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Low pay, difficulty of jobs, unpredictability deter substitute teachers in Pennsylvania

Jamie Martines
| Saturday, Feb. 4, 2017, 10:00 p.m.
Substitute teacher Tom Quealy at Hahntown Elementary School in Irwin, Pa., on Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017.
Christian Tyler Randolph | Tribune-Review
Substitute teacher Tom Quealy at Hahntown Elementary School in Irwin, Pa., on Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017.
Substitute teacher Tom Quealy at Hahntown Elementary School in Irwin, Pa., on Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017.
Christian Tyler Randolph | Tribune-Review
Substitute teacher Tom Quealy at Hahntown Elementary School in Irwin, Pa., on Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017.

Angela Willig-Friedrich noticed a shortage of foreign language teachers in Western Pennsylvania after moving from Tennessee, where she spent 15 years teaching Spanish to law enforcement professionals.

The former criminal investigator began to wonder how much students were learning about the language and the culture.

“Sometimes I have that little voice that says, ‘It would be nice if I could make a little more of a contribution to that,' ” said Willig-Friedrich, who lives in Crescent, Allegheny County.

That motivated her to sign up for the Allegheny Intermediate Unit's SmartSTART program, which prepares people with a bachelor's degree in any subject and who do not have a teacher certification from the state to work as substitute teachers. Schools are required to hire substitutes who hold a teacher certification first. If none is available, school districts can employ a substitute with an emergency certification.

Already busy with tutoring and volunteering with her church, Willig-Friedrich said she is a little overwhelmed by the online coursework, classroom observations and mountains of paperwork she must complete before stepping foot in the classroom as a teacher. While she is eager to get started, Willig-Friedrich is only at the beginning of what could be a months-long process.

Schools across the state and region have trouble filling day-to-day teacher absences, with many districts in Westmoreland County struggling to cover at least 90 percent of teacher absences each year, the Tribune-Review reported in January.

Schools across Allegheny County face a similar problem. In many cases, that means schools must pull classroom assistants or other staff members from their regular duties to cover several teachers' schedules for the day because no substitute is available.

The lack of substitutes across the state is largely because of a decline in graduates from teacher training programs. Instructional certificates issued by the Pennsylvania Department of Education declined from 14,764 to 8,615 between 2005 and 2014, meaning there are fewer people available to serve as both full-time teachers and substitutes. Special education, science and foreign language teachers are in particularly high demand.

In light of the substitute shortage, the Allegheny Intermediate Unit started its SmartSTART program in 2001 to help recruit, train and retain substitutes to work in local school districts that elect to participate in the program. The most recent training session was Jan. 27. Several intermediate units across the state offer similar training programs for area substitutes.

Alice Gillenberger, human resources coordinator at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, said prospective substitutes should make sure the work is something they really want to do before signing up. They're expected to do more than baby-sit students or play games all day, she said.

“You're a teacher,” Gillenberger told the group of six prospective substitutes during the recent training session at the intermediate unit in Homestead. “You're expected to carry on the academic program for that class.”

As Gillenberger pointed out, being a substitute is not an easy job. That could partly explain why there is a shortage, said Edward Fuller, an associate professor at Penn State who specializes in education policy.

It comes down to basic economics, he said, noting that high barriers to entering the job — such as training or expectations for good performance — combined with factors such as low pay are likely to result in a severe shortage of applicants for any job in any field.

“If you're going to have high requirements about the quality of the person coming in, it's harder to get people, particularly if you're not going to pay them a lot,” Fuller said.

Schools could lower standards for training and qualifications of substitutes, Fuller said, but that would mean students would suffer. The other option is to pay substitutes more. But that is hard to do when districts are already financially strapped, he said.

Substitute teachers working in Pennsylvania public schools during the 2015-16 academic year earned $92 a day, on average, according to data collected by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

The highest reported daily rate was $160, while the lowest was $70.

The variation is likely because of differences in district budgets and operating costs, said Steven Robinson, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

The national average hourly wage for substitutes working in elementary and secondary schools is $14.40, or about $100 for a seven-hour workday, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“In my age and state in life, I'm not looking to get a permanent job,” said Lisa Scott of Pleasant Hills, a former classroom assistant who worked with students with special needs in the West Jefferson Hills School District. With a bachelor's degree in communications and secondary English education, she is working toward earning an emergency substitute certification.

Scott said she isn't working as a substitute to make a living; she has already raised a family and is looking to get back into the workforce and do what she loves. But as someone who graduated with a degree in education, she's not sure working as a substitute would be that appealing to education graduates today. She doesn't think the pay rate is enough to start a life or to pay expenses such as college loans.

Another challenging aspect of working as a substitute teacher is the unpredictable nature of the job, said Tom Quealy, a former financial auditor-turned-sports coach and substitute with the Norwin School District.

The Norwin graduate knows the district well. Spending time as a coach helped him get to know many of the students he teaches before first stepping foot in the classroom in October. While that helped him get adjusted, he said it can be challenging to teach different grade levels or subject areas every day. When there isn't a substitute request posted the night before, he wakes up early to see if there are openings in the district that day.

Quealy embraces the uncertainty as part of the job and said it keeps things exciting. Recently, he's covered Spanish, gym, sociology and fourth-grade classes.

“The unknown ... it's always something different,” Quealy said.

Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-850-2867 or jmartines@tribweb.com.

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