When teachers in Southern Illinois have to miss work, it can be a challenge to make sure students still get what they need to learn, some school officials say.
That’s because they’re struggling to find enough substitute teachers.
A survey of more than 500 superintendents across the state found that most of their districts have seen substitute teacher shortages. But those in Southern Illinois described it as a serious problem more often than superintendents in other areas of the state.
The Belleville News-Democrat heard from 29 school leaders in St. Clair, Madison, Monroe, Clinton and Randolph counties who said their districts were among those affected.
In Fairview Heights, Superintendent Matt Stines said there have been days that Grant District 110 couldn’t find substitute teachers to fill in for as few as one or two absent teachers. Sparta District 140 is short one or more substitute teachers on a daily basis, according to Superintendent Gabe Schwemmer.
The local schools have tried recruiting from colleges and their communities. They’ve also offered substitute teachers more money to work for them.
But when they can’t find substitute teachers, sometimes the other teachers in the school give up their planning time — a free period they have to prepare for class — to cover for absent teachers instead. Administrators say they occasionally have to teach, or students are moved into another classroom when their teacher is gone.
The group that conducted the survey of superintendents, the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools, thinks policy changes at the state level could help those schools.
How to attract substitute teachers
Some school officials are posting on social media, attending job fairs and asking parents to consider lending a hand in a classroom because the state accepts applications for substitute teaching licenses from people who have bachelor’s degrees in any subject area.
It costs about $160 to $175 for the application, registration and other steps like a background check. Most of the cost comes from the state’s license fees, which can be reimbursed after 10 days on the job.
The fee refunds are a new state effort to address the substitute teacher shortage. More information is available at www.isbe.net/Pages/SubstituteReimbursementInformation.aspx.
Substitute teachers can make between $70 and $105 per day working in the five-county area.
The state accepts applications for substitute teaching licenses from people who have bachelor’s degrees in any subject area.
This academic year alone, four districts in St. Clair County increased their daily rates, because they’re competing with nearby schools for a smaller pool of substitute teachers.
O’Fallon District 90, Whiteside District 115 and Cahokia District 187 all raised their rates to $90 per day.
Smithton District 130 raised its rate to $85 and added an incentive for substitute teachers who keep coming back. Superintendent Ryan Wamser said District 130 will start paying $90 per day after a substitute has worked 20 days at Smithton Elementary School.
The districts with some of the highest pay for substitute teachers are also in St. Clair County: East St. Louis District 189 and Brooklyn District 188 each offer $100 per day.
Elsewhere in the metro-east, East Alton-Wood River District 14 pays $105 if a substitute teacher fills in for two absent teachers during the six class periods in a day.
Wesclin District 3 and Sparta District 140 pay their retired teachers more for substitute teaching to encourage them to come back to work: $90 and $85 per day, respectively.
But retired teachers are limited in how often they can work and still receive pension payments. The Teachers’ Retirement System caps them at 100 days or 500 hours in a school year.
A potential change to that TRS policy is among the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools’ suggestions to help address the substitute teacher shortage.
Along with the results of its survey, the association stated that increasing the number of days and hours that retirees can work would “significantly” relieve the pressure on schools to find substitute teachers.
What it’s like to substitute teach
When Kim Atkins steps into a classroom, she said she’s expected to pick up where the teacher left off.
Atkins, 55, has been substitute teaching in St. Clair County schools since she retired from her 28-year military career in 2014.
She said substitute teachers are given detailed instructions for what students should do and learn that day, and she likes the challenge.
“For me, it’s very rewarding,” she said.
Substitute teaching licenses allow people to work with public school students in pre-K through high school. Atkins said she prefers classrooms of seventh-graders or younger.
For me, it’s very rewarding.
Kimberly Atkins on substitute teaching in the metro-east
“High school is a little bit harder to just jump in and have 15 minutes to review the lesson plans and just teach it,” she said.
Benita Arceneaux is a new substitute teacher in St. Clair County, where her children go to school. She said showing up about 30 minutes early helps her feel prepared for that day’s coursework.
When Atkins was new to substitute teaching, she said she would be waiting for a phone call every morning to hear whether a school needed her help. As staff and students at certain schools got to know her better, the work was more regular because they kept asking her to come back, according to Atkins. “They know what I’m capable of, and they know what I like to do,” she said.
Both Atkins and Arceneaux said they worked in education before they started substitute teaching, but that experience isn’t required.
Arceneaux, 49, said her advice for someone who would be teaching for the first time is to “go at it with a smile in your heart, and know that this is a rare opportunity to make a difference in the life of a child, regardless of how small.”
How to become a substitute teacher
Anyone interested in becoming a substitute teacher can contact the regional office of education in their area for help:
▪ ROE 50 for St. Clair County
▪ ROE 41 for Madison County
▪ ROE 45 for Monroe and Randolph counties
▪ ROE 13 for Clinton County
Applying for and registering a substitute teaching license happens online through the state’s Educator Licensure Information System. Here’s how it works:
▪ Create an account on ELIS with personal information including a social security number.
