As the new school year gets under way, Howard County school administrators are expecting to deal with a recurring problem: a shortage of substitute teachers.
The school system has put in place additional support and incentives for substitutes and taken steps to reduce the number of days that full-time teachers are out of the classroom. Still, few expect the problem to be resolved soon.
'Come on in'
"I know when I first started [substituting], I had some of the people just say, 'Hey, come on in whether we call you or not,' " said Clarence Moore, a retired physicist who has been a substitute teacher for about four years. "There seems to be a shortage."
Substitute teachers were called on 38,294 times during the past school year, filling in for some of the about 3,100 county teachers. That was only slightly more than the 38,031 times substitutes were used in the 1996-1997 school year, but that represented a 9.9 percent increase over the previous school year, said Suzy Zilber, who manages the county's computerized "SubCentral" system.
"I think we've been affected by the low unemployment rate," said Zilber, who noted that the county opened three schools during the past school year and will open two more this school year. "A lot more college graduates are getting jobs right out of school. I don't see any reason to think it's going to improve a great deal."
The crunch continues to be "a problem at certain times," said Superintendent Michael E. Hickey. "My recollection is that our substitute usage was high [last] year and there were a number of days when we could not fill all the substitute slots."
A committee of teachers and administrators -- formed after a record number of teacher absences during the 1996-1997 school year -- met last year to come up with solutions. Inactive and unreliable substitute teachers were weeded out of the SubCentral pool, substitutes were offered $150 bonuses after serving their first 100 days and schools were asked to offer more assistance to substitutes, said Sydney L. Cousin, an associate superintendent of schools who chaired the advisory committee.
The school system began advertising for substitute teachers in PTA newsletters and other notices sent to parents, Cousin said. A publication subsidized by the school system, the Sub Times, was created to address issues that temporary instructors face in the classroom.
Furthermore, full-time teachers can no longer miss days to attend staff development activities at times when substitutes are least available -- Fridays and during December, Cousin said.
"Right now, we have over 900 people eligible to participate as subs, but there are not 900 people available every day," Cousin said.
'Foot in the door'
Many substitutes become full-time teachers, shrinking the pool.
Said Hickey, "They know that [substitute teaching] gives them a foot in the door if they're good and prove themselves, but it can also perpetuate the problem that we tend to have."
Sandra H. French, a Howard County school board member who was a substitute teacher several years ago, expressed concern about the treatment of substitutes.
"When I substituted, there were a couple of teachers who said, 'You are just a sub and you should do this,' " French recalled. "That can't happen. They have to look upon the substitute as another professional who is there for the day or the week to provide a valuable education. They are not supposed to be baby sitters."
Cousin said some substitutes have been given tags to wear that say "Visiting Teacher," which has a different connotation from their role.
Veteran substitute teachers say there is plenty of work to keep them busy.
"Basically, I could have worked almost every day if I had wanted to, especially if you're willing to go from school to school," said Orlando McGruder, a retired federal employee who has substituted in Howard County for eight years.
Though the substitute-teacher shortage has been described as a national problem, the situation appears to vary among other school districts in the region.
William Rooney, the Carroll school system's director of human resources, said the county may experience a substitute shortage during the holidays or in the spring, "when the weather is kind of nice." But that has not been a chronic problem, he said.
"Our problem comes about that any time we get around 140 subs a day, we have a problem in filling any more [slots]," Rooney said. Carroll County has 1,680 teachers, compared with Howard's 3,100.
"We're OK until we hit about that 140 mark. Our teachers have a very good attendance rate. We're fortunate," Rooney said.
But Gay Limbach, a personnel clerk for Anne Arundel schools, said that system has problems similar to Howard County's, partly because of the number of teacher workshops that are offered.
'Never have enough'
"You never have enough substitute teachers," Limbach said.
Cousin said solving the problem will take time.
"We need to look and see whether the things we have in place work before we institutionalize them," Cousin said.
"I don't expect it to go away."
Pub Date: 8/30/98