Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Substitute teachers are the new endangered species

Those perfect spring Fridays - cerulean skies, temperatures in the 70s - are exactly the kind of days that Dan Nerelli has come to dread.

Shannon McGurk, a substitute teacher in the Downingtown Area School District, stands in front of Downingtown East High School.
Shannon McGurk, a substitute teacher in the Downingtown Area School District, stands in front of Downingtown East High School.Read moreDAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer

Those perfect spring Fridays - cerulean skies, temperatures in the 70s - are exactly the kind of days that Dan Nerelli has come to dread.

That's because Nerelli, assistant superintendent for personnel in the Upper Darby School District, knows he'll be scrambling to put substitutes in dozens of teacher-less classrooms. The Delaware County district's ability to cover faculty absences has plunged from 95 percent just a few years ago to roughly 60 percent.

Philadelphia-area school administrators such as Nerelli now struggle to find ways to cope with a shortage of substitutes unlike anything they have ever faced. They congregate multiple classes in the gym and put one teacher in charge. They pay regular faculty to give up prep time. They take over classrooms themselves.

Earlier this month, the Delaware County Intermediate Unit announced a new two-day program to train "guest teachers" for the sub-starved districts it serves. It is open to anyone with a bachelor's degree, in any subject.

Harrisburg has put a more radical idea on the chalkboard. A bill crafted by State Sen. Lloyd Smucker (R., Lancaster), chairman of the Senate Education Committee, would allow upper-class college students majoring in education to take over classrooms as paid substitutes.

School officials say Pennsylvania classrooms are one place where the freelance "gig economy" isn't thriving.

Last month, the Philadelphia School District dropped the firm that provides substitutes, Cherry Hill-based Source4Teachers, after it was unable to fill classroom vacancies as much as half of the time. A new company, Kelly Services, has promised to pay subs a higher daily rate. The temporary teachers typically make about $100.

The dearth of subs parallels a dramatic decrease in newly minted certified teachers in Pennsylvania, from 16,361 in 2012-13 to just 6,215 in 2014-15. State and school officials blame fear of layoffs, threats to retirement benefits, the increased stress of the standardized-testing regime, and poor discipline. In the past, more certified teachers has meant a larger pool of substitutes.

Compounding the crisis is the increase in training days that take teachers out of their classrooms.

Also, the day rates offered to substitutes by cash-strapped districts aren't sufficient to keep a reliable supply of workers.

"It's changing times," Jim Scanlon, superintendent of the West Chester Area School District, said of substitute work. "There's a lot more stress in the job than 20 years ago - mandates and demands, bomb drills, active-shooter drills."

Marcia Reilly, 53, of Glenolden, raised four children before getting an education degree in 2010. Unable to land a full-time teaching job, she works regularly as a sub, most recently in Upper Darby. She said she enjoys the classroom, but the pay, typically $90 to $120 a day, is frustrating.

"I went through the same education [as] everybody else," Reilly said. "You kind of expect to be paid what you're worth."

Some young grads see substituting as a foot in the door to a teaching career. Shannon McGurk, 22, of Berwyn, has yet to find a job teaching high school social studies, so she subbed at her alma mater, Downingtown High School East, for much of the last year. Kids occasionally "try to push your buttons," McGurk said, but "most of the experiences I've had will help me become a better teacher."

The challenge for administrators and private contractors is finding more people like McGurk.

Pennsylvania's current requirement that substitutes have bachelor's degrees is stricter than most states. New Jersey, which has not reported sub shortages, demands only 60 credits. Virginia requires just a high school diploma.

The Pennsylvania bill allowing college students with 60 credit-hours to sub raises red flags for George Drake, dean of the college of education and human services at Millersville University.

"I understand we have a need to have warm bodies in front of the children," he said, "but I do have concerns whether these folks would be prepared."

Guest-teacher programs, such as the one at the Delaware County IU, offer a smattering of instruction on lesson plans, classroom management, behavioral techniques, child development and psychology, plus a half-day in a classroom.

Jay Goodwin, president of Substitute Teacher Service, which provides online guest-teacher training, said much of the sub shortage comes down to money. He said he had walked away from districts that want to pay as little as $75 or $85 a day. While districts prefer retired certified teachers over "guest teachers," Goodwin said, "you can't take people's pay rates and give them less than what they were making yesterday and expect them to come back and be happy with you."

The Rose Tree Media School District pays the lowest daily rate in Delaware County - $75 - and struggles to fill classrooms when teachers call out.

Tom Haupert, human resources director, said the district was looking at a pay increase. But "you get into a bidding war," he said. "You raise it 10 bucks, the next district raises it 10 bucks more, and before you know it, you're at $200 a day."

For the time being, many administrators say their strategy is improvisation. Some common tactics: paying a staff teacher to give up prep time to take over a class, or installing one or two full-time subs in each building.

"There are days where it's so bad," said Downingtown Middle School principal Nick Indeglio, "we have to put multiple classes in the gym and send somebody down to cover it, because there are not enough bodies."