On Monday, the Kodiak Island Borough School District needed more than 60 substitute teachers. Only 45 were available.
Though the need on Monday was uncharacteristically high, the number of substitutes required on a typical day — between 30 and 40 — still leave the district in a difficult situation, according to Assistant Superintendent Beth Cole. Since the beginning of the school year, there has been only one day when the supply of substitute teachers met the demand.
“We have people that get sick, we have people that have to leave for family reasons. There are so many justifiable reasons, but any person being gone creates a strain on the entire team,” Cole said.
The district has around 45 active substitutes, but their availability varies. Cole said that ideally, she’d increase the substitute pool to 70 to 100 people.
While the district prefers substitutes that can spend more time in a classroom, they will accept any applicant who meets their criteria.
“It’s good when they can get familiar with students,” Cole said. “The more people come in to sub, the more comfortable they are.”
Cole estimated that only 20-30% of substitute teachers remain for more than one year, leading to a high turnover rate.
“People move, they get jobs, they have grandbabies,” she said. “Not everyone wants to report to a different place of work every day.”
East Elementary Principal Angie Hietala said that the shortage is “progressively getting worse.” In the month of October, the number of substitute teachers needed at East Elementary varied from four to 10, for a staff of 61.
“We go every day with something uncovered,” Hietala said. When the school is missing a sub, they have to “get creative.”
Every morning, the district compiles a list of vacancies with data from each of the schools, noting whether the vacancy is for a certified position, a teacher or an aide. The process takes place between 7 and 8 a.m. If any positions remain unfilled when the substitute pool is exhausted, the district leaves it up to the school principals to come up with creative solutions.
“We never know what we’re going to have each morning,” Cole said. “We take great steps to fill certified positions first,” she said, adding that the district also tried to fill special needs aide positions. Sometimes, other aides move to fill in for special needs aides.
According to Cole, the need for substitutes is across the board, and exacerbated when bad weather prevents flights from landing on the island or when flu season leaves more teachers home sick.
Over the weekend, the district sent six employees to conferences in Anchorage. When a severe rainstorm hit Kodiak, many flights were canceled and the teachers were stranded. To fill in for the vacancies, all hands were on deck. The district superintendent filled a vacancy in Peterson Elementary. Cole went to the middle school.
According to Cole, the need for substitutes is nothing new. In her 11 years as an elementary school principal in the district, she often encountered shortages in substitutes. Any principal “can be a kindergarten teacher at a moment’s notice,” she said.
But the need is getting larger. An increase in special needs aide positions (classified by the district as “Aide 4”) has created “the perfect storm,” Cole said, depleting the reserve of substitutes.
Angie Chervenak, principal of Main Elementary, said she has noticed that the need has been growing over the past few years, but this year the shortage hit particularly hard.
“This year, needs have increased based on growing needs of our student populations,” she said, referring to the growing number of students in the district who qualify for special needs aides. “As we have full-time or part-time aide positions open up, we often draw from our strongest substitute teachers,” she said. When the strongest substitute teachers become aides, new substitute teachers must be recruited.
“We have had a number of our substitute teachers go into regular positions,” Chervenak said. “Basically, if (a teacher) gets sick in the morning, we have exhausted our pool of substitutes, so the principal or an instructional coach can be pulled in to go away from normal duties.”
According to the certified teachers’ negotiated agreement, they are entitled to three personal days and 12 to 15 days of sick leave per year, in addition to three to seven days of bereavement leave. Classified staff earn 1.5 days of sick leave per month.
“It’s hard because you want to make sure they are granted what they deserve in their contract,” Hietala said. Sometimes, that means students are left with new faces in the classroom.
“It does affect our programs and how we’re delivering instruction, but we’re doing a really good job not to let it affect our students as best we can,” Hietala said. “That’s the goal with anything — keep the problems we’re facing as far from the students as possible.”
Chervenak said teachers at Main Elementary are sometimes taken away from playground supervision to fill in for an absent teacher, meaning there are fewer adults on the playground to provide support for students. Additionally, the school’s library assistant has served as a substitute, meaning that the library must be closed while she is away. Music and physical education teachers have taken double classes to help fill a gap when teachers are absent.
“We have to tip the scales from one section of the school to meet the needs of the other section of the school,” Chervenak said. “It definitely affects kids because it’s a break in their routine.
“We make it work as best as we can, but we’re giving something up when we don’t have enough skilled substitutes available,” she said.
Chervenak also said that serving as a substitute teacher can create opportunities for those who choose the fill the role. Current Peterson Elementary School Principal Michelle St. Clair began her teaching career as a substitute at the school.
“It could open a door to something they haven’t considered before, as a career option,” Chervenak said. “We need people who like being around kids and want to promote our future community leaders by helping them in school.”
To become a substitute teacher, applicants must be high school graduates, fill out an online application, provide three references and pass a background check. They are not required to have prior teaching experience. Once an application is submitted, the district staff typically processes it within a week.
“We have a good efficient system, we just don’t have enough people,” Cole said.
The district offers in-person training for new substitute teachers every Friday at 9 a.m. The paid six-hour training is a new addition this year, to ensure that incoming substitutes know what is expected of them. Prior to the change, training was offered online, but Cole said that substitutes weren’t adequately prepared for the position under that model, using their phones in the classroom and sometimes leaving students unattended.
“We found out substitutes weren’t sure what their role was. That’s why they adopted the in-person model,” she said.
Substitute teachers are considered district employees and are not specific to particular schools, though substitutes can indicate a preference for particular schools, age groups and days of the week when they are hired.
Substitute teacher compensation begins at $17.54 per hour for a special needs aide position. The daily rate for substitute teachers who have a bachelor’s degree and teaching certification begins at $140. Compensation for long-term substitute teachers who work for more than 20 days consecutively begins at $225 for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree.
Individuals interested in becoming substitute teachers can apply online at https://www.kibsd.org/Page/1520.