Where Have the Substitutes Gone?

Teacher Abuse of Sick Leave a ‘False Perception,’ Not the Cause of Shortage, Says NSEA

Another NSEA survey, and another hot-button issue uncovered.

In early September, NSEA sent an email survey to all active pre-K-12 teachers, asking for thoughts on the substitute teacher shortage in Nebraska. Within the first 12 hours, more than 3,500 members had responded.

The survey was conducted in response to an interim hearing on the substitute teacher shortage conducted by the Legislature’s Education Committee, led by North Platte Sen. Mike Groene.

The intent of the committee’s study was broad, but also pointedly targeted negotiated contracts between school districts and teachers.

As introduced before the Legislature, the study would look at “when and why substitute teachers are used, the use of substitute teachers due to sabbaticals or professional development activities and conference attendance by certificated teachers, how frequently substitute teachers are used for various purposes, the fiscal impact of using substitute teachers, and the relationship between collective bargaining agreements and the use of substitute teachers.

John Heineman, a retired teacher who substitutes, told senators the pool of retired teachers available to substitute changes each year. He said unsuccessful attempts were made during the 2017 session of the Legislature to limit the ability of teachers to substitute immediately following their retirement.

“If that pool is not replenished yearly by newly-retired teachers, the number of substitutes available to the school district starts shrinking due to both physical and mental requirements of the job,” he said.

“Policies made by the Legislature should help support and fill – not drain – this pool of retired teachers,” said Heineman, who was Nebraska’s Teacher of the Year in 2000.

Figures offered by Deputy Commissioner of Education Brian Halstead seemed to bear out the fact that the pool of substitutes is shrinking.

Halstead said his department’s research shows that while the number of substitute teachers available each year is shrinking, the number of days worked by substitutes each year is increasing.

In the 2012-13 school year, there were 9,715 substitutes available statewide, according to NDOE research. Last year, that number had fallen to 9,207.

‘False Perception’

NSEA Executive Director Maddie Fennell told senators that the substitute shortage is a border-to-border concern. She defended the use of substitutes by school districts.

“There is a false perception among some who believe teachers over-utilize sick leave days, causing a shortage of substitute teachers in Nebraska,” she said. “I can assure you that this is not the case.”

Teachers are parents, they have family responsibilities, and they sometimes must stay at home to care for their children. When that happens, they must prepare for a substitute, and then make up unfulfilled work upon their return.

“Teachers work in an environment that requires the utmost responsibility and consistency. The goal is to be gone from the classroom as rarely as possible while school is in session,” she said.

The survey also indicated that many active teacher absences can be tied to school related activities and required professional development programming.

Fennell said the survey showed:

  • Personal illness was most often cited for as the reason for a teacher’s absence from the classroom. Thirty-six percent of respondents selected illness as the top reason for absence. Family illness or emergency was second, with nearly 25 percent of respondents selecting that as the top reason for absence. Third was school-related activities (14 percent) and fourth was professional development (9 percent).
  • Thirty-six percent of respondents used between three and six days of leave requiring a substitute during 2016-17.
  • More than 91 percent of members work to avoid the use of a substitute. Fifty-five percent said there is too much work involved to prepare for a substitute. Nearly 24 percent said they were concerned students would fall behind under a sub.

Ease the Service Break

Heineman suggested that the shortage might be eased if the Legislature would shorten the 180-day break in service a retired teacher must now take before they can return to teaching. The service break for state patrol, county and state employees is 120 days.

Heineman suggested that a matching 120-day break might be appropriate.

In his Sept. 21 newspaper column to constituents, Groene reported that a majority of superintendents responding to a survey from his office recommended allowing retired teachers to substitute immediately upon retirement.

Fennell said the committee should focus on ways to encourage certificated teachers to be willing to substitute.

“We are fortunate in this state that we have one of the best teaching corps in the nation,” said Fennell. “We want to keep it that way, and we believe parents and patrons also want to keep it that way. It’s the right thing to do for our kids, for our economy and for the teaching profession.”