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'An Impossible Task': Substitute Shortage, Increased Workload Weigh on Teachers

by Marta Mieze, Columbia Missourian / Jan 12, 2023

Ann Alofs in her school library with students

Ann Alofs, a teacher at West Boulevard Elementary School, has worked in Columbia (Mo.) Public Schools for her entire 29-year career. Photo credit Tristen Rouse/Missourian.

The College of Education's Nancy Latham weighs in on teacher shortages and persistence in the classroom, in this excerpted piece from the Columbia Missourian.


No day is the same in Ann Alofs’ third grade classroom. She integrates geometry with art and lets kids dig through dirt to learn about compost. She puts her all into each lesson, determined to help students learn and thrive in the classroom.

But teachers like Alofs are finding it harder to be innovative as their time is spread thin by a substitute teacher shortage.

Nationally, the number of employees in K-12 education is shrinking, while the need for them continues to grow. Columbia Public Schools feels this, and classroom teachers have borne the brunt of the substitute shortage repercussions. With fewer substitute teachers available, teachers are taking on more on top of their already heavy workloads. The added responsibilities especially weigh on teachers at schools with higher-needs students. A widespread shortage of substitute teachers had been building for years by the time of the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools across the country were unable to cover teacher absences 20% of the time in the 2018-19 school year, according to the Frontline Research Learning Institute, which provides research and resources about education.

The shortage crested during the pandemic.

Subbing in for the Sub

While a number of solutions have been introduced, including lowering certification requirements, two key ways to address this remain: higher pay and expanded support.

In November 2022, as an attempt to attract subs, the Columbia School Board approved an increase in the standard base pay of substitute teachers from $85 to $90 a day. Substitute teachers with a teaching certificate — subs are required to have only a substitute teaching certificate — also saw an increase from $90 per day to $100 per day. Also to address the shortage, the Missouri legislature recently passed Senate Bill 681, which lowered the requirement for substitute teaching certificates from 60 college credit hours to 36 hours. The bill also did away with a 550-hour per school year substitute limit for retired teachers. The limit will go back into effect in July 2025.

Alofs, whose school qualifies as a Title I school, said they require more of teachers because of the student needs. From her perspective, among the most important of these needs is working with students who have experienced trauma, perhaps because they come from poverty, have an incarcerated parent or have lost a parent.

“Teachers who are not going to have to juggle the complexities of children who are living in poverty are not having to think, ‘Where am I going to get (them) school supplies?’ and ‘How am I going to build the background experience that other children are going to just naturally bring with them to school?’” she said.

There is no question that these factors make learning more challenging — and that the pandemic has added to this.

“Every teacher right now is feeling like we’re trying to keep all these plates spinning in the air,” Alofs said, “and it’s an impossible task.”

Adding More Plates to Juggle

When a substitute cannot be found for a classroom, other teachers have to step in. When needed, they spend their planning period substituting, leaving less time in a day to plan their future lessons.

The schools that have the highest needs for substitutes tend to also be the schools where teachers are already addressing needs other than learning. Alofs said she has observed over almost 30 years in the district that some Title I schools tend to have higher turnover. This means teachers are more likely to leave to move elsewhere, leaving vacancies that may be filled by newer teachers.

“Inexperienced teachers are more likely to teach at high-poverty schools,” said Se Woong Lee, an associate professor of educational leadership and policy analysis at the University of Missouri.

While this is common nationwide, he said Columbia Public Schools tries to mitigate this by frequent rezoning — altering school attendance areas after annual board-mandated reviews. Lee said teachers tend to go from Title I schools to those with less concentrated numbers of students from marginalized populations. When veteran teachers leave, the most experienced remaining teachers bear the responsibilities of leading departments and school activities. As the pool of experienced teachers within a school shrinks, more of these obligations are put on fewer teachers, which can lead to burnout. This has become a bigger concern since the pandemic.

“All of the (effects of the pandemic) walk in the door in these little tiny, human bodies,” Alofs said. “Not only are we trying to catch them up, but we’re trying to do that while we’re rebuilding this thing called public education... and it’s not an easy juggle.”

Still, these are schools that often see more vacancies, and newer teachers may be the solution to otherwise unfilled teaching positions.

Creative Solutions to Vacant Classrooms

At the beginning of the 2022 school year, all Columbia Public Schools' core teaching positions were reported filled, and the district was not feeling the effects of the nationwide teacher shortage. This did not include high school elective courses such as Spanish.

Some core classes at the secondary level are being taught by permanent substitutes. At times, elective teachers may be asked to travel to fill a need at another building. Yet, for other core classes that were at risk of being left without a teacher, more creative solutions have been put in place. At Battle High School, two student teachers are teaching a math class after a new position was added but no permanent teacher could be secured. The two student teachers alternate days; one takes on the role of the host teacher while the other learns.

The number of people pursuing teaching careers has declined for years. According to the Pew Research Center, bachelor’s degrees in education made up 4% of all undergraduate degrees issued in the 2019-20 school year. This was a drop from 8% almost 20 years earlier, in the 2000-01 school year.

So in June 2022, the Missouri State Board of Education approved a change to the qualifying scores of all initial certification exams, except for elementary education, to allow those who score one to four questions below the qualifying score to still receive a certificate as long as they had a 3.0 grade point average in college. The State Board already expanded the allowed number of missed questions for elementary school teachers in April, according to board documents.

“A slight change to the qualifying score on all initial certification exams could add over 550 certified teachers a year to the workforce,” one of the documents stated.

Nancy LathamNancy Latham, executive director of the Council on Teacher Education and associate dean of undergraduate programs in the College of Education at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, calls these “Band-Aid approaches” that only enhance the problem by creating a short-lived teacher workforce.

“Teachers that are less prepared are 25% more likely to leave the field quicker,” Latham said. “Wherever they go, they’re going to go in and they’re only going to last two to four years before they cycle out.”

The Teacher Recruitment and Retention Blue Ribbon Commission delivered its report to the State Board in October. The report noted that in 2020-21 in Missouri, 44% of newly hired teachers left in their first three years in the classroom and about 54% left within the first five years. This was a noticeable increase from 36% who left within three years in 2019-20, suggesting that newer teachers were the most impacted by the pandemic.

A Field in Need of Change

Missouri is not alone in its efforts to bring more candidate teachers into the field to counter the shortage. States across the country are lowering exam qualification scores or getting rid of some requirements altogether in hopes of recruiting more teachers. Although Latham may disagree with the recent lowering in qualification scores of initial certification requirements, she agrees that increasing the number of teachers, both permanent and substitute, is necessary.

To do that, teaching has to become more enticing as a profession, she said.

Latham said the teacher shortage has come as a result of multiple factors snowballing. From allowing less qualified teachers into the classroom to falling behind in wage improvements, teaching has become less attractive while the education system has expanded what it asks of teachers.

“We’ve decided that the schools need to be the nutrition provider and the counselors and the social workers and the parent trainers,” Latham said. “(The pandemic) was just a breaking point, it really was. And it’s not just about wages... it’s not just about retirement and benefits that need to be solid. It’s also about funding classrooms and funding materials and funding what teachers need, so it’s not coming out of their pocket.”

From her perspective, courageous leadership in government is necessary to fundamentally change the way education is funded and how its carried through to allow teachers the freedom to teach and be creative.

“We know how to do it right,” Latham said. “The funding and the support is not there to do it.”

Read the full story in its entirety at the Columbia Missourian website...