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The lack of substitute teachers makes educators nervous, but there are things principals can do to help.

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According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, local and national employment in education fell by 161,000 jobs in September. The vacancy of school education workers makes it difficult for school leaders and staff to find a familiar pace. Teacher vacancies, not to mention filling absentee teachers, have made school life challenging. The roles of staff are rarely as clear as they used to be. The “other tasks specified” clause in the job description takes on new meaning. The first important thing to remember is that leaders must be more agile and adaptable if we are to cope with the day-to-day uncertainty caused by staff shortages.

Greg Cole, the principal of a high school in Nevada, said, “A couple of times this year, teachers have had to go to the library to supervise other people’s classes while teaching their own.” His school now has seven teacher vacancies. “For example, they have to teach their own Algebra I class, and they volunteer to take another algebra I class at the same time in the library and teach them both.”

Other principals across the country say they are experiencing a shortage of substitute teachers. Their difficulties arise when they have to care for teaching staff who are absent from work. The higher the poverty in a school, the more difficult it is to make up for absent teachers.

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“I feel like I’m trying to make up for absences,” said Christine Richards, a middle school principal in New York. “We often don’t have enough players on the bench. We have to prioritize, identify which subjects have the highest needs, make sure they are covered, and hold teachers responsible for the rest.”

As school leaders, we must be flexible with staffing challenges and help our staff do so. We can’t control which teachers or their families get sick. Nor do we control all the mechanized operations that lead to candidate vacancies. We must do everything we can, with the help of the staff who work with us every day, to help the children as much as possible.

Academic impact
It is important to remember to be courageous and creative as we help students learn standards under staff shortages. Teaching is an art as well as a science. This age may call for more of our artistic talent. The impact of staffing shortages may present challenges to you or your employees that are outside of your experience.

The situation is taking its toll on teachers. They are spending a lot of time and energy to help students study. As administrators, we sometimes have to ask teachers to skip scheduled schedules and preparation times for days on end to ensure that every child has access to a classroom teacher.

Sometimes a shortage of alternatives can affect professional development opportunities in schools.

“We couldn’t find the submarine,” said Steve Brand, the principal of a high school in Iowa. “We have to learn professionally in a different way because I can’t find a replacement to work for a department for a day so we can learn together.”

Stephanie Brant, the principal of an elementary school in Maryland, agrees.

“When contemporary teachers don’t find jobs in our schools, the teacher development teacher, the reading specialist, the vice principal, the school counselor and I fill in the gaps,” Brandt said. “It takes us away from supporting teaching and learning. Our faculty rely on us to facilitate dialogue and provide resources. It filters down to kids because teachers don’t have quick access to these resources or supportive conversations with resident experts.”

Some schools, districts and states have found ways to ease the educator shortage. Although many teachers have left school districts across the COUNTRY, Utah has retained teachers throughout the pandemic.

“I’m not asking teachers to give up cooperative time,” said Milton Collins, the principal of an elementary school in Utah. “I don’t have a faculty vacancy this year. We were lucky to be able to get experienced submarines while the teacher was away. I have paraprofessionals who are trained to take over the classroom for a day if needed.”

Adjust the forecast
To help leaders and teachers navigate the uncertainties of day-to-day staffing, school districts must be mindful of what they are asking educators to do with fewer people. When understaffed, schools don’t know if faculty absences will disrupt their best plans, and administrators can’t count on teachers dedicating their preparation time to new directives that their districts may require.

Ramona Esparza is a retired high school principal and vice president of the Nevada Leadership Academy. She reminded administrators to balance the need to improve learning with the uniqueness of leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic, which affects many functions of the school, such as staffing.