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No Substitute: Substitute teachers become hot commodity

First of two parts

Tuesday, January 26, 1999

By Gretchen McKay, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In Pennsylvania, where the job market for teachers is notoriously tight, things have never been more promising for substitute teacher Linda Wooley.

She's such a hot commodity that her services are booked weeks and even months in advance.

"I already have dates scheduled through May," said Wooley, of Ross, who subs in her own back yard - the North Hills School District.

  No Substitute, Part 2

Intense daily search for sub teachers starts early


She clearly doesn't do it for the money - after taxes, she pockets about $36 a day. Rather, it's for the flexibility as well as the satisfaction of knowing that she's valued.

"I feel very appreciated," said Wooley, who's certified in elementary education, "by the students, their parents, the teachers I work for, the administration."

While the substitute shortage is good news for subs looking for jobs, it means only headaches for school administrators.

For taxpayers, it means more of their tax dollars are being spent on substitutes' paychecks, because many districts are boosting pay to attract more candidates.

And for students, it means that they sometimes will be crowded into another classroom when a teacher doesn't show up, put into a study hall, or taught by an administrator who's distracted by other work.

Or their substitute teacher will be someone with no experience in the subject matter - or no teaching certificate at all.

"It's very serious, a crisis probably," said Ed Christy, regional field director for the Pennsylvania State Education Association.

  Substitute teacher Ron George quiets down his eighth-grade math class at Allegheny Middle School on the North Side. George and his pupils were dressed for "casual day." (John Beale - Post-Gazette)

Melissa Mares' complaints echo other parents' frustrations with the sub shortage. Her son, Anthony, 7, a second-grader at Horace Mann Elementary in Pittsburgh, has been "farmed out" to other classrooms when no substitute teacher could be found. He's often placed in different grade levels and given "busy work," Mares said.

"They're not getting an education," Mares said. Her niece, Kara Helms, one of Anthony's classmates, said: "We don't learn anything. So why go?" Mares recalled. "That's bad when a 7-year-old tells you that."

Pat Bolster, supervisor of Substitute Teacher Replacement Service in McCandless, an entity that helps find substitute teachers for seven school districts in the North Hills, said her pool of available teachers had dwindled from a high of 600 in 1994 to about 200 active substitutes this year.

Because more college students are graduating with degrees in elementary education, the shortage is worse at the secondary level, Bolster said. It's particularly severe for teachers certified in technical education, physical education, consumer science and such specialties as foreign languages, music and art.

"It's just an impossible situation," said Quaker Valley High School Principal Jeanne Johnson, especially in classes where fill-ins have to manage pupils in an "active" situation, such as gym or band.

The shortage in Pittsburgh schools is so critical that Superintendent Dale Frederick is working on a plan that would require office administrators to work as substitute teachers.

"We're having grave difficulties," said William Pettigrew, superintendent of Mars Area School District. The Mars school board increased pay rates for substitute teachers this month, hoping to attract more subs from the shrinking pool. The pay range begins at $60 per day, but increases to $130 for subs who have taught 81 days or more.

The district had 78 substitutes on their list last year; this year, 40 are available.

Educators give several reasons for the relatively sudden substitute shortage:

Many former substitutes were hired as permanent teachers after a recent mass of retirements spurred by the state's "30 years and out" early retirement incentive.

New graduates are headed for states where there's a teacher shortage. "A lot of our recently graduated teachers are being wooed away from Pennsylvania to places like California and Florida," Bolster said.

With unemployment at its lowest rate in decades, many would-be subs are choosing jobs outside of education that offer not only a steady paycheck, but also such benefits as health and life insurance.

A growing emphasis on smaller class sizes means more permanent teachers are being hired.

In addition, "subbing" can be a challenging and financially unrewarding way to spend the day. Think about how you treated your substitute teachers, the PSEA's Christy said.

"Frankly, there's very little respect for subs. And some districts really take advantage of these people," either by asking them to work during prep periods or not offering support for discipline, he said.

"Going in and out of a different classroom every day is difficult, even for a seasoned teacher," said Lee Nicklos, director of human resources for Pittsburgh Public Schools, which needs more than 300 substitutes each day for its professional staff of 2,800. "There's no consistency of work."

Then there's the issue of money. The state doesn't keep track of individual districts' substitute pay, but educators said that even the highest-paid substitutes usually earned about $75 or $80 a day, were not reimbursed for travel expenses and received no benefits. Most districts pay roughly $50 to $60 a day.

