You are the owner of this article.

Madison School District looking for ways to beef up substitute teacher pool

  • 9 min to read
Doug Keillor (copy) (copy)

“We would like to see a return to rewarding substitute teachers who stay with the district,” said MTI’s executive director Doug Keillor. 


Amid an increase in unfilled substitute positions during the 2018-19 school year, the Madison Metropolitan School District is exploring ways to curb an issue affecting districts across the state and country.

The fill rate for substitute positions decreased from 92 percent in the 2017-18 school year to 85 percent this past school year, according to statistics provided by MMSD. That left more than one in 10 substitute requests unfilled this past school year, a dilemma that can disrupt learning for students and put more pressure on teachers who need to take a day off for illness, training or other reasons.  

In a June 6 memo to the Madison School Board, chief of human resources Deirdre Hargrove-Krighoff said the district had an increase of about 500 substitute requests per month last school year, as well as a decreased number of available substitute special education assistants.

Why is there a shortage?

A variety of reasons contribute to the lack of available substitutes, according to MMSD and interviews the Cap Times conducted with more than a half dozen teachers and substitutes across the district.

Chief among them are economics. With such low unemployment rates in Dane County and nationwide, many substitute teachers can easily find jobs in other sectors that pay just as well, if not more, and come with more benefits.

Since Act 10, substitute teachers in Madison have had to work more days in order to qualify for health insurance, and don’t have the same sick leave policy they used to enjoy. There are also many subs who don’t get the same pay increases that regular teachers do, a point that the Madison teachers’ union has made as it negotiates with the district. Madison Teachers Inc. has asked for a 2.44 percent base-wage increase for all staff in the upcoming budget to keep up with the cost of living.

“With substitute teachers, the last thing you should be doing as an employer is reducing the benefits and salary amounts that are connected from that particular employer,” said MTI’s executive director Doug Keillor. “We would like to see a return to rewarding substitute teachers who stay with the district with higher pay for more length of service, and incentivize and offer more benefit eligibility to those who commit to working with the district for a certain amount of time.”

The shortage of substitutes is also connected to the shortages districts face in regular teaching positions. Several teachers who spoke with the Cap Times detailed how they started their careers in teaching as a substitute to gain experience before full-time regular teaching positions opened up. With fewer students graduating from teacher education programs in Wisconsin, newly minted college graduates can often go straight to a regular teaching position without having to be a substitute, which further strains the supply side of the equation.

Just over 900 substitute teachers worked for the district in 2018-19, according to MMSD, which was a slight increase from 875 in the previous year. The substitute special education assistant pool decreased from 199 to 164 over the last two years.

It’s unclear how many of those substitutes regularly work during the school year, however. Some substitutes like Ken Swift are retired teachers who serve as subs from time to time and enjoy the flexibility that being a substitute brings.

And certain schools can be more desirable to work in than others, which can exacerbate the challenge of finding a substitute.

“I will go all over, but there are certain schools when I have experiences that are not really supportive and where students are really a handful, that when given the option to go to that school or the other, I usually go to the other school,” Swift said.  

Swift said there are some substitutes that MTI represents that might only sub a few times a year.

Another substitute who has worked in the district for more than 20 years agreed that some schools have reputations that make it harder to attract subs. Complicating the issue is that schools compete to get subs from a small pool of teachers.

“I’ve been in schools that might be considered ‘tough’ schools, but I and other subs keep going back to those schools when we feel the support is there and the staff is wonderful,” the teacher told the Cap Times. “I think that’s a big deal for substitute teachers, that if you need support, you got it. That’s why some schools might have more difficulties in getting subs.”

Reasons for why subs favor certain schools more than others ranges.

For some, it’s behavior problems that have persisted despite attempts through the Behavior Education Plan to provide more restorative ways to address issues.

“The intent is great on paper and in theory it looks good, but we haven’t allocated the necessary resources to implement it fully so I think some substitute teachers can be turned off by that,” said Lora Scmid-Dolan, a Lincoln elementary school teacher. ”My daughter is a freshman at East, and staff there have reported sexual harassment that they receive from students and other students harassing one another … what sub wants to come up and teach in that situation?”

