Too few available substitute teachers causing problems for Durham Public Schools

Northern High School science teacher Holly Hardin tells school board last week that the district's shortage of substitute teachers is disrupting her life.
Northern High School science teacher Holly Hardin tells school board last week that the district's shortage of substitute teachers is disrupting her life.

Northern High School science teacher Holly Hardin stood before the Durham Board of Education last week on the brink of tears as she explained how a school district substitute teacher shortage is disrupting her life.

Because she is frequently forced to fill in for absent teachers when district officials are unable to find a substitute, Hardin said she must give up valuable planning time and take heavy workloads home.

“I feel like I’m not in a sustainable place,” Hardin said. “I’m taking home more work than ever and I don’t have time for my family and I don’t have time for the things I need to do to keep myself well.”

On paper, Durham Public Schools appear to have plenty of substitute teachers –1,058 – according to a report shared with board members in January.

But of those 1,058 subs, 582 – about 55 percent – are intermittent substitutes, which means they are not available to work every day.

“Some of them sub once or twice a month,” said Thomas Crabtree, the district's assistant superintendent for Human Resources, when he shared the report on substitutes in January. “They sub just enough to stay on the list.”

So, principals are often left scrambling, forced to lean on full-time teachers during their planning periods to cover classes for absent teachers.

According to the report, from September 1, 2016 to December 31, 2016, an average of 724 substitutes per day were called by AESOP, a software system that calls potential substitute teachers to see if they are available

He said that doesn't mean DPS needs 724 subs on average each day. AESOP simply continues to make calls until they find matches to fill the vacancies.

During that same four month span, DPS recorded 15,645 teacher absences, nearly 6,100 due to illness.

The next highest number absences – 4,935 – were due to staff and professional development, which was followed by family and medical with 1,606 absences.

Of the 14,914 requests for substitute teachers during the four months covered by the report, DPS managed to fill 12,206 requests, or 81.84 percent.

That left 2,708 requests unfilled, or 18.16 percent.

Also, 7,687 – 49 percent – of the 15,645 absences occurred on either Friday or Monday.

Friday was the day most teachers – 4,954 – were absent during the period covered by the report.

Like Hardin, Tom Bodo, a social studies teacher at Riverside High School, said the time he spends filling in for absent teachers interferes with his planning time.

“I feel like my time should be spent dedicated to my students planning engaging lessons, building strong relationships, providing feedback that's going to help my students grow,” Bodo said.

Bodo said the shortage of substitute teachers is also undermining collegiality on campus.

“Teachers start to get frustrated with each other,” Bodo said. “I've seen teachers frustrated because people are out sick. I've seen teachers get frustrated because someone else isn't covering because they got a test to grade or something. There's a decrease in collegiality over this issue.”

Bodo said there's also a lot of inconsistency about what teachers are being told about substitute teachers.

He said teachers are being told DPS can't hire any subs.

And Bodo said a friend with a master's in social work degree who was interested in becoming a sub was told DPS didn't need any.

In a statement Tuesday, Superintendent Bert L’Homme acknowledged the district’s substitute teacher problem.

“We agree that we have to have a strong substitute teacher for every classroom when a teacher is absent, and we are not where we want to be,” L’Homme said “We are responding to every person who applies to be a substitute teacher and processing them as quickly as possible.”

L’Homme said Crabtree will provide the school board with an update at its April 20 work session.

He also said DPS is going to provide professional development to schools staff to help them “build a strong, consistent core of substitute teachers who know the school and become part of the community.”

In an interview Tuesday, school board member Matt Sears said that as a former teacher, he knows how important it is to have planning time.

“I do understand how disruptive it is to student learning when teachers aren't given the time they need to plan and prepare for their students because we don't have enough subs in our system,” Sears said. “I empathize and I'm eager to see what our administration comes up with as a solution.”

School board Member Minnie Forte-Brown, also an educator, said everyone must remember to keep students first.

While asking teachers to fill for absent teachers during planning periods is not best practice, Forte-Brown said it's something that’s bound to occur occasionally.

“We don't want that to be the practice,” Forte-Brown said. “But when a principal has an emergency, I hope teachers understand that's something that they're going to be asked to do.”

Forte-Brown noted that this year has been an especially difficult one because of an aggressive flu season that forced more teachers than usual to miss school.

“We've got to pitch in,” Forte-Brown said. “I know it's hard, but if you're a team player, you have to be down for the kids.”

Meanwhile, Crabtree said that hiring enough reliable substitute teachers is complicated by a number of factors including state law that forbids retired teachers from working more than 29.5 hours per week.

He said that current pay schedules for substitutes is such that it can take up to 60 days to get paid after an assignment is completed.

And certified substitutes are sometimes hired by principals or promoted to other positions in the district.

The pay rate for substitute teachers is $103 per day for certified subs and $90 per day for those who are not certified.

Delbert Jarmon, a veteran DPS substitutue, said another reason some schools don’t have enough substitutes is because of the behavior of the students, especially in some middle schools and high schools.

“There are a lot of substitutes who don’t want to pick up jobs because of behavior problems,” Jarmon said. “There are some schools substitutes just don’t want to work at, and the children know it.”

Jarmon said students can misbehave badly or even “cuss a substitute” without consequence.

“There are some cases where [school-based] administrators are on top of it, but a lot of them are not,” Jarmon said. “You can tell the ones who don’t have it together because they’re always short on subs.”

Greg Childress: 919-419-6645, @gchild6645