Chicago is attracting more substitute teachers — but here’s why many classrooms still go wanting

Chicago has struggled to recruit substitute teachers, particularly in the era of the gig economy, where residents looking for part-time work can turn to Uber or Lyft. 

An investigation earlier this year found that one in three teacher absences at majority black and Latino schools went unfilled. 

District leaders say some new efforts, from promised pay bumps for substituting at hard-to-fill schools to relaxing restrictions on retirees, are starting to pay off. The teachers’ union, too, has also advocated and won cost-of-living raises for substitutes across its new five-year contract.

“We’re really excited about the moves we’ve made,” said Matt Lyons, the district’s chief talent officer. “We really evened out the inequities in a lot of ways.”

But a bureaucratic hiring process and inaccessibility for less mobile substitutes still pose a barrier while the district searches for ways to improve the sub experience.

The new agreement between the teachers’ union and Chicago Public Schools awards substitutes annual cost-of-living raises of 3% to 3.5% over five years. That will boosts daily rates that currently start at $122 for day-to-day substitutes without teaching degrees to $226 for displaced teachers who have been waiting over a year to be rehired.

The district also now guarantees work-free lunches and professional development for substitutes. For the heart of the substitute corps — so-called cadre teachers who are on the payroll to accept most any assignment — the district lowered to three the average number of days per week they must accept jobs that come their way. Retired teachers can also work 120 days, up from 100, without losing their pension — a move in line with a new state law.

Making it easier to be a cadre substitute was a key result of the district’s efforts to lessen its shortage of subs, Lyons said.

“We’ve had more and more day-to-day subs actually decline offers to become cadre subs,” he said. “Either they don’t want the commitment to work every day, or they’re not comfortable going to any school we assign. In most cases, they say if they live in Rogers Park, how can they get down to a school in Pullman?”

The district hopes easing regulations on cadre substitutes and creating geographic boundaries for them to work within will help convert more day-to-day substitutes into the more consistent, reliable cadre substitutes, who also receive health care and other benefits, Lyons said. Recruitment efforts have also gotten a boost, with weekly interview days and a job fair this month.

The move is sorely needed in a district where one in three substitute requests went unfilled last year at schools that have a majority of black or Latino students. At 62 schools, there was no substitute for half of teacher absences, according to an August investigation by WBEZ

The issue is compounded by the fact that almost a third of the 520 district-run schools had at least one regular education or special education position vacant for the entire year, reporters found. The gaps were worse at schools serving a majority of black and low-income students, which were twice as likely to have yearlong vacancies.

To better the distribution of subs across the city, the district began offering higher pay for subbing at high-needs schools. This year, substitutes who fill requests at those 125 schools — nearly all of which are on the South or West sides — receive an extra $45 per day. 

The results are promising, Lyons said. The 25 schools that had the hardest time filling sub requests went from filling just under half their requests last year to almost 66% this year. “That really evened out the inequities in a lot of ways,” Lyons said. 

But some say the lengthy application process is choking the pipeline for substitutes, worsening the shortage. 

The district tells substitute teaching applicants that it can take two months to hear back after their initial interview. Once they do, applicants have three days to get tested for drugs and tuberculosis and submit a background check. 

One former CPS teacher, who required anonymity to speak candidly because she did not want her ability to sub negatively impacted, said she first applied in mid-September. Three months later, she is working on getting her college transcript to the district, with the hope she’ll be able to start teaching in January. 

“I have another job, so this would really be part-time, but I don’t think a lot of other people have that flexibility,” she said. “How many people who are waiting around are actually becoming substitutes?”

Between the tests and background checks, voluntarily reinstating her teaching license to get a higher pay rate, and paying for an official college transcript, she has spent about $600 so far. 

The district confirmed that applicants must pay around $80 to $90 for their tests and background checks, although renewing a teaching license is not a requirement for substitute teachers.

Chicago is far from the only district facing a substitute shortage. Two-thirds of superintendents in Illinois called it a “serious problem” in a 2018 survey. The issue is compounded by the increasing availability of part-time work for companies like Lyft and Uber, Lyons said. 

“We’re competing in a different marketplace than 10 years ago,” he said. “The labor market is really strong for job seekers, especially those with college degrees.”

Substitute teachers and principals say the district can do more to to quickly get subs in classrooms. Providing parking spaces for subs would make it easier, especially for retired teachers, to work during winter months when icy streets and sidewalks can be a hazard. 

And while allowing retired teachers to work more days without losing their pension encouraged more to become substitutes, some suburban districts have no limits, making them more attractive places to substitute teach. Those districts also wait a full year before removing a non-active sub from the roster, whereas in Chicago, they only get 90 days. 

“If subs are retired, they might go to Florida for three months, and the 90 days is gone,” said substitute teacher Kathleen Cleary. “That’s a big factor.”