It’s time to get serious about professional development and support for substitute teachers

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Guest Post by Erin Ruegg and Amanda von Moos, Substantial Classrooms

Keeping the learning going this year has required school and district leaders to solve a moving puzzle each day, often by filling in for teachers themselves. For many, this experience created a new sense of urgency—and responsibility—to better prepare and support substitute teachers.

By the time most students graduate from high school, they will have spent a whole year of their K-12 experience with substitute teachers. Looking forward, it's likely that we will rely even more heavily on substitute teachers than we have before, particularly in long-term assignments. And while wages have been increasing to attract more people, substitute teacher preparation and support have remained stagnant and underdeveloped.

Today, if you sign-up to be a substitute teacher in the vast majority of systems, you receive no training in how to do the job. As highlighted by a recent white paper from EdWeek, only 11% of school districts offer subs professional development (PD) in classroom management, their core job function. Without formal preparation and ongoing support, substitute teachers may struggle to be effective or to find meaning in the work. It's time to get serious about professional development and support for substitute teachers.

What do subs need to know?

Although there isn't much formal research about what makes a substitute teacher effective, as an education community, we know a lot about what substitute teachers are asked to do and the qualities that great subs share. At Substantial, we've created a simple competency framework for substitute teachers. It synthesizes what we have learned from analyzing sub plans and interviewing hundreds of subs, administrators, teachers, and parents.

Based on our research, there are three main areas where subs need to build their knowledge:

  1. Managing classroom culture and routines: Substitute teachers need to quickly acclimate to an established classroom community, manage a large group, and build rapport with new students. They also need concrete strategies for when things get challenging and how to keep themselves calm and centered. This area is tricky because best practices in traditional classroom management focus on longer-term routines and relationships.

  2. Facilitating instruction: An essential component of a well-managed classroom is leading engaging instruction. That's why substitute teachers need to know how to implement a lesson plan, use common instructional strategies, and enhance a lesson to increase student engagement. And when there is no plan, subs need to know how to facilitate engaging and purposeful learning tasks.

  3. Their role in a school community: Subs need to understand the school landscape and how they fit into it. They need language and tools for communicating and collaborating with other school staff and asking for support. Like all educators, they also need to know how to be inclusive of diverse learners.

How do you create meaningful PD experiences for subs?

After understanding what subs need to know, it's equally important to consider how adults learn and how educators build their practice. Luckily, there is extensive research into effective PD practices for teachers. Mirroring this research, in our experience, effective PD for substitute teachers is active, collaborative, and responsive to their everyday work with students.

Here are a few key strategies:

  1. Active learning cycles: Like all adults, subs learn well with ongoing opportunities to apply and build on their learning. That means one-and-done pre-service training isn't enough. PD leaders can facilitate active learning cycles by offering a framework that pairs instruction on teaching methods with goal-setting and discussions of real-life subbing scenarios.

  2. Collaborative community of learners: Subs often express feeling professionally lonely and isolated. While the role of a substitute teacher has similarities to other educators, it's especially important for them to have opportunities to learn and grow professionally alongside other subs. In a learning group with their peers, subs can discuss and analyze the specific skills, knowledge, and characteristics needed to succeed in their work.

  3. Modeling, feedback, and reflection: Subs need to see models of good work and be able to identify their own growth and accomplishments. Good PD incorporates opportunities for feedback, protocols for self-reflection, and examples of good instruction through observations, videos, and self-paced courses.

The pandemic has brought to light the profound impact substitute teaching plays in student learning and school communities. Meaningful PD is critical to improving the quality of teaching and learning, no matter who is leading the instruction. It's also essential for competing in today's labor market—both to attract and to retain substitute teachers.

It's time to show our substitute teachers that we value them—and the time they spend with our students—by preparing them for the job and actively supporting them throughout their tenure. If we want substitute teachers to show up for our schools, we've got to do more to show up for them.

Erin Ruegg leads SubSchool for Substantial Classrooms, which partners with districts to provide ongoing PD for substitute teachers that targets the competencies and strategies outlined above. As a leader in school and curriculum development for over 20 years, Erin works to build the instructional capacity of educators to improve the learning experiences of all students in diverse ethnic, social, and economic settings across the United States and Latin America.

Amanda von Moos is the co-founder of Substantial Classrooms, a national nonprofit on a mission to unlock the potential of substitute teaching, and co-author of the book Substantial Classrooms: Redesigning the Substitute Teaching Experience. A social entrepreneur obsessed with making central office systems work better for schools, Amanda has worked in and with school districts for almost two decades.