When the teacher is called away, who will mind the class?
Kenai Peninsula schools are asking that question more than ever this year. The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District has put out the word that it needs more substitutes for teachers and support staff. The district's predicament offers an opportunity for people seeking part-time work this winter.
"We hired so many of our substitutes as teachers, aides and tutors that we depleted our pool," said Todd Syverson, the district's assistant superintendent for human resources. "Some principals have had to actually go into class for the day, because we have not been able to find a sub."
The district hired many former subs to fill grant-funded positions and vacancies created by the retirement incentive program, which ran from 1997 through last school year. Tight budgets over the past decade have kept substitute pay unattractively low. And national trends toward low unemployment and a teacher shortage contribute to the scarcity of subs.
At the same time, the district has more employees taking medical and personal leave. Fewer than usual of the district's teachers are in their middle years. The younger staff are more likely to go on family or maternity leave; older workers are more likely to have emergencies with elderly parents or health problems of their own, Syverson said.
Health leave, staff training and school-related activities each account for about one third of the demand for substitute time.
Hurst leads her students from a portable classroom to the gym.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Last year, the school district, which is the borough's largest employer, used about 54,000 hours of substitute teachers and 24,000 hours of subs for support staff, such as aides, tutors, custodians and secretaries, said Personnel Specialist Julie Holland.
This fall the district is actively recruiting substitutes and holding orientation trainings.
Wednesday, Syverson addressed about 30 new subs in Soldotna.
"There is a very good chance your phone will be ringing on a regular basis," he said. "We would love to start calling you, maybe as early as Friday."
Cindy Hurst, filling in for a Sears Elementary School teacher on maternity leave, said she has found that to be the case.
Last year she worked about three days a week plus a three-month long-term stint. This year she has noticed the small pool of subs and knows of one school that called 33 people to fill a slot.
Syverson described his ideal substitute as "someone who loves kids, is flexible and is a team player."
To qualify as substitute teachers, applicants must have at least 60 semester hours from an accredited college. They must submit resumes and references, plus pass screenings for a criminal background, tuberculosis and drugs.
For the right people, substituting for the district can open doors.
Hurst, who earned an education degree from Kenai Peninsula College in 1998, is in her fourth year of subbing. The experience has enriched her education classes and introduced her to children and educators around the area.
It has been a source of inspiration and ideas, she said.
"I am trying to get on with the district," she said. "I figure I am getting quality time in the classroom."
Those with certification are encouraged to apply for permanent jobs with the district.
"We do like to hire Alaskans," Syverson told the trainees. "Opportunities do come up during the school year."
Substituting can be a way to visit remote areas. The district flies substitutes to the over-the-water village schools.
Subbing can complement summer jobs. Subs include commercial fishers, fishing guides and people who operate bed and breakfast lodgings, Syverson said.
The work also allows flexibility. People can decide when they want to work and take off for travel or other reasons.
The money, however, is modest. Substitute teachers with Alaska teaching certificates earn $100 per day; those without certification earn $84. Substitutes for support positions are paid hourly rates that vary by job.
Syverson explained that substitute pay rates were slashed in 1986, when the state and district plunged into recession. The rates are gradually increasing but remain about where they were 20 years ago.
But the opportunity to begin a teaching career or to help children is more of an attraction for many people than the pay, he said.
Wednesday's recruits included a parent who had been volunteering in the classroom, seasonal workers and college students working toward educational degrees. Retired teachers make up another large segment of the sub pool.
Some slots are priorities for the district to fill.
Fridays, Mondays and days near holidays are the ones for which teachers most frequently request leave and need subs. Some areas, particularly Seward and the remote villages, have chronic shortages of subs. High school grades and specialties such as mathematics and foreign languages have a particular need for qualified substitutes.
The district plans more substitute training next month.
Sessions are planned Nov. 17 for substitute custodians, classroom aides and tutors; Nov. 21 for substitute teachers and Nov. 22 for school secretaries.
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