Nebraska schools scrambling for substitutes

Substitute teacher Joann Pandorf with Callaway Public School first-graders (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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September 7, 2017 - 3:27pm

Nebraska schools are scrambling to find enough substitute teachers, and the problem is drawing attention from the Legislature.

It’s a bright September morning in Callaway, Nebraska, a town of a little over 500 people and center of a 320 square mile- school district including farms and ranches, just about smack-dab in the middle of the state. In Mrs. Miller’s first grade classroom, substitute teacher Joann Pandorf talks to the kids about what they learned today.

“We read about growing up, didn’t we?” she asks.

“Yeah,” the kids respond.

“How babies change? How people grow? They change as they get older,” she continues.

Pandorf’s a long-term substitute, standing in while Miller recuperates from hip replacement surgery. But shorter-term substitutions can be more of a challenge.

In the school office, Principal Health Birkel explains how he covered for a teacher who went to a funeral today, but is working ahead to line up someone who’ll be needed as a para educator for a special education student the next day. “Today I choose to cover in-house because of the situation. Tomorrow, we need to have someone covered in the afternoon, so I’ve been texting this morning to get tomorrow covered,” he explains.

Dawn Lewis, who serves as superintendent for both Callaway Public Schools and the neighboring district in Arnold, Nebraska, says other factors add to the need for substitutes as well. “We’re not just hiring substitutes for teachers. We’re hiring subs for paras, or moving a teacher into that para role and hiring a sub for the teacher for the day,” Lewis says.

The situation poses a constant challenge. Last year, according to the state Department of Education, just over 7,000 substitutes worked a total of 274 thousand substitute/days. At an average pay of $131 a day, that brought the bill for subs to around $35 million.

Because of changes in the way records are kept, the Department says it can’t compare the use of subs to past years. But some small rural districts in particular have such a hard time getting subs that last January, Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard proposed cutting the education requirement. Erdman’s proposal would have reduced the minimum requirement from 60 hours of college or an associate’s degree down to a high school diploma.

For transcript of Education Committee hearing on Sen. Erdman's proposal, click here.

Sen. Mike Groene, chairman of the Legislature’s Education Committee, says there are people without those credits who could do a good job, and it’s an idea worth considering, depending on how it’s structured. "We need to look at experience as a qualifier also, not just classroom credit hours,” Groene says.

Callaway Superintendent Lewis is not a fan of the idea. “I don’t think it’s in the best interest of our kids to say ‘Any warm body will do.’ That’s not our goal; that’s our purpose for hiring a sub. You might as well just tell the kids to stay home if we’re going to do that,” she says.

The proposal to lower the qualification for substitutes didn’t get anywhere, but it prompted lawmakers to call for more research, in the form of an interim study resolution. Sen. Groene says it made him take a second look at the problem.  “I got to thinking as a businessman there’s two sides to every equation. Is the problem we have less substitute teachers or is the problem we have more demand for substitute teachers?”  he asks.

Groene says teachers miss an average of 11 or 12 days a year. Linda Richards, president of the Nebraska Association of School Boards and a member of the Ralston Board of Education, says in that Omaha suburb, just over half the absences are due to personal or family medical conditions covered by the Family Medical Leave Act, or FMLA. “That’s a big driver here when you look at the absences being FMLA-predominant. That means its younger teachers – younger female teachers who are leaving the classroom because they’re expecting moms. They’re moms who are having children,” Richards says.

Richards says the second-leading cause of absences is for professional development, like taking courses required to maintain teaching certificates -- training she supports although it does require time from teachers.

Joann Pandorf, substituting in Callaway, says that’s what she’s noticed, too. “Teachers are gone more. They have more meetings that they have to go to. They have things that the state or the government requires that they go to, and things like that. There’s just training and all those kind of things that they have to go to,” she says.

Sen. Groene wonders if they shouldn’t be scheduled more in the summer, when school is out. And he says his thinking about substitutes is centered on reducing the need, by keeping regular teachers teaching. “What can we do to help the teacher stay in the classroom? That’s the goal,” he says.

All these points, and more, are likely to come up when the Education Committee holds a hearing on substitutes next week. And what happens there could well affect proposals to address the situation when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

Editor's note: You can watch the Education Committee hearing streamed live on our website,, next Thursday, Sept. 14, starting at 1:30 p.m. Central Time.    





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