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Substitute teachers are in short supply, but many schools still don't pay them a living wage

Addressing the national teacher shortage
Addressing the national teacher shortage 05:33

A severe substitute teacher shortage in the Florida school district where Barbara Clyatt works means when the first grade teacher submits for time off, there's not always someone who can cover. Students can get split up and placed in other classes — which can be disruptive to their education. 

"There's some kids who thrive on a set schedule, it needs to be the same every single day. And when that gets thrown away, the last thing they're doing is paying attention to what you're teaching," said Clyatt.

Substitute teacher shortages, like the broader shortage of teachers, are happening in school districts around the country — and are directly connected.

"The substitute crisis, I believe, has reached crisis proportions, because there's greater demand than supply," said Lisa Thomas, a substitute teacher in Connecticut and chair of the Coventry Town Council. "The demand is high because we don't have the teachers we need."

Budget crunches help drive shortages

Convincing people to pay higher taxes in order to fund local schools is often an uphill battle that can result in school districts trying to stretch a budget that doesn't fulfill the needs of their students. 

Thomas says in one town where she teaches, it took four referendums to pass a school board budget. By the time a deal had enough support to pass, funding was cut for over 20 full-time staff positions.

"There's your substitute crisis — those positions have to be covered," said Thomas. 

According to the Education Data Initiative, public education budgets grow at a rate 13.5% slower than the country's GDP growth.

"Your school district obviously has to watch their bottom line," says Heather Clark, the School Board Chair for Epping, New Hampshire. "You've increased their pay 40-50% once you throw on benefits and sick time and earning vacation and all of that sort of stuff."

Clark says her smaller district is unable to pay substitute teachers what larger nearby districts are able to afford. That leaves them to recruit from within.

"We're pulling stay-at-home moms," says Clark. "Would you babysit 30 people for 100 bucks for eight hours? Yeah, no, not in a million years. But you know, it is what it is. I don't think we're ever gonna get to pay them what they're worth."

The reluctance to pay subs living wages was reiterated by other administrators who spoke with CBS News.

"You decide whether or not you want the job. Nobody forces you or twists your arm. You make the decision as to whether or not you want to be an educator or not," says Aneeka Ferrell, a recruitment coordinator for Renton School District in Washington state and lead for the Washington Education Association's "Emergency Substitute Teacher Support Project". 

Low wages for many substitute teachers

When school districts rely on subs to fill vacancies for full-time teachers who are on parental leave or quit after the school year started, it means some subs are getting paid a fraction of what a full-time teacher makes to do the same job. 

"They are trying to save money," says Doris Zughoul. "As a result, they're exploiting the guest teachers, and using low-wage earners to cover the gaps in the school system."

Zughoul has substitute taught in Chicago since she was laid off as a school librarian in 2018. She's also a guest teacher delegate for her local teachers union. If a guest teacher worked every school day at the baseline pay in Chicago Public Schools, they'd make an annual salary of just $20,880. Those low rates have caused some to reconsider the career, forgoing their years of experience as an educator, to apply for retail and service-industry jobs that pay more.

"I can name at least five or 10 people who are guest teachers who have gone out and applied for positions at McDonald's and at Starbucks, at all these other places that pay more. And they don't hire them," said Zughoul. "You look at your experience, and you say, 'Okay, what am I qualified to do outside of education?'"

While substitutes are often assumed to lack qualifications, Zughoul says many full-time substitutes have teaching certifications and educational degrees.

"Many of us actually do this as a full-time job. So it always bothers us when other people call us, just subs," said Zughoul. "They don't look at us as professionals who have licenses and educational degrees and all of that, which most of us do."

Ferrell said substitute teaching can be a sustainable career but shouldn't be relied on as a primary income.

"Maybe their significant other — their partner, their wife or husband — they have a position that allows for this other half to be able to substitute and do what fulfills them," said Ferrell.

Others plan to continue to work past the U.S. retirement age. 

"Personally, I'm scared of retiring. I don't know what I'm gonna do. I really don't," said Karen Yooung, a substitute teacher in Clovis, New Mexico, who is 58. "There's a lot of uncertainty, to be honest with you."

Zughoul said another driver of the sub shortage is the lack of support and access to some of the most basic resources. Her union has asked the district for parking spots so that substitutes don't have to park on the street and keys for the classroom they're teaching in.

"They don't trust us to give us a key to the restroom," said Zughoul. "If we had some kind of incident that happened at school, we can't even lock our classroom door."

Substitutes often fill in for sick teachers — but don't always know it

Substitutes also don't typically get health benefits or sick days, a big deterrent to people who might otherwise consider taking a substitute teaching role.

"One thing COVID taught us is that all workers should have sick leaves, and we believe we should be entitled to them as well," Zughoul said.

And, she said, subs don't necessarily know if they're filling in for a teacher who's out with COVID. 

"Some of the guest teachers get COVID as a result from this teacher who's out sick, or from the students in the classroom who maybe have it," said Zughoul. "We are putting ourselves into a situation of risk. And the schools know that we're in that situation, but they don't do anything to make it better."

Chicago Public Schools told CBS News that they don't alert guest teachers if they're filling in for a teacher who is out sick with COVID, in accordance with the school district's health status confidentiality policy.

Many substitutes are forced to prioritize saving money over taking care of their health.

Yooung doesn't have health insurance. She says it's not worth the cost with her $140-per-day salary. 

"That keeps us just just right above poverty-level," said Yooung. "It's good extra money if you have other income coming into your house. But if you're a single-income household like I am, it doesn't afford for much of anything."

And while it doesn't pay much, substitute teaching gives Yooung flexibility to spend time with family, and provides a job opportunity near her daughter and granddaughter.

"I placed the value of family time over money," said Yooung. "I would rather be poor and be able to spend time with my family than the rich and not know my child or my grandchild at all."

Still, Yooung is hyper-aware of what everything costs. "I think if things got really bad for me, I would go talk to the lunch ladies, and they would probably start providing me lunch, because they just know what it's like themselves to do without."

One possible solution: The professional substitute

Jim Stewart Allen, who teaches in Renton, Washington sees professionalizing substitute teaching as a way to alleviate many of these issues. Allen has spent nearly a decade substitute teaching. This fall, he signed a contract to be a full-time substitute, or a "roving teacher." The position gained popularity in some districts as a way to ensure school staffing during the 2020/21 school year amid pandemic-driven teacher shortages. 

Roving teachers commit to one district for the full school year, which typically assign them to their classroom early in the morning before the school day begins. In exchange, roving teachers receive benefits, a higher salary and professional evaluations. Allen's annual income is nearly double what he made as a substitute teacher.

"I'm just so much happier. I'm so happy having a contract, it means a lot," said Allen. "I'm a teacher. I deserve to be paid what a teacher makes."

He said the professional validation provided by the full-time role makes it more-than worth the two hours it adds to his commute, compared to working at a closer school.

Allen thinks professionalizing substitute teaching and making it a career that's financially sustainable is the best option for schools facing a sub shortage.

"There's a niche out there for full-time professional substitute teachers," said Allen. "It's kind of like how a fourth grade teacher is different from a PE teacher or a lab teacher. It's just a different skill set."

In the meantime, districts already stretched by staffing shortages will continue to juggle.

"It's hard to find good subs," said Clyatt. "If you find one, send them my way. We could really use them."

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