Teacher absenteeism and reimagining substitute teaching

William Woods EDU

According to a 2014 study by the National Council on Teacher Quality, teachers miss an average of 11 days out of a school year due to illness, illness of a loved one, professional development or other personal reasons. For students, this means that throughout their K-12 experience, six to 10 percent of their instruction is provided by substitute teachers.

Yet managing substitutes remains an issue for many schools and their districts.

For one, substitute teaching is often associated with a lower quality of education for students. One study by the National Bureau of Economic Research estimated “that each 10 days of teacher absences reduce students’ mathematics achievement by 3.3 percent of a standard deviation.” This can be due to a number of factors. In some cases, substitute teachers may lack adequate training. In other cases, it may be attributed to substitutes’ inability to benefit from a long-term relationship that full-time teachers establish with their students. Also, substitutes are not always provided the necessary support, such as lesson plans and accompanying materials.

Another set of issues stem from the fact that many schools simply do not have sufficient number of substitute teachers. As a result, full-time teachers are forced to use their planning periods to cover classes of their absent colleagues or take in more students during their own class. This too can compromise the quality of education as it puts more burden on a teacher.

So how can schools address these challenges to maintain the quality of education?

A recent Education Week article discussed how a new nonprofit, Substantial Classrooms, is using data to help schools reimagine the way they recruit, train and support substitutes. One of the advantages, explained Jill Vialet, founder of Substantial Classrooms, is that school districts around the country are rich with data on substitutes. By analyzing this data, Vialet and her team discovered unique insights which they use to shape capacity building for schools and districts. Through specifically designed activities, tools, training, consulting and couching services, Vialet and her team are creating helpful resources which schools can use to address some of the pitfalls of substitute teaching.

One of the insights uncovered in Vialet’s data analysis is that for many districts, substitute teachers make up a considerable pool of candidates which are ultimately hired as full-time teachers. In one district, 20 percent of incoming full-time teachers started as substitutes. This discovery prompted the district to create a workshop for aspiring teachers — allowing the district to better recruit qualified substitutes and put them on a full-time teaching track while advising them on earning their credentials.

As for those who point to efforts to reduce teacher absenteeism as a method of addressing the issues related to substitutes, Vialet says that her research shows that some absenteeism is simply unavoidable. Teaching can be a stressful job and teachers do get sick. In addition, Vialet adds, “disproportionately, women teach — between the ages of 20 and 40, and those are childbearing years.”

At William Woods, students earning a Master of Education in Administration may explore issues related to substitute teaching in EDU 500 – Current Issues in Teaching/Learning. This course seeks to expand and enlighten the practitioner’s outlook, thought processes, understanding, and repertoire of knowledge, attitudes, skills, and strategies when faced with a variety of issues that impact our learning environment.

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