“The lowest it has ever been”

A shortage of substitutes is straining teachers as COVID prompts reconsideration of work-life balance.

There are about half as many substitute teachers in Kalamazoo Public Schools as there would be in a normal year, and the administration is appealing to the community to help fill the ranks. However, the stop-gap efforts won’t fix crucial obstacles such as pre-pandemic teacher dissatisfaction and a workforce increasingly prioritizing non-work life.

“Historically, it has not been this bad,” said Steve Leland, the KPS administration official in charge of teacher recruitment. “Our pool of substitutes is definitely the lowest it has ever been.”

Students are never without a qualified adult in their room, Leland said, even if it is another teacher, the principal, or someone other than a normal substitute teacher. But the education plan is definitely being interrupted. Parents, students, and teachers have said that classes deemed lower priority or in need of specialized instruction are being missed, such as art, music, and other classes referred to as “specials.” 

In addition to relocating staff and students in their specific schools to account for the shortage there, KPS is working with local colleges and universities to identify and recruit potential teachers – and tugging on the heart strings of parents and other community members that might be persuaded to pitch in.

“We are trying to focus back more onto the students and how important it is to have quality instruction in front of them. We’re also open and honest about teacher burnout and things like that,” he said. “And giving back to your community.”

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Leland said KPS this year has instituted a $100 bonus for every 10 days a substitute works in a month, which is essentially capped at $200 per month due to the number of school days in an average month. He claims that studies have shown pay isn’t a factor in whether someone decides to take on this type of work, however. Substitute teachers – just like full time teachers – decide to go into this line of work because “they love it and want to see kids grow and succeed,” he said.

Still, workers take home a paycheck in order to pay bills. And in an economy where companies in most industries are struggling to lure workers, both compensation and job satisfaction are factors.

KPS substitute teachers earn $85 per day to start and up to $120 per day if, instead of deciding day-to-day, they commit to long stretches of filling-in for teachers. That was the pre-pandemic rate; an increase of $10 per day was implemented a year before the pandemic.

The minimum requirement is a seven-hour day at school, including a 30 minute lunch break – that is assuming the substitute arrives only when class starts and leaves as soon as the room is empty. KPS prefers substitutes get to the schools at least 20 minutes before the first bell rings to look over the lesson plans and prepare. The substitute is asked to leave a note about any issues or students, Leland said, to prepare the returning teacher or next day’s substitute.

Leland didn’t have a firm number of substitute teachers that have been pre-qualified – such as confirming a 60 college credit requirement is met – because the process is managed through a third party system and it fluctuates day-to-day.

“We’re down about half of what we had in the past,” he said

Leland says it’s a phenomenon felt throughout the country, not just in Kalamazoo.

“I think a lot has to be due to COVID and the pandemic,” he said. “COVID forced people to see things in a different light.”

It has recalibrated how people value a work-life balance, Leland suspects. Workers’ value of things they previously wanted are depreciating and they are now deciding to “work less and spend more time with … kids.”

Leland said there aren’t any large gaps for KPS, such as ones due to teachers leaving the profession or taking more time off during the school year than normal – that is, aside from pandemic-related health and caretaking related issues.

“We’ve done pretty well staffing [teachers] across the district, with very few vacancies compared to other urban districts similar to us,” he said.

There might be a problem on the horizon though, and the inability to recruit substitute teachers might be the canary in the coal mine.

“Teachers in general are just not coming out, a lot of people are not going to the teaching field anymore,” he said.

That’s only partially due to the pandemic, with some people who would have served as substitute teachers perhaps hesitant to work in face-to-face settings indoors.

“I think a lot of people who were trying it out or thinking of going into education, those are the ones who are missing now” from the usual substitute teacher pool, he said.

So teachers end up getting extra kids in their classes on any given day. Or, because a teacher has to cover another class, they miss the crucial planning period and have to work additional hours. 

“That causes problems down the road because you are getting extra duties almost,” he said. And that is a stressor that could exacerbate a potential teacher shortage.

“I’m projecting, and not knowing for sure, but having been in education so long, I would say yes that’s what I would see: Quicker burnout. People closer to retirement are just getting to the point now they are getting worn out. And people thinking of going in to teaching then thinking ‘maybe I don’t want that.'”

Even absent the impact of the pandemic, the underlying issues affecting the number of available teachers are not likely to be remedied, absent a reverse course from local, state, and federal policymakers:

A 2019 survey by Public Policy Associates, Inc., of nearly 17,000 teachers, administrative, and support staff in Michigan found workload and class size key to understanding dissatisfaction in the education profession.

Those surveyed who said they would leave the profession were asked about the reasons. The top answers were: (1) inadequate compensation; (2) workload, health, and family considerations; (3) respect, behavior, and discipline; (4) professional rights; and (5) legislative and other requirements. 

The 2021 Michigan Educator Survey of more than 5,000 teachers found smaller class sizes as a top priority. Unlike many states, Michigan doesn’t cap the number of students in a classroom. At KPS, it’s set in an agreement between the administration and the teachers union, though it is significantly higher than what is recommended by national research.

In the meantime, KPS is asking for any qualified community member to consider helping fix the immediate need for substitute teachers. Leland was a teacher for 20 years before going into administration. And even he has been spending a few days a month in the classroom, helping out where he can.

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