Some Missouri school districts still struggle to recruit substitute teachers

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Principal Kathleen Snipes briefly fills in for a second grade teacher at Faxon Elementary School on Feb. 1 in Kansas City. | Zach Bauman/The Beacon

The state has collected more than 73,000 survey responses that reflect details such as who is substitute teaching in Missouri public schools, what they’re paid and where they work.

The data, released Wednesday by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, may not offer a clear reason why some school districts struggle to recruit substitute teachers, though more people are applying for certification.

But it could provide some clues.

For example, have state law changes enacted last year affected the applicant pool?

Last year, the Missouri legislature reduced the number of college credit hours required to be a substitute teacher from 60 — typical to earn an associate degree — to 36. Substitute teachers can also become certified without college credit hours by taking a 20-hour training course.

The changes raised concerns the state would see “a bunch of younger substitutes,” said Paul Katnik, assistant commissioner in DESE’s office of educator quality. “That’s not what’s happening.”

Instead, the majority of survey entries are from substitutes 50 or older, and 88% are from people in their 30s or older. Less than 1% are from substitutes younger than 20.

And most substitute teachers exceed the education requirements. The survey data indicates many have much more than 36 hours of college credit — equivalent to two or three full-time semesters. More than two-thirds of the surveys were from substitutes with a four-year degree or higher, while 16% of the responses note the respondent had less than a two-year degree.

Missouri, along with other states, has struggled to recruit substitute teachers. Locally, the staffing shortage has been so severe that some schools canceled classes last year.

In January 2022, Keith Elliott, a spokesperson for Kelly Education, said the staffing company could send substitute teachers to fill only about 60% to 70% of vacancies in the nine Kansas City-area districts it serves. By May of this year, that rate had improved to around 90%, even with more teacher absences, but the company would like to fill at least 95%.

Another positive sign: More people are applying for substitute teacher certification. Those applications jumped to 18,000 in 2022 after averaging 12,000 during the three previous years, Katnik said. The pace of applications has kept up this year, but certified substitute teachers don’t automatically accept open positions in schools.

Could substitute teachers’ pay offer more clues about the reasons for the gap between certification applications and accepting open positions?

A typical substitute teacher in the state makes $75 to $125 per day. The lower end of that range would be less than the state’s $12 minimum wage if teachers work seven-hour days. Much less often, about 9% of the time, they make more than $150 per day. Pay varies by school district, region or whether the assignment is short-term or long-term.

“So when you’re asking, ‘Why don’t people want to sub?’ maybe that might be it,” Katnik said of substitute teacher pay. “I don’t know if you’ve ever substitute taught, but it’s pretty challenging work. I don’t know if you would do it for 100 bucks a day.”

The substitute teachers who take on that challenging work gave positive responses about the support they received to do it. Of the survey responses submitted, 97% said they received at least “adequate” support from school staff. Most of them, nearly two-thirds, responded that they receive “abundant” support.

Officials are still trying to understand why shortages persist and are pondering ways to get certified substitute teachers into classrooms.

“Is it just that they don’t want to substitute teach?” Katnik asked. “Or is it that the needs of the school districts are so much higher than we’ve seen in the past?”

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