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Lessons to be learned from substitute teacher shortage | READER COMMENTARY

At Laurel Hill Elementary School in Hanover Park, Illinois, Lynne Schefke works as a substitute teacher and talks to student Alondra Lopez in a dual language kindergarten classroom on Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022. (Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune).
At Laurel Hill Elementary School in Hanover Park, Illinois, Lynne Schefke works as a substitute teacher and talks to student Alondra Lopez in a dual language kindergarten classroom on Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022. (Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune). (Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune)

As a retired teacher of 40-plus years (22 in Baltimore County, the rest in Tennessee and Alabama), I found the recent article describing the current substitute shortage most interesting (”Longer holidays, job fairs, eased qualifications; how Baltimore-area schools are coping with shortage of substitutes,” Dec. 21). For three years after retirement, I continued as a substitute, specifically at my former school working with former colleagues in special education settings. During those three years, I worked almost half of the school year each time.

I also chaired a subcommittee for the local teachers union retirement organization that focused on finding best practices and solutions for what was, to us even then, an impending crisis of substitute vacancies. We conducted an in-depth survey of almost 100 classroom teachers. Questions were asked about difficulties they had encountered in securing qualified subs, dealing with principals who, instead of releasing money from their “sub fund” at each school, required coverage from colleagues instead, what successes and disappointments occurred with subs who were or were not going to be asked to return. Alas, just as we were beginning to share our results with the school system, the pandemic struck and our survey results were shelved.

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Now, here we are two years later with the sub shortage hugely magnified and the solutions desperately needed. School systems seem to be firing flares and wildly offering short-term fixes instead of looking at the big picture. Raising the pay rate would surely help, but it is not a panacea. For example, requiring prospective subs to pay for fingerprinting and background checks that cost more than the after-tax, take-home pay for one day seems ludicrous. Sending someone into any classroom without some training in system-wide, let alone local school, procedures, is certain to result in many subs feeling they have been left on their own to face a very difficult day. The reasoning behind why subs leave the system under these conditions is no mystery.

By their own admission, several of the area school systems do not have enough substitutes to cover the daily number needed for teacher and staff absences. This was true before COVID-19 and is glaringly apparent now. I would suggest that those systems consider consulting the people who know what is needed to be a successful substitute and what could attract — and keep — such persons: current and yes, former, classroom educators. I would gladly volunteer.

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Cynthia North, Baltimore

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