With Record-High Teacher Vacancies, Schools Are Asking Parents to Sub

rear view of teacher looking at students in school corridor
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When Christine Webber heard that her children’s school was facing a substitute teacher shortage, she decided to sign up. With two girls in school full-time, the Albany, NY mom thought it might be a good fit. The pay was low, but there were other factors that made the role appealing to her. “I’m here all the time anyways,” she laughs. “I might as well get paid for it.” As a PTO mom who is on multiple committees, she already knows the school intimately.

Webber is one of many parents across the country stepping up to fill in amid teacher shortages, which are growing. At the start of the 22-23 school year, 45% of America’s schools were operating with vacancies. According to Chalkbeat, teacher turnover rates are the highest they’ve been in the last five years — about 2% higher nationwide. This means in a school with 100 teachers, two more quit than in a typical school year pre-pandemic.

This mass exodus from the teaching profession also means that each day, about 20 percent of substitute teacher openings remain vacant. There are perks to subbing, Webber says, like working a similar schedule to her kids — but filling in at her own kids’ school can be laden with guilt. “I had to make the tough choice one day to take a sub job when my child wanted me to be at the book fair when she went,” she adds. “I felt bad that they either needed to find someone else for coverage or my daughter would be disappointed…” She chose the book fair, but the tension between school needs and her own kids’ needs weighs heavily on her. She’s not alone. The current teacher shortage is yet another gap in American society being filled by moms.

There aren’t enough teachers in America.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics warns about the dangers of these vacancies. "Unfilled teacher absences can cripple student achievement," it said in a January 2023 paper. "Schools struggle to fill these teacher absences by moving students to other classes, pulling in other school personnel to cover for the absent teacher, or moving students to the gym, cafeteria, or library, with little to no supervision.”

According to Shawna Wells, the Senior Vice President of the Pahara Institute, an educational advocacy group, the number of teachers leaving the profession is rooted in a broken system. “The way the general public talks about teaching and teachers is disparaging," she says. "Imagine hearing people tell you that your profession is invaluable, that you don’t deserve time off, and that as a whole you don’t know what you’re doing. If you add that to teachers receiving salaries and benefits that don’t match the hours they work, you have an environment that is consistently soul-sucking.”

She adds, “Our educational system was not built for ease and it was not built for every student to thrive. Most teachers are working day and night to make the best of the system that is in need of great repair.” Now, schools aren’t just waiting for more subs to become available, they’re actively asking parents to get trained, step into that broken system and even function within it. “Asking parents to sub isn’t good or bad,” Wells says. “Asking parents to sub requires intention and attention. It requires us to get specific about what we want and need parents to do when they sub and accept the responsibility of serving in our schools.”

That’s a big ask from parents who are already spread too thin on the heels of a global crisis, though. In Washington D.C. public schools, parents are asked to substitute weekly in newsletters distributed to families at some schools. “It floors me that parents, especially mothers, are expected to step up to fill this gap and to do so for very little pay,” says Carmella Sanchez, a lawyer and a mom of four. She notes it doesn’t make sense to train as a substitute, take a vacation day, and make less than minimum wage. “Every time I see the announcement I feel a tug of guilt,” she says. “I really love my son's school and want to help. Sometimes I think it would be really fun to get more involved in that way and see how things work behind the curtain.” Despite the draw, she ultimately decided not to substitute.

Other mothers echo Gonzales’ sentiment. One mother of six in Pittsburgh says she loves subbing at her kids' school, but it is also extremely difficult. “For over seven hours of work, after taxes, it's about $70 per day,” she says. “This is for seven hours of keeping about 20 students safe, secure and on task. You’re teaching lessons you aren't able to prepare for, and putting up with behaviors that can be tough because you are ‘just a sub’ to the students and not their ‘real’ teacher. Some days it can get the best of you, and it doesn't feel worth it.” Her husband has told her to turn down jobs, but it’s difficult for her. “It's mom guilt to the next level because all the students start to become my kids too. Having kids there and knowing what happens when there’s a shortage makes it worse.”

In a rural area outside of Raleigh, Katrina Lauren says she’s considered driving a bus since she can’t take full days off work to substitute — though the need for both roles is great in their district. With a high immigrant population, many parents are juggling working with navigating life in a new country. Substitute teaching for less than they can make at any fast food restaurant is not a viable option. And other families are just tapped out. PTO, scout leaders, soccer coaches — they’re already doing what they are able to while working full-time themselves. “I think a lot of our culture in the past was based on the idea that there was a mom at home, and many things in our world haven't caught up with the fact that both parents are working yet,” Lauren says. She’s so frustrated by this that she’s considering running for the school board to advocate for higher pay and teacher retention. She realizes that’s adding one more thing to her plate, but says she’s not sure how else to push for systemic change.

Asking too much and adding to burnout

Dr. Whitney Casares, a pediatrician who founded a support platform for working mothers, the Modern Mamas Club, is deeply concerned about the guilt these mothers are feeling. And of course, she says, it is largely mothers who are signing up to substitute. “When moms take time away from their professional endeavors time and time again to fill the gaps in society, it puts them at an even further disadvantage to their male peers,” she says. “This request for parents to substitute teach at school is no different. Do you think many dads will come running for assistance? Not likely.”

Casares worries about burnout, which is already an issue for moms. “Burnout can occur for a variety of reasons but, for moms, it often happens because there are so many tasks they take on that they really don’t want to carry,” Casares says. “That constant piling on leads to a quiet resentment, and sometimes even to depression or anxiety. When we ask the moms in our society — especially the moms who are trying to juggle careers and their personal lives — to substitute, we’re asking too much of them.”

That doesn’t mean Casares thinks all parents should decline substitute teaching. With proper boundaries and self-awareness, it can be fulfilling for moms who have the time and resources. “Consider your own needs before saying yes to a request to substitute from your child’s school,” she says. “If you have no other income-generating activities planned, go for it! If you’ve always secretly dreamed of substituting, say yes right away! Otherwise, politely say no to protect your own peace. It’s worth a lot.”

The future of substitute teaching

The historical lack of support for teachers means that the current shortage is unlikely to relent anytime soon, and parents will remain the imperfect backup plan.

Wells says it’s time to shift both our attitude about substitute teaching and what it actually looks like. “We can build an infrastructure around substitute teaching,” she says. Teaching is more than picking up a lesson and entering a classroom, but most substitute teachers are only able to do just that at the moment. “The world has changed, and it’s time to use technology in our favor.” While remote schooling was not perfect, it did advance the use of technology in the classroom. “Lessons can be taught from anywhere and they can now be recorded,” Wells adds. “Having a parent come to be supplemental support while a virtual lesson is happening is an option worth exploring, too.” Integrating technology into substitute teaching might alleviate some of the stress on parents filling in — making it feel more manageable.

For Gonzales, she fears the current situation feels untenable unless changes like these occur. She can’t sub within the current framework, and neither can most of her friends. They know they are leaving crucial gaps that hurt their kids, though. An open substitute slot means schools are combining classes, setting kids loose in the gym, or piecing together inconsistent coverage with their already-overworked teachers. “I don't think parents who need to work can afford to substitute. It's a really concerning state of affairs, and I worry about what will happen if my son's teacher needs to be out for more than a few days.”

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