which grade level a certain substitute teaches beautifully in—and telling them. 
  • Encouraging your substitutes to eat lunch in the staff lunchroom so they can connect with full-time staff and strengthen the community in your building. 
  • Offering longer-term opportunities. Do you have a regular sub who teaches fifth grade like a pro? Have a conversation with that educator about your fifth-grade teacher who has an upcoming extended absence scheduled. Explore whether that sub would feel comfortable trying a long-term position, and offer them ongoing support. 

3. Acknowledge Substitutes’ Potential With Pathways to Certification

View your subs as potential teachers. I love working as a substitute educator and have no desire to return to full-time classroom teaching, so I’m passionate about supporting and empowering subs who want to remain subs. However, according to data from the Washington Education Association’s Emergency Substitute Teacher Support Project, approximately 30 percent of current substitute educators want to become full-time classroom teachers. Because of that, it’s important to empower them with pathways to full-time teacher certification.

Richard Dunn, an educator from Western Washington University who prepares preservice teachers, notes, “Many substitute teachers first become interested in teacher certification when a teacher, principal, or administrator gives them a ‘tap on the shoulder’ and asks, ‘Have you considered becoming a certified teacher? I think you would be fabulous!”

In addition to teacher education, Dunn provides personalized support in navigating the complexity of selecting and applying to a teacher certification program for current substitute educators in Washington State through a state- and union-funded program for Emergency Certified Subs. He assists them throughout the certification process—from getting started, exploring pathways, and researching specific programs and funding options to selecting and applying to programs that are the right fit. 

Substitute educators are an underutilized resource and hold immense potential. Tap into our creativity, passion, and talent, and watch your school communities transform and grow.

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