During a year in which the Portland Association of Teachers reported half of all surveyed educators are considering early retirement, a leave of absence, or leaving teaching altogether, substitute teachers play an increasingly important role in the future of Portland’s schools. Substitute teachers are vital in pandemic schooling: when educators, or their children, for that matter, get sick or need to quarantine, there needs to be someone ready to step in.
This October, the Oregon Teacher Standards and Practices Commission allowed candidates without bachelor’s degrees to be sponsored by school districts for an Emergency Substitute Teaching License in an attempt to partially alleviate the shortage of substitute educators. While Portland Public Schools (PPS) expects to see some of these substitutes entering the pool this January, teachers in the classroom have been left in limbo, feeling like they may not be able to rely on a qualified substitute teacher to fill in when they need a day off.
David Marsh is a history teacher at Franklin High School in SE Portland. Earlier this year, he had a substitute cancel the day before they were scheduled, which ended up leaving other teachers at his school to cover his classes. In past years, Marsh says, he’s “always chosen to just come to work even with a cold,” but with the pandemic, “I have really changed my outlook on this ‘tough it out’ sort of approach to teaching,” though this is complicated by the shortage of substitute teachers. Finding time for appointments can be especially challenging as a teacher, he notes; “The problem with the rest of the working world is that it works effectively the same hours that teachers do, but teachers can’t really just leave in the middle of the day for a quick appointment.” He thinks that one change that would help teachers right now would be some sort of additional flexibility in the school schedule that would allow teachers to make appointments without needing a substitute.
The shortage also affects substitute teachers. Sandra “Sunny” Childs is a retired educator who currently works as a substitute teacher, primarily at Franklin High School where she used to work as a teacher and librarian. Childs got into substitute teaching as a way to stay connected with the Franklin community after retiring. With the shortage of teachers overall, her choice to remain a substitute is a conscious one. The flexible hours and ability to take time off allow her to care for her stepmother who lives in Los Angeles, something she says, “I could never have done if I was working my [old] job.” The level of investment teachers have in their jobs can make it hard to detach, she adds, and substitute teaching has allowed her to achieve a better work-life balance.
Childs also believes that even though temporarily lowering licensing requirements will draw in candidates in the immediate future, it does little to make substitute teaching a lucrative position for people who have experience in the classroom. Childs is paid by the day, so any classes she picks up during prep periods or time she spends after school goes unpaid. “Sometimes I’m the last one out because I’m writing sub notes,” she says. The stress that regular classroom teachers feel spills over to substitutes as well. “When you’ve got kids who don’t have the stamina [for a full day of in-person learning], and they’re masked, and you’ve got teachers who are tired, it makes it a harder day for the sub,” Childs notes.
PPS is also seeing a shortage of paraeducators, another important aspect of supporting both students and teachers. In a statement from the district, Sharon Reese, Chief Human Resources Officer states, “What we hear from our teachers is that these vacancies are substantially more impactful on a daily basis, which is why we’ve introduced recruitment and retention bonuses for these positions (as well as recruitment bonuses for Special Education Teachers and other hard to fill positions), which have led to an increase in paraeducator applications.” While these applications are processed, the district has “[Teachers on Special Assignment], coaches and [Board Certified Behavior Analysts]—who typically support students across the district—assigned to classrooms, and central office staff are spending time in schools trying to fill gaps such as lunch times or recess monitoring.” Additionally, PPS is working to implement a uniform process for parents to volunteer in schools to support teachers, one strategy requested by the teacher’s union.
As district and state level officials work to address the substitute teacher shortage, PPS and the teacher’s union continue to negotiate a new school schedule to allow educators more planning time and ease stress levels. Stressors from the pandemic have been and will continue to place new demands on the educational system, and it’s up to Portland to meet the challenge.