Here’s why substitute teachers are in high demand but in short supply in Hawaii


After graduating with an English degree from the University of Hawaii Manoa, Jillian Morrison wanted to gain experience as a teacher before committing to graduate school or a teaching license.

She therefore decided to work as a substitute teacher a few days a week in several elementary schools in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. In October 2020, at age 22, she became a long-term contractor, teaching seventh grade math at a local middle school for the remainder of the school year.

“I had no teaching experience, and really almost no work experience when I took on the long-term role,” Morrison said. “Honestly, I was surprised they even wanted me to do this considering how new I was.”

“I didn’t apply, they came to me and asked me. I guess they were desperate,” she said.

Angela Isaacson served as a third-grade substitute teacher at Kaneohe Elementary School this year until a new permanent hire could arrive this week. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Supply and demand

Demand for surrogates has intensified as the state Department of Education – under the weight of surging Covid cases due to the highly contagious omicron variant – grapples with high numbers absences of teachers since the resumption of school after the winter holidays.

According to DOE data, nearly 2,000 out of 13,000 teachers statewide on a single day last week called in sick or stayed home for other reasons like vacation or personal time off. Even in the first half of the school year, teacher absence rates ranged from 14% to 18% in some geographies, with an average of 16% statewide.

“I could sub every day; enough is needed. The secondary line calls me constantly. — supply teacher Michelle Librie

Meanwhile, there aren’t enough substitutes to replace teachers, forcing some schools to herd children into gymnasiums and cafeterias to minimize the need for supervision and drawing criticism over the DOE’s insistence on keeping children on campus instead of returning to online education.

The week of January 10, between 350 and nearly 500 daily replacement requests could not be satisfied, according to the DOE. In some complex areas, like Baldwin-Kekaulike-Maui and Nanakuli-Waianae on Oahu, the unfilled underrate reached 30%.

DOE spokeswoman Nanea Kalani said the department is “deeply grateful to our teachers who go above and beyond during this difficult time to help where help is needed” and praised “school administrators who juggle with multiple responsibilities.

Staffing shortages have highlighted problems recruiting substitute teachers, who are paid by the day and were already in short supply before the pandemic. As of Jan. 11, the DOE system had 3,922 substitutes, up from 4,738 in the 2019-20 school year.

Little experience necessary

The DOE said it was trying to alleviate the shortage of substitutes by lowering the minimum employment criteria to a high school diploma, implementing an online application form and notifying teaching applicants full-time substitute teaching opportunities.

Flyers promoting the position are also circulating on social