How the Substitute Teacher Shortage Is Impacting Teacher Professional Development

It’s 7 a.m., and I’m on my second trek from my car to our centralized district meeting space, lugging snacks, supplies and chart paper as I prepare to lead a workshop on best practices for technology integration for a group of 15 elementary teachers in my district.

It’s September 2021 and as one of the district’s instructional technology content leaders, I have finally been given the green light to host in-person professional development (PD) for this group of eager teachers after months of meeting online. Teachers trickle in as I set out muffins and candy at each table. Excited for the opportunity to focus on their learning, teachers find their seats and start to chit chat about the lesson plans they’ve left for their students.

This workshop is part of a tech ambassador program, which builds technology advocacy across the district. As part of the program, each teacher was provided with funding to cover the cost of a substitute teacher to cover their class for a total of five days throughout this school year so they could participate in a series of professional workshops focused on how to purposefully integrate technology into elementary classrooms focused on the ISTE Standards for Students (ISTE is the parent organization of EdSurge, though we operate with editorial independence.)

Fast forward to September 2022, and I am finalizing modules on Canvas, our learning management system, to continue to deliver the same quality professional learning, but in an entirely different format. After two years of disruptions to in-person gathering due to health concerns, teachers are now facing a different barrier — the substitute teacher shortage. One of every five requests in the U.S. for substitute teachers went unfilled before COVID-19, and that has worsened with the effects of the pandemic, with 77 percent of districts reporting staffing challenges related to substitute teachers, according to a working paper published by the Annenberg Institute at Brown University. This shortage has impacted many areas of our schools’ day-to-day practices, and is now impacting how teachers learn.

A New Barrier Emerges

Our suburban Missouri school district serves around 16,500 students. Behind the scenes of each classroom in our district, there are many hands at work. Providing deep, tailored learning experiences for our students requires a lot of effort, from evaluating curricular resources to aligning research-based instructional practices to the evolving state standards. Our district’s curriculum team includes a variety of members with roles designed to support teachers to work through these areas. One of my roles is to meet with teams of teachers to develop them as teacher-leaders in their buildings, as they learn to transform classroom practices with the intentional use of digital tools.

Prior to the pandemic, our district allowed teachers to be released from their classroom to participate in their own learning, but our current lack of substitute teachers has created challenges. Building administrators, often pulled to fill this role and cover classrooms themselves, now push back on requests for teachers to be covered for PD. Like many districts across the country, our teachers can no longer attend professional conferences or collaborate with peers to learn instructional practices because substitute teachers are not available to cover classrooms. This reality is problematic for teachers and necessitates a new approach to providing professional learning.

The New Reality for Teacher PD

In the not-too-distant past, my days were filled preparing for PD meetings with a variety of teacher groups. I worked with teams that were learning about technology integration and supported new teachers with the digital tools that they had at their disposal. With each group, I could answer questions in the moment and provide opportunities for teachers to bounce ideas off of one another.

Today, I facilitate professional learning experiences that are held online after school hours. I organize modules to include researched based articles, video messages and discussion boards centered around teachers’ learning objectives. Instead of visiting classrooms in neighboring districts to witness efforts and initiatives in person, teachers who wish to grow in their practice view video snippets of structures in practice. The shift has posed challenges for those of us facilitating the PD as well as for the teachers.

As a facilitator, moving to asynchronous online PD means that I can’t adjust learning to meet teachers’ immediate needs in real-time. Those valuable table conversations don’t happen in asynchronous learning environments. My colleague Dr. Melinda Scheetz, the literacy coordinator for our district who designed our district’s PD for shifting to our new phonics curriculum, agrees. She says she has struggled with managing the content that all of our elementary teachers need to learn around our phonics initiative and how to address their concerns virtually. Scheetz recently shared her sentiment with me: “We teach our students in person, but we’re asking our teachers to learn asynchronously in isolation.”

The adjustment has been difficult for our teachers too. While many of them have learned collaboratively in full or half-day training sessions for their entire careers, many struggle to carve out time for online learning during the school day because they have a heavy load of regular classroom obligations. “It’s so much more time consuming to read everyone’s comments on discussion boards,” wrote one teacher after completing a survey Scheetz administered following an asynchronous PD session. Other survey respondents indicated that they had trouble staying on task to complete online learning, and missed the opportunity to ask questions in the moment.

Hopeful Future for Teacher PD

The shift to online teacher PD that took place due to COVID and has continued to drag on due to the shortage of substitute teachers making it difficult to find coverage for in-person professional learning experiences has presented challenges, but there have also been some benefits. Teachers report that they like the convenience of being able to complete their learning at a time and place that is convenient for them. Many also appreciate the fact that these learning resources, including videos modeling instructional practices, are available to return to, allowing teachers to rewatch, pause and rewind when needed.

As for me, while I prefer working with a group of teachers who can synchronously share ideas and collaborate in-person, I have encountered some unexpected successes. As a result of this pivot, I find myself working one-on-one with teachers more regularly. My strategic asynchronous course design includes purposeful questions that allow each individual teacher to check in about their personal goals and unique challenges, which allows me to get to know them at a deeper level than before.

At a time when much of the research indicates that self-directed learning results in positive outcomes for our students, creating self-directed learning environments for our teachers makes sense. This scenario, for example, has allowed me to model the use of our newly adopted learning management system that teachers are expected to use — and it has given them an opportunity to experience these digital learning strategies as a learner.

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 our district’s three high schools, I won’t be bringing chart paper or setting chocolate out on tables. Instead, I’ll be checking that my course content is well organized on Canvas and that my Zoom meeting is set up correctly.

Whether facilitating PD in person or online, I want to honor that these teachers are tired, but still ready to learn. I want to show them that I recognize that, just like the students they teach, these teachers bring with them learner preferences and unique experiences that make absorbing this information easy or challenging. But, most of all, I want these teachers to leave this learning experience with their buckets filled, feeling empowered to teach their students.



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