Isthmus reported in a story last month that teachers have been sexually harassed and verbally abused, citing a veteran high school teacher who experienced it.

Scmid-Dolan said that some of the substitute teachers who serve at her school only want to work in that school because of its reputation of being well-run.

Being able to fit in with the staff and culture of a school can be important for a substitute teacher, particularly as they enter an unfamiliar class. In addition, there’s the challenge of trying to build trust with a class quickly.

“Teaching just in general is a hard thing, and the reason teachers develop relationships with kids is because it’s important,” said Pete Opps, a social studies teacher at La Follette High School. “For someone to walk in the door and think that they can teach a class the way a teacher would is a very difficult thing to do.”

What happens when a teacher is absent

Teachers can submit a general request for a sub that any substitute can pick up, or can also request a particular substitute who they know. School secretaries often coordinate sub requests.

Nobody picked up Muir Elementary School teacher Jessica Endres' sub request for the first time earlier this spring.

“I’ve specifically had subs I’ve called who just have said, ‘I don’t want to come back, it was crazy, it was too challenging or I’m not looking to do this assignment,’” Endres said.

On an average day, the district isn’t able to fill requests for 19 substitute teachers and 19 substitute special education assistants, according to Hargrove-Krighoff's memo. In many schools, unfilled absences lead to a class being divided up among other classes, thus increasing class size.

When splitting up the class isn’t a viable option, teachers have reported seeing principals have to pull in bilingual resource specialists, special education teachers, English as a second language staff and additional support staff to cover classes for absent teachers. This can leave some students with the highest needs without support because a staff member needs to cover for a colleague.

“Anybody who had that support — ESL support, for example — don’t get that extra support that day,” said Jen Greenwald, a teacher at Muir Elementary School.

MTI’s Keillor said moving staff members around can impact a school day tremendously.

“There’s a lot of chaos that is created by what really is a lack of sufficient staff and a lack of adults that needs to be addressed,” Keillor said. “The feedback I get from teachers is that they see a particular impact on students, many of whom end up not getting services that they need. And splitting up even just one class can sometimes add nearly eight students to classes that might already be large. Students are impacted by there being insufficient staff and it’s not really their fault.”

Those issues can be particularly acute at a school like Muir, which saw an influx of students with high needs from the Tree Lane apartment complex this school year.

In addition, when long-term assignments come up, substitutes that would typically fill in for short-term assignments are reallocated, which leaves fewer short-term substitutes available. Long-term mental health leaves nearly doubled in the past two years from 18 in 2017-18 to 35 in the 2018-19 school year.

The June 6 memo also points to stress levels in schools as the reasons why unfilled absences typically increase as the week goes on.

Many of the teachers interviewed by the Cap Times emphasized that they try to submit a request for a substitute as soon as they can. But, given the difficulty in finding a sub, especially when the request is with less than 24-hours notice, there can be pressure to fight through an illness.

Schmid-Dolan felt ill during flu season earlier this school year. Since it was a Friday, the hardest day to find a sub, she decided to go to school.

“I tried to get a sub and nobody was available. I got progressively worse during the day, and I should not have been at the school but I knew that if I go home then I have to split up my 17 kids among my team members,” Schmid-Dolan said. “I try not to. I have to be near bedridden before I take a sub day because I know that any given day will often go unfilled.”

Challenges remain nationwide

Not having enough substitutes available is not a problem unique to Madison, according to Raegan Miller, a research adviser at FutureEd and a professor at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy.  

“It’s... pretty much the norm in many metropolitan areas, particularly in suburban areas,” Miller said. “Rural districts can also face similar difficulties.”

Miller advises the Frontline Research and Learning Institute, which collects and analyzes K-12 education data from across the country. The institute’s report on employee absences and substitute data found a fill rate nationwide of about 86 percent during the first seven months of the 2018-19 school year.

Miller said that while there’s a supply side to the substitute shortage, school districts should think of ways to reduce the demand.

“Some absences are inevitable; you’re never going to have no employee absences,” Miller said. “But you might have more than you really should for a number of reasons, or you might not use the most appropriate strategies for effective strategies in coping with the absences when they do occur.”

