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Who wants to become a substitute teacher? School districts can’t find enough.

In the Spring, to entice more college graduates into working as substitute teachers, the Wauwatosa School District hit the phones. First, school principals personally invited parents with bachelor’s degrees to consider becoming a sub, even if just for their children’s school. Then the district offered to pay the $100 fee for a teaching license – after five days on the job – and bumped up subs’ pay from $90 a day to $100. “We just really started targeting people,” says Superintendent Phil Ertl, and the tactics began to pay off. About 100 candidates turned up at an orientation, where a majority went on to become district subs.

“We can’t keep having one high school with five teachers uncovered,” says Ertl.

Wauwatosa, like other area districts, has struggled in recent months with finding enough subs to fill in for sick or absent teachers. The effects are potentially huge: a day’s lesson turned into a study hall, or a roomful of students squeezed into another overcrowded classroom. To cut down on absences, Wauwatosa has also reduced its number of in-service days for teachers.

In some ways, deploying an army of subs has never been easier. Once scheduled by early-morning phone calls, subs are now placed in many districts using an online system called Aesop that partially automates the process, giving each school a list of fully credentialed stand-ins.

Milwaukee Public Schools, which now pays a very competitive $158 a day for subbing, recruits aggressively for new subs, according to Pepper LaMothe, who manages recruitment for the district.

“As the economy has gotten better,” she says, “a number of our substitute teachers have been able to identify jobs in their chosen field,” narrowing the labor pool. Last year, MPS filled 85 percent of teacher absences, leaving some 15 percent empty.

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The situation at Elmbrook School District (which pays $100 a day) is a bit tougher, and officials are considering whether to hire subs through the Cooperative Educational Service Agencies Statewide Network “if our shortage continues,” according to Superintendent Mark Hansen.

“Being a substitute teacher is difficult, being in charge of 30, 40, maybe 50 people in a classroom,” says Kim Schroeder, president of Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association. Ironically, subs don’t get their own sick days, and they don’t receive health insurance, even if they work a full-time schedule. “They’re kind of like the quiet heroes,” he says. “If a substitute does his or her job well, nobody else notices. But if they don’t, the entire building knows.”

‘Un-Subbed’ appears in the September 2015 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
The September 2015 issue is on newsstands August 31.

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