October 22, 2018
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Higher pay hasn’t solved Maine’s worsening substitute teacher shortage

Robbie Feinberg | Maine Public
Robbie Feinberg | Maine Public
Longtime substitute teacher Ron Merill leads a substitute teacher training course in Waterville in this 2017 photo.

Maine school districts are increasingly desperate to find ways to cope with a drastic shortage of people willing to serve as substitute teachers.

Across the state, superintendents in school districts large and small say they’re wringing their hands trying to figure out how to court more subs.

“I think most everybody is struggling with it,” Susan Pratt, superintendent of School Administrative District 58, a district made up of a cluster of four towns northwest of Farmington, said during a recent phone interview. “We tried increasing our pay a bit to see if that would help. We really don’t know why we have such a shortage.”

SAD 58’s three elementary schools and one high school employ more than 110 teachers, according to Maine Department of Education data. Pratt said the district has a pool of about 10 regular substitutes to call when one of those teachers falls ill, has a death in the family, or leaves for professional development. She’d like the pool to be at least twice that deep, because if an illness hits a couple of teachers in a particular school at the same time, the likelihood of finding an available sub diminishes.

Seeking incentives

While rural schools appear to face the steepest challenge in finding qualified people to fill in, the shortage is felt in populated parts of the state as well.

Andrew Dolloff, superintendent of Yarmouth schools, said he and other school leaders have had to get creative in finding people to put behind the teacher’s desk.

“Many days, we have to ask teachers to cover for one another during their prep or lunch periods, and administrators and other personnel, such as ed techs, cover classes as well,” Dolloff said in an email.

Dollof said the district offered substitutes $75 for a day’s work for decades but recently boosted that to $87 in hopes it would bolster more interest. They even offered to tack on an extra dollar each year substitute returns to teach as extra incentive for becoming a dependable fill-in.

Substitutes come from a wide range of backgrounds. Some are retired teachers looking to make a few extra dollars or help their former employers. Other districts turn to bus drivers or even stay-at-home parents of current or former students. College students working on teaching degrees also frequently jump in for a little extra experience, cash and potential for employment after they graduate.

Maine’s Department of Education is largely mum on what’s required of a substitute teacher, leaving the bulk of decision making to local districts. The state requires that a substitute have a high school diploma or GED and undergo a background check and fingerprinting. It’s up to districts to decide what qualifications subs should have, as well as how they’re recruited and what they should be paid.

State statute requires that school districts pay substitutes a minimum of $30 per day for their service, which could include six to seven hours of classroom time, plus preparation before and after classes. Substitutes, and teachers in general, are exempt from federal minimum wage and overtime protections. Few, if any, districts in Maine pay that little, recognizing such meager pay wouldn’t be likely to get anyone through the doors.

The bulk of districts appear to offer substitutes between $60 and $120 for a day’s work, according to listings on www.servingschools.com. Many will pay a little extra to a sub who has a college degree or past teaching experience.

Bangor’s public schools pay $87 per day, or $117 if they’re substituting for more than 10 consecutive days, according to Superintendent Betsy Webb.

She said Bangor is “fortunate” to have a strong crop of subs to draw from. Webb, who also serves as president of the Maine School Superintendents Association executive committee, hears a lot from other superintendents, especially in rural areas, who are struggling to find help.

In populated areas like Bangor and Portland or college towns like Orono or Waterville, there is typically a more manageable pool of professionals, students or retired educators willing to fill in.

Good economy shrinks sub pool

Why are so many districts across the state struggling to find qualified classroom fill-ins?

Perhaps the most oft-cited reason for the shortage is the fact that Maine’s labor market has been improving. In the wake of the 2008 recession, employers started laying off workers, leaving many people looking for something to fall back on to earn extra cash.

Some turned to filling in as substitute teachers in nearby school districts. At the height of the labor crisis in 2009, Maine was staring down an 8.3 percent unemployment rate. That recovered gradually, and as people got back to full-time work they had less time to devote to subbing, leaving holes in some districts. Maine’s unemployment rate has fallen to 3.3 percent as of November 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

More is expected of substitutes than in the past. In many schools, having a substitute wheel in a television on a cart to watch a documentary while keeping the peace in the classroom is no longer considered an adequate use of class time. Instead, they’re expected to keep the flow of learning going until the permanent teacher’s return. In some instances, teachers are asked to fill the substitute and, if possible, recommend a lesson plan for the duration of their absence.

Other potential subs might not be able to cover the cost of keeping their background checks up to date and end up ineligible, Pratt said. Some districts have started offering to cover those costs for prospective subs, despite their own tight school budgets.

While the shared struggle of the shortage is widely discussed, superintendents don’t appear to have a good handle on how to attract more subs. Several superintendents said that bumps in pay haven’t helped significantly, and even districts that offer more than $100 per day are struggling to attract subs.

One emerging strategy has been to partner with surrounding districts to build a larger pool of prospective subs, who might offer their time at one of several surrounding districts. Dolloff said Yarmouth’s schools are working with nearby Falmouth and Cumberland schools to cobble together a larger list of willing subs, from which each of the partnering districts can draw. That concept was borrowed from a similar partnership among schools in Gorham, Scarborough, South Portland and Westbrook, he said.

Jim Boothby, superintendent of Bucksport-based RSU 25, said he hasn’t seen an easy fix for the shortage. The best strategy he has is to build relationships with more people in the community, stay-at-home teachers, and people with some background in education.

“We’re always challenged because we’re always looking for good subs,” Boothby said. “[Substitute teaching] is an art, you’ve got to be able to build relationships quickly and continue that learning without having the same background in the classroom.”

The district pays substitute teachers $85, or $95 if they’re a retired educator.

“If I’m paying people $50 a day to sub in the classroom, they may as well be working in a low-wage food service job,” Boothby said. “I want them to feel valued. They’re responsible for the welfare of a lot of children.”

Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.

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