"You can't live on that," said Kristin Komer, 32, who subbed for two years after earning her master's degree in elementary education in 1995 in hopes that it would help her land a full-time teaching job. Though she enjoyed subbing because it offered variety, she left this fall for a job as a customer service rep for Highmark Blue Cross/Blue Shield at more than twice the salary.

"I needed a steady income," she said.

Beginning teachers in Allegheny County will earn an average of $29,863 per year in 1998-99, or about $159 a day for 189 days of work, with benefits, according to PSEA figures. Allegheny County teachers as a whole averaged $53,495 per year, or about $283 per day.

Further compounding the shortage is the fact that many choose to work in only highly desirable districts - suburban schools with good reputations and easy access to major roads.

"There's a real pecking order," Bolster said.

Pittsburgh schools try to encourage sub loyalty by offering more money to those who agree to work anywhere. Teachers willing to work five days a week in any school take home $72.14 per day; those who are more choosy earn $55.

Public schools aren't the only ones desperately seeking subs: Parochial and private schools, too, are finding it increasingly difficult to ensure that there is a teacher in front of every chalkboard each day.

"We're pretty much hurting everywhere, especially in the lower grades," said Bill Diskin, director of public relations for Winchester Thurston School in Shadyside. Principals and other administrators sometimes have had to fill in for absent teachers.

Strategies to attract substitutes usually include a pay raise. Trinity School District boosted its daily rate nearly 20 percent this fall, from $65 to $80 - the highest substitute rate in Washington County. Winchester Thurston offers subs $55 a day, an amount "substantially higher" than what it was paying two years ago.

The Shaler Area School District adopted a resolution last week that gives substitute teachers pay equal to the first step on the salary scale, or $30,200, once they have taught more than 15 days consecutively in one classroom.

"We're trying to get substitutes to make a commitment to Shaler Area," Superintendent Donald Lee said. "We want them to take our phone call first."

Other districts are securing substitutes by bringing them in on a full-time basis. Northgate, for example, used part of a Heinz endowment this year to hire four "continuous substitute" teachers at a rate of $80 per day to float among classrooms.

Additional tactics include beefed-up recruitment.

In nearly every district, applicants for full-time positions are asked if they're interested in subbing. Pittsburgh Public Schools advertises regularly; Moon Area has placed ads on community TV stations and the Internet and put brochures in unemployment offices.

In an effort to lure retirees back into the classroom, the state retirement bureau is reminding members at seminars that they can work 90 days a year without affecting their retirement.

In addition to raising its sub rates, Quaker Valley has created a substitute teacher brochure that along with touting the district's attractive rates - among the highest in Allegheny County - offers staff development, such as computer training.

"If they're going to be a committed sub for us, we try to do some quid pro quo for them," Johnson said.

School officials also are luring subs with the promise of full-time employment.

At Moon, for example, anyone who subs 70 or more days over the course of the year is guaranteed an interview in June if there is an opening in their area of specialty.

"We're telling them, if you're loyal and work with us, we'll give you an interview," Assistant Superintendent Alexander Meta said.

A few even require subbing as a prerequisite for a job. At Woodland Hills, teachers know they won't get an interview unless they've subbed in the district, district spokeswoman Vicki Fassinger said.

Additionally, many districts are limiting the number of conferences and seminars full-time staff can attend. At Intermediate Unit 1, comprising schools from Washington, Fayette and Greene counties, officials are considering holding workshops only on Saturdays or evenings so teachers will not be out of the classroom, said Thomas Zellars, superintendent of Avella School District.

For all their efforts, some educators fear this shortage is the tip of the iceberg.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, a national teacher shortage is expected, because of the record number of baby boomers' children now coming through the system.

And in Pennsylvania, the retirement incentive program is valid through June, meaning more teachers will be retiring.

In the meantime, such neophytes as Adriana Novekosky, who graduated from Geneva College with a degree in elementary education last year, will continue to reap the benefits of the shortage.

Unable to find a full-time teaching job and unwilling to relocate out of state, the 22-year-old, who averages three job offers a day, has subbed nearly every day since September throughout five districts.

"It's a great learning experience - almost like continuing education," she said. "I get to see what the different schools are like, and where I might want to get a job."

Staff writer Rhonda J. Miller contributed to this report.

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