▪ Apply for a license in ELIS and pay the $50 state fee, which can be reimbursed later.
▪ Send an official college transcript to the Illinois State Board of Education in Springfield or a regional office of education in the metro-east. Transcript fees vary by college.
▪ Register the license online, which includes deciding where to substitute teach — such as Region 41 for Madison County schools. Pay another $50 or $60 state fee that can also be reimbursed.
Licensed substitute teachers can go to a regional office of education to undergo a background check before they’re allowed to work in schools. The fees ranges from $42 to $55 in the metro-east.
29 Local school leaders who said their districts are affected by substitute teacher shortages.
11 Local school leaders who said their districts aren’t affected.
The time it takes to become licensed varies because the Illinois State Board of Education considers applications from prospective educators across the state.
Arceneaux said it took about two weeks to get her substitute teaching license in December. She described the experience as “quick, easy and painless.”
The Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools has a suggestion for shortening the wait time for licenses.
It says the process might move faster for everyone if Illinois allowed its 56 regional offices of education to handle applications from the people in their communities who want to become substitute teachers and teacher’s aides, and the state focused on other educators.
When substitute teachers are needed
Cold and flu season could be contributing to teachers’ absences in recent months.
Teachers might also need to take time off to continue learning themselves. Workshops and conferences can take multiple educators out of their classrooms at once.
Atkins said the schools have kept her busy in January.
“I have all but one day booked up to teach for the whole month,” she said.
But some local schools are trying to cut down on absences in a given day because of the lack of substitute teachers.
Principals in Columbia District 4 are thinking about the shortage when they’re approving time off for teachers to attend workshops, according to Superintendent Gina Segobiano. She said they limit the number of teachers who can participate.
East St. Louis District 189 also has a limit: district spokesperson Sydney Stigge-Kaufman said no more than 20 teachers from across the large district can attend sessions at the same time.
Who isn’t affected by the shortage
Eleven superintendents in the five-county area told the BND they’re able to find the substitute teachers they need despite the shortage.
Those in small, elementary districts like Smithton District 130, Albers District 63 and St. Rose District 14-15 say they have groups of reliable substitutes who keep coming back to their schools.
The smallest district in St. Clair County, St. Libory District 30, only has seven teachers, so Superintendent Thomas Rude said they don’t need as many substitute teachers as other districts.
But leaders in larger, high school districts like Belleville District 201 and Edwardsville District 7 say they aren’t feeling the effects of the substitute teacher shortage either.
The Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools survey was administered in 2017 — between Sept. 8 and Oct. 12 — and the results were published this month.
Belleville East and West high schools find the help they need through their retired teachers and the list of available substitute teachers that the St. Clair County Regional Office of Education shares with all the school districts it serves, according to District 201 Superintendent Jeff Dosier.
Edwardsville District 7 offers something that many other districts don’t: Teachers’ Retirement System benefits on top of its $88 per day rate for substitute teaching. It also pays substitute teachers more if they have their teaching licenses.
Several unit districts that teach students in pre-K through high school said they haven’t had trouble finding substitute teachers, including: Mascoutah District 19, Dupo District 196, Lebanon District 9, Chester District 139 and Steeleville District 138.
Looking for substitutes
School leaders from 40 districts responded to a Belleville News-Democrat inquiry about substitute teacher shortages in Illinois. The following are the 29 districts whose officials said they were affected by shortages:
St. Clair County
- Belle Valley 119
- Belleville 118
- Brooklyn 188
- Cahokia 187
- Central 104
- East St. Louis 189
- Freeburg 70
- Grant 110
- Marissa 40
- Millstadt 160
- New Athens 60
- O’Fallon 90
- O’Fallon 203
- Shiloh 85
- Whiteside 115
- Wolf Branch 113
- Alton 11
- Collinsville 10
- East Alton-Wood River 14
- Granite City 9
- Highland 5
- Columbia 4
- Coulterville 1
- Red Bud 132
- Sparta 140
- Aviston 21
- Carlyle 1
- Germantown 60
- Wesclin 3
Working as a teacher
If a substitute teacher wanted a job teaching full-time, McKendree University and Lindenwood University-Belleville offer degree programs that can help them toward a teaching license without having to start over in school. The programs are for people who already have bachelor’s degrees in areas other than education.
- McKendree has a master’s of arts in teaching degree. Through this program, prospective teachers could specialize in elementary, middle school or high school education, as well as K-12 art or physical education.
- Lindenwood Belleville has a master’s of arts in education degree for “specialty areas.” A student’s undergraduate degree will inform the specialty they’ll teach. Someone with a bachelor’s degree in English, for example, could learn what they need to know to teach English through this program.