Affects of the Lack of Substitute Teachers on Professional Growth in the Classroom

Seven o’clock in the morning, and I’ve already made two trips from my car to our district’s central meeting space, carrying breakfast treats, teaching materials, and chart paper as I get ready to lead a workshop on best practises for technology integration for fifteen elementary school teachers.

It’s September of 2021, and after months of virtual meetings, I’ve been given permission to host in-person professional development (PD) for this eager group of teachers. As I place muffins and candy on each table, teachers begin to arrive. Teachers, rejoicing that they finally have their students’ undivided attention, file into classrooms and begin exchanging excited comments about the lessons they’ve prepared.

Part of a larger initiative to increase support for technology in the entire school district, this workshop is being held as part of the “tech ambassador” programme. The programme paid for each teacher to have a substitute teach their class for five days this school year so that they could attend a series of professional workshops on how to integrate technology into elementary classrooms in a way that meets the ISTE Standards for Students. (EdSurge’s parent organisation is the International Society for Technology in Education; however, we maintain editorial autonomy.)

Let’s fast forward to September 2022, when I am finishing up modules on Canvas, our learning management system, to continue providing the same high-quality professional learning in a completely new format. After two years of cancelled meetings due to illness, educators now must contend with a severe lack of available substitute teachers. According to a working paper published by the Annenberg Institute at Brown University, one out of every five requests for substitute teachers in the United States went unfilled before COVID-19, and the situation has worsened since the pandemic began, with 77% of districts reporting staffing challenges related to substitute teachers. Due to the shortage, many aspects of classroom management and instruction have been affected, including the professional development of educators.

This New Impasse

Approximately 16,500 students attend schools in our suburban Missouri district. It’s important to note that many people in our district’s community are involved in the daily operations of each classroom. It takes a lot of work to provide students with rich, individualised learning experiences, including assessing the usefulness of curriculum materials and ensuring that teaching methods are in line with the latest research and state requirements. The curriculum team in our school district is made up of people who all play important roles in helping teachers tackle these challenges. As a part of my job, I collaborate with groups of educators to help them grow into roles of leadership within their schools, particularly as they learn to strategically implement digital tools into their classrooms.

Before the pandemic, our district released teachers from the classroom so they could engage in their own learning, but now we’re struggling due to a lack of substitute teachers. There is resistance to requests for teachers to be covered for PD from building administrators because they are often asked to fill this role and cover classrooms themselves. Substitute teachers are not readily available, so our teachers, like those in many other districts across the country, are unable to attend professional conferences or work with colleagues to improve their teaching methods. This reality presents challenges for educators and calls for a revised strategy for providing professional development.

The New Normal in Educator Development

The New Normal in Educator Development

Not too long ago, I spent most of my time preparing for professional development meetings with various teacher groups. I assisted first-year educators in making the most of the available technology and worked with groups studying the topic of technology integration. I had the opportunity to interact with each group individually, answering questions and facilitating brainstorming among educators.

I now coordinate online professional development for teachers that takes place after regular school hours. I structure modules with instructional articles, videos, and message boards based on what I know teachers need to know. Teachers who want to improve their methods can watch short video clips of structures in use in classrooms in other districts instead of travelling to observe these efforts and initiatives in person. Both the PD facilitators and the teachers have found the change to be difficult.

Moving to asynchronous online PD makes it impossible for me to respond in real time to teachers’ questions and concerns about what they are learning. In asynchronous settings, students are unable to have those informative dinner conversations. My district’s literacy coordinator and a colleague of mine, Dr. Melinda Scheetz, agrees. She developed the professional development for our district’s move to the new phonics curriculum. She admits that she has had trouble keeping track of everything our elementary school teachers need to know about our phonics initiative and finding effective ways to address their concerns over the internet. We teach our students in person, but we expect our teachers to learn independently and asynchronously, as Scheetz recently told me.

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Our faculty members have also found the transition to be challenging. Many of them have spent their entire careers learning together in full- or half-day training sessions, but they find it difficult to fit in online learning during the school day due to the many demands of teaching. One educator commented on the survey Scheetz administered after an asynchronous professional development session, “It’s so much more time consuming to read everyone’s comments on discussion boards.” The ability to ask questions in real time is lost, and some survey respondents said they had trouble focusing on their work when learning online.

Future of Professional Development for Teachers Looking Bright

Even though the shortage of substitute teachers has made it difficult to find coverage for in-person professional learning experiences, the transition to online teacher PD that occurred in response to COVID has presented challenges and has dragged on for some time. Teachers appreciate the flexibility of being able to study whenever and wherever is most practical for them. The fact that these materials, such as videos demonstrating effective teaching strategies, can be accessed again and again is also highly valued by many educators.

While I find that collaborating with a group of teachers in person where we can all share ideas in real time is ideal, I have had some unforeseen success working alone. Due to this shift in strategy, I am now frequently engaging in direct, one-on-one collaboration with educators. My strategic approach to asynchronous course design incorporates thoughtful questions that give each teacher a chance to reflect on their professional development in terms of both long-term goals and immediate concerns, allowing me to learn more about them as people and as educators.

It makes sense to foster self-directed learning in our faculty at a time when studies consistently show that this approach benefits students. For instance, I’ve been able to use this situation to demonstrate how to use our recently implemented learning management system, which all of our teachers are required to implement, and to give them hands-on experience with these kinds of digital learning strategies.

I won’t be bringing chart paper or setting out chocolate as I prepare for a quick after-school check-in with a group of teachers who are learning effective strategies for teaching flexible blended classes in the three high schools in our district. In its place, I’ll be making sure my Zoom meeting is properly set up and that my course content is neatly organised on Canvas.

No matter if I’m leading PD in-person or virtually, I want to remember that these educators are exhausted but committed to their work. I’d like to make it clear that I understand that each teacher, like each of their students, has a unique set of experiences and preferences that will affect how easy or hard it is for them to learn this material. Most importantly, however, is that these educators go into the classroom with their minds and hearts full and their confidence soaring.

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