Nationwide, roughly 15 to 20 percent of teacher absences are driven by professional reasons, such as professional development and administrative requests, as well as school business and time spent with bargaining units. Professional development alone accounts for about 10 percent of teacher absences nationwide. In Madison, just under 8,000 teacher absences in each of the last two school years were due to administrative requests and professional development, which was the second-most common reason for teacher absences.

Hargrove-Krieghoff said in her memo that MMSD has decreased professional development requests throughout the school day in an attempt to lessen absence requests.

David DeGuire, the director for teacher education, professional development and licensure at the state Department of Public Instruction, said the decrease in graduating class sizes at teacher education programs across the state have strained districts in Wisconsin and the upper Midwest.  

DPI went to the state Legislature in 2017 to allow for an ease in licensure requirements for short-term substitutes. But DeGuire said districts still face challenges when a place like Kwik Trip can offer a better deal for those looking for employment.

DPI doesn’t collect a lot of data on short-term substitute teachers since there isn’t a legal requirement to do so. But DeGuire said districts often receive help from DPI to provide training for substitute teachers.

Recruiting potential subs is only one part of the supply problem, he said. Districts also need to find reasons to get substitute teachers to stay in an era where teachers are increasingly leaving the profession.

What else can be done?

Permanent substitutes who serve specific buildings but float from classroom to classroom whenever teachers are absent is one approach.

“(Districts) can deploy floating subs in a way where they are going to know the students in a classroom they work in,” Georgetown's Miller said. “There’s a case where you might want your most versatile teachers to take on the role of a floating sub. The heart of substitute teaching is knowing all the students well and help keeping the instructional ball rolling, so there are a bunch of reasons why (floating subs) makes sense.”

Teacher and SEA floater positions are described in the MMSD memo as potential options to remedy the shortage. The district estimates that 15 floater SEAs and 15 floater teachers would be needed to make a significant impact. The floating SEA option would cost the district $780,000 in the 2019-20 school year and $1.275 million for the floating subs option.

It’s unclear whether the options will be part of the upcoming budget slated for a preliminary approval on June 24. The allocations are not listed in the preliminary budget proposal, and no amendments have been proposed to include the floating substitute option.

The building subs option was mentioned by several teachers the Cap Times talked to as a possible solution.

“We think the resolution is simple, frankly,” MTI's Keillor said. “If the district has the resources and invested the resources to staff schools on a regular basis and are able to provide their own coverage, then the only time you would need subs would be when you have long-term sub openings.”

Opps, the La Follette teacher, said the school informally has substitutes who regularly come to La Folllette and have gotten to know students well at the school. But even so, there are moments when substitute teachers get stretched.

“The problem is we need far more subs than we currently have, so a sub that’s in the building on a regular basis can very easily be told, ‘Oh in your prep time, instead of prepping you’re going to cover this other class,” Opps said. “That’s part of the problem — they can’t prep sometimes because we’re always so short.”

Beyond hiring more permanent substitutes, which Miller noted is usually a more expensive option for districts, creating welcoming school cultures and climates for substitutes can also make a difference.

“I look at myself as a professional, but I don’t always think the district looks upon us as professionals,” said the longtime substitute who’s been with the district for more than 20 years. “If they increased communication with substitute teachers and listened to us more, that might help. It might not alleviate the shortage completely, but I think existing subs would feel like they were being treated more professionally and that the word would spread that MMSD is a good place to work.”  

Ann Conroy, a retired MMSD teacher who frequently teaches as a substitute at Muir, Glenn Stephens and Crestwood elementary schools, said feeling welcomed in a school can be a huge factor in whether a substitute decides to come back.

“When teachers and the secretary are welcoming, substitutes want to return,” Conroy said. “It is not easy to come into a building where you don’t know people and don’t know your way around. Mornings are busy for teachers but substitutes really appreciate when staff greet them and answer questions.”

Subscribe to our newsletters

* indicates required

View previous campaigns.

Education Reporter

Negassi Tesfamichael is the local education reporter at The Cap Times. He joined the paper in 2018. He previously worked as an intern at WISC-TV/ and at POLITICO.