Pay, prep key in Mich.’s push for substitute teachers

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Correction: This story has been updated to clarify Birmingham Public Schools' requirements for long-term sub assignments. 

On any given school day, some of the 600 teachers on staff at Grosse Pointe Public Schools are bound to be absent. And finding their replacements can be daunting amid a substitute teacher shortage impacting Michigan districts, education officials say.

“We are always scrambling for substitutes,” said Jon Dean, deputy superintendent for education services in the district. “Subs are needed for a variety of reasons. Every day, somebody is sick or has a sick child or has to go to a funeral, just like any other person.”

Long-term substitute Samantha DeSandre of Eastpointe reads to kindergarteners at Mason Elementary School.

In an effort to attract a larger pool of substitute teachers and get them into Michigan classrooms earlier in their educational careers, Michigan lawmakers have proposed loosening the requirements they need to meet.

The Michigan House last month approved a bill that would lower college credit requirements for a substitute teacher from at least 90 credits to a new standard of 60 credits or an associate’s degree. The bill, which comes amid a statewide substitute teacher shortage, moves to the Senate for consideration this year.

Substitute teacher shortages are a problem across the state. Fill rates — the percentages of substitute teaching positions that are actually filled — have dropped. For every 100 classrooms that needed a sub in 2015 — the most recent figure available — only 85 could find one, according to a legislative analysis. In 2012, the rate was 95.

Education officials say the shortage is caused by a perfect storm: a longtime decline in enrollment in teacher preparation programs, low pay for substitute teachers and a state law making it difficult for retirees to re-enter classrooms.

When subs cannot be found, most districts resort to pulling principals out of offices and taking away preparation periods of other teachers, education officials said.

State Rep. Jim Tedder, R-Clarkston, a former teacher, introduced the bill after hearing from local superintendents about the shortage and its impact on classrooms. Tedder recalled while working as a school administrator in Oakland County there were numerous times he had to fill in as a sub.

Samantha DeSandre and Leighton Bishop, left, make funny faces as part of their Mason Elementary School lessons.

Lowering the credit requirements could potentially add thousands of candidates to the ranks of substitute teachers, he said. The bill proposes allowing community college credits and would not require all the credits to be from the same school. Under current law, the credits for substitute teachers must be from a college or university.

“When you look at 60 credit hours — that’s two years of college — some people don’t know what they are going to do and are at a turning point,” Tedder said. “This is an opportunity to address the shortage and provide an opportunity for college students to go in with 60 credits under their belt and give it a look.”

Still, local districts would continue to control their standards for hiring subs, Tedder said, and could still require the 90 credits.

“This provides more flexibility to our school districts,” Tedder said.

Districts are mixed in their reaction to the bill, with some saying they would consider candidates with 60 credits and others would not.

Dean T. Niforos, assistant superintendent for human resources at Birmingham Public Schools, said the district would consider applicants under the lower threshold if the bill is approved but only for short-term subbing. Any long-term assignments of 90 days or more would still require a sub with a teaching certificate, he said.

“There is a significant sub shortage across the state. I’m sure most districts are going to be open to accepting subs with that new requirement,” Niforos said. “We will look at people on a case-by-case basis.”

Birmingham had previously required all of its subs to be certified teachers — which is not a state current requirement — but changed that policy three years ago when finding those candidates became difficult, he said.

“As the shortage became more and more evident and less people were out there with teacher certificates looking to sub, we went with the 90 credits,” he said.

Critics of the bill argue lowering qualifications is not the answer to the state’s sub shortage. They blame low pay — subs in Michigan make between $85-$100 a day — and the fact that teacher prep programs are down 40 percent in Michigan from 2011 to 2015, according to federal education data.

Christian Murphy, left, 5, listens with other Grosse Pointe Woods students as his substitute teacher reads.

Samantha DeSandre became a substitute teacher in the Grosse Pointe system last fall and will work an entire school year as a kindergarten teacher at Stevens T. Mason Elementary School.

DeSandre, 24, said once she got into a school, she learned a lot in a different light.

“I would have loved to have started subbing early,” she said. “For all the prep that MSU gave me, getting a hands-on experience helped me hone those skills. Every day at Mason, I have learned something new.”

According to education officials who testified in committee on the bill, substitute teachers were traditionally college graduates with teaching degrees looking for permanent jobs, Tedder said. Today, the average substitute teacher is a 43-year-old working mother returning to the workforce.

Dean, with Grosse Pointe Public Schools, says paying subs more — his district pays $85 a day on average — and allowing retirees to return to the classroom would be a better solution to increasing the pool of candidates. The district does not have an official position on the bill, he said.

“I would say I don’t believe the sub shortage is being caused by credit requirements,” Dean said. “You want to get more subs. We need to better deal with retirees, and if the state wanted to fully fund education, we would be in better shape.”

Retired teachers were allowed in 2016 to return to the classroom to teach subjects with a “critical shortage” of qualified teachers including substitutes in all subjects, without jeopardizing their retirement benefits or health care. That legislation sunsets July 1.

Grand Rapids-based EDUStaff Inc., which provides substitute teaching services in five states including Michigan, has more than 35,000 active employees working in various educational positions around the state.

EDUStaff president Clark Galloway said on any given day, 18,000 to 20,000 EDUStaff workers are in a public school or community college in Michigan.

“On average, day to day, a sub is needed in one of 10 classrooms in any given time,” Galloway said. “That’s 17 days a year in any given classroom. Almost an entire year of a student’s education would be done with a substitute.”

Galloway’s organization supports the bill to address the critical substitute teacher shortage and believes it would increase the pool 10 percent. Outside Michigan, the national average for credit requirement for a substitute teacher is 60 credits, Galloway said.

“We have found 60 credit hours is a natural break for people to get an associate’s degree. We don’t see any difference between 60 credit hours and 90-credit hour people. It’s whether they are good for the classroom. It’s still up to each district what they will allow,” he said.

The Michigan Education Association did not take a position on the bill because it does not represent substitute teachers. Spokesman Doug Pratt said a better solution to the shortage of substitutes would be to provide funding to increase their pay instead of lowering standards.

“It’s a tough job for the money, and we want to ensure the best quality substitute teachers are staffing our classrooms,” Pratt said. “However, the shortage of substitutes has negatively impacted full-time teachers, who have been called upon to give up their very limited preparation time to fill in for sick colleagues over the past several years. So, increasing the numbers of available substitutes will be welcome relief for them.”

Lynne Swayne, a long-term substitute teacher in the Clarkston School District, said she does have concerns about the bill because of its lower credit requirement.

Swayne, who has a bachelor’s degree in secondary education but no state certificate, said as a long-term sub, she is doing everything a permanent, certified teacher does in the classroom. She has five classes a day with 150 students and must prepare lesson plans, facilitate school conferences, and practice and master classroom management.

“We are in a crisis. That is not up for debate,” Swayne said of the shortage. “My concern is lowering this to an associate’s degree. If they aren’t taking classes of study and haven’t done volunteer hours in the classroom, you just don’t get the respect. You will have problematic students who take advantage of that. They know you will be gone in a day.”

The answer to the sub shortage, Swayne said, is to pay subs what they are worth. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, 22,530 substitute teachers were employed in Michigan in May 2016, making an average of $25,920 a year or $12.46 an hour.

“No one wants to sub when you can work at fast food and be paid more. I do it because I have the heart for it, and I love it,” she said.