Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

State seeks solution to substitute teacher shortage

Sophia Schmidt, Delaware Public Media
A substitute teacher in a classroom at Mount Pleasant High School

Substitute teachers in Delaware have not received a statewide pay raise for almost twenty years.


And schools are struggling to fill teacher vacancies.

Delaware Public Media’s Sophia Schmidt takes a closer look at this issue.

Teachers’ advocates, legislators and subs themselves say the state is experiencing a substitute shortage.


“Everyday we’re struggling to get substitutes— qualified substitutes— into the classroom,” said Stephanie Ingram, president of the Delaware State Education Association.


“There are 70 to 80 substitute jobs that come on my phone everyday. And believe me, they don’t all get filled,” said substitute teacher Joan Yulduzian.

“Having unfilled positions in schools is … very, very challenging,” said Christine Smith, head of human resources in the state’s largest school district. “Obviously instruction can be impacted."

Smith says when a teacher calls out sick or goes on leave in the Red Clay Consolidated School District, not all of those absences get filled by substitutes. “For the last couple of years the fill rates have been much lower than a hundred percent,” she said.

"Having unfilled positions in schools is ... very, very challenging. Obviously instruction can be impacted." - Christine Smith, Red Clay Consolidated School District.

The Caesar Rodney School District's fill rate percentages range from the mid 70s to the 90s. Woodbridge School District has a roughly 72 percent fill rate this school year, and Capital School District sees average fill rate percentages in the low 80s, according to district officials.

“When we look at the state of Delaware and we look at the ‘17/’18 school year, they were in and around 83 percent,” said Dean Baker. “They’re within that range of the national average of fill rates right now.”

Baker is the northeast regional manager for Kelly Educational Staffing— a third-party agency that hires subs out to five school districts in New Castle County.

Baker says several factors impact fill rates. One is the number of teacher absences on a given day, which he says has been rising nationwide and in Delaware.

He also points out a shortage of full-time teachers. He says fewer people graduating with education degrees means fewer teachers are forced to sub before landing their first full-time teaching jobs.

In Delaware, school districts are reimbursed by the state for the cost to pay substitute teachers. The reimbursement rates are set in state code. These are the minimum rates schools can pay subs, but districts are free to pay more out of local or federal funds.

"There is now a new competing industry with retail, hospitality that are in the same pay range." - Dean Baker, Kelly Educational Staffing

Substitutes eligible for an educator license are classified as Class A and paid $104 a day, before taxes. Class B subs have a bachelor’s degree or are in school for teaching.  They make $83 a day. Those without a bachelor’s degree, who sub for paraprofessionals, are designated Class C and make $66 a day.

At these rates, Baker says other employment options can draw away potential subs.

“When you break down the pay, it’s in an hourly range of $10 to $13 an hour,” said Baker. “As a company, the top three companies that we provide employees to in the state of Delaware that are providing similar wages, is Lowes, Bob Evans, McDonalds. And so there is now a new competing industry with retail, hospitality that are in the same pay ranges.”

Christine Smith agrees. “In years where the unemployment rate is high, the sub fill rates tend to be high,” she said.

"It's not nearly enough money to get by on." - Todd Fisher, substitute teacher

In an attempt to attract more subs to Red Clay, Smith says the district raised pay rates for Class C subs several years ago, Class B subs last fall, and Class A and long term subs in March. She says it’s too soon to see whether the change is working.

“A substitute’s job is very very difficult,” said Smith. “So whatever we can do to make the job more attractive were willing to do.”

“I think that somewhere along the way substitutes have been forgotten,” said Todd Fisher, a Class B substitute teacher in New Castle County. Fisher says he’s able to make ends meet because he’s a retired merchant marine, and has a pension.

“If you need to pay rent where you’re living and you’re trying to drive a car and buy food and buy clothes, it’s not nearly enough money to get by on. Even with the increase Red Clay has provided, it’s not enough money.”

Joan Yulduzian is also a sub. She taught full time for 31 years and has been subbing in New Castle County for the past six. She also has a pension and does other odd jobs to help pay the bills. She says she could not get by on subbing alone.  “It’s not doable,” she said. “Nope, nope, nope. “

In 2001, the fiscal year the state’s minimum pay rates were implemented, the daily rate of $104 for Class A substitute teachers had the same buying power as about $150 this spring. The Class B daily rate of $83 had the same buying power in 2001 as $119.74 this spring. Class C’s $66 per day had the same buying power in 2001 as $95.22 this spring.

Both Yulduzian and Fisher agree long term substitute teacher positions can be especially difficult.

“So you’re staying after school for meetings for the child, you’re meeting with the parent, you’re doing report cards, you’re planning the curriculum, you’re grading papers, tests, … you’re going on field trips,” said Yulduzian. “I don’t think so. I’m not going to do anything of the kind.”

The state does not provide a pay bump for subs who fill a long term vacancy— though several districts do provide additional per diem pay out of the local funds for long term subs.

"This is a crisis in the classrooms." - Joan Yulduzian, substitute teacher

Yulduzian says raises, like the one Red Clay instituted, will help attract her to those districts in the future. “Absolutely,” she said. “I’m going to really try to steer myself in that direction. Because I know it’s going to help out.”

She adds the shortage makes the jobs of full-time teachers harder.  “I mean this is a crisis in the classrooms,” said Yulduzian. “Because the regular full-time teachers have to give up their planning periods and they have to cover for these vacant classrooms where there’s no substitute teacher.”

Stephanie Ingram of the Delaware State Education Association is among those who think a change to the state-mandated minimum pay rates for subs would help.


“How can we get legislators to realize that … we’re not paying them enough,” she said. “You know, to come in for the day, it’s what, like a hundred dollars?  … That’s really not going to guarantee that you're attracting people that will want to stay or are able to stay in that position.”

State Rep. Earl Jaques wants to find more money to allocate for substitute teachers. He thinks the 12-week paid parental leave for state and school district employees that went into effect this month could exacerbate the shortage.

“So a student could end up with a substitute teacher for twelve weeks, which is a third of the school year— and then we’re going to test them on that subject, right?” said Jaques. “And they’re going to have a substitute which might be in some cases just a warm body. Because we’re having a hard time getting substitute teachers.”

State Rep. Sean Matthews plans to improve the situation by offering a bill to increase the existing minimum pay rates for substitutes.    

“With unemployment at a 12-year low … the minimum wage hike, there are higher-paying jobs available elsewhere,” said Matthews. “So to stay competitive we definitely have to look at that rate. And that is something we’ve heard from other subs, who are good subs, who are considering doing something different because there’s other opportunities available out there.”

Matthews says the size of the increase will depend on funding availability. He says he hopes to introduce the legislation in the coming months.


For subs like Todd Fisher, a change can’t come soon enough. “If the educational system at all values substitute teachers, they need to show them respect by providing them with a living wage.”


Sophia Schmidt is a Delaware native. She comes to Delaware Public Media from NPR’s Weekend Edition in Washington, DC, where she produced arts, politics, science and culture interviews. She previously wrote about education and environment for The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, MA. She graduated from Williams College, where she studied environmental policy and biology, and covered environmental events and local renewable energy for the college paper.