Three (Unexpected) Things We’ve Learned from Substitute Data

What questions do you have about substitute teaching in your district? Curious about where subs choose to work? When demand for subs peaks? How frequently subs work? Chances are many of those questions can be answered by digging into the data you are already have available through your substitute management system.  

In the last few months we have been surprised by just how much you can learn through analyzing substitute data and how infrequently districts are digging into this rich data source.

Here are a just three critical insights we have uncovered, we hope they pique your curiosity and get you thinking about what you might learn from your own data:

1. No Monday/Friday Peak: Every district we have sat down with shares the assumption that it is harder to cover teacher absence on Mondays and Fridays, mostly because demand is higher, with more teachers absent. It makes intuitive sense, because who doesn’t like a three day weekend? While it is possible that HR and school offices are working harder on these days, the data we’ve gathered at Substantial suggest that both demand and coverage is fairly consistent through the week, with no big spikes on Mondays or Fridays. If we see slightly lower coverage on a Friday, it’s usually because of supply—not demand—as fewer subs are choosing to work.

2. Different Districts Have Different Pools: In one district, 74% of substitutes are over the age of 50 and most work around one day a week. This seems to back up the anecdotal evidence that retired teachers dominate their pool. In another district, the vast majority of subs are women in their 30’s and 40’s who work at a specific school site. This suggests a pool made largely of parents who have a connection to a specific school. Understanding your substitute pool is critical because the needs and motivations will be different. By knowing your pool, you can develop meaningful support and tackle supply challenges more effectively.

3. Coverage Varies Dramatically: Within a single district substitute coverage rates can vary dramatically among school sites. If districts are looking at data, it’s often in the aggregate, and these nuances can be obscured. For example, in a district with an average of 80% teacher absences covered, one school may be at 99%, and another is languishing at 54%. What’s intriguing is that it isn’t always the schools you expect. We’re learning a lot by focusing on the schools that surprise us and challenge our assumptions about where subs want to go.

From our early analysis, one thing is very clear—understanding the root cause of substitute system challenges is critical to ensure you’re designing strategies that will work for your district and your subs.

What will you learn from your data?

Five Things Schools and Districts Can Do Today to Improve the Substitute Experience

November 18 is the final day of American Education Week, and today we appreciate the contribution of Substitute teachers across the country. In honor of their critical role in schools, here are 5 practical ideas you can implement to improve the substitute teaching experience, starting today:

  1. Send thank you notes. Yup, your mom was right: thank you notes are important.  Substitutes often feel isolated and under appreciated; let them know they are an important part of your school community. This simple gesture helps build a relationship, making subs more likely to return to your school. Thank yous can come from anyone or everyone: students, teachers, school secretaries, principals.
  1.  Invite subs to school events and in-service trainings.  It’s great if you can pay folks for these things, but even if you can’t, inviting substitutes to school events is an important gesture of inclusion.  If you have an online system or resource for professional development, think about making the platform available to substitutes too.
  1. Standardize the sub folder. Consider walking into a brand new school or classroom every day and having to wade through a different set of instructions. We can acknowledge the reality of a substitute teacher by trying to make this part of their day a little bit easier and a lot more consistent. Building a common folder for use across classrooms in your school, or schools in your district helps subs know that you care about them and their daily experience. We recommend folders live in the front office, so they can be regularly checked, updated and supplemented—by anyone on staff—especially if a teacher has to call out sick.
  1. Solicit feedback, every time. Taking substitute teachers’ experience and advice seriously will help you build a stronger, more welcoming school community.  You can do this by creating a survey for subs that you include in the sub folder, or a link to an online survey they can take when they get home. Whether you use a survey tool or not, make sure you ask subs how their day went and share what you learn.
  1. Finally, encourage subs to do activities that build trust and rapport with students, and remember that these activities take time.  Two things that we often forget to mention to subs before we send them into the classroom are: first, spending time with students can and should be fun; and second, teaching is much harder if you haven’t established trust with students. Give subs permission to get to know students—and for students to get to know the subs. Games, going outside, art, music, and experiential learning activities engage students and set the sub up to succeed.

However you decide to convey your appreciation, take this day to say thanks to substitute teachers. They play a critical role in our schools but often don’t feel included or appreciated.  Without them, it would be more difficult for our nation’s educators to step out of the classroom when they need to care for themselves, care for their families, get married, have children, and, of course, grow professionally.  


Photo Credit: Thank You! By Carol VanHook (CC BY 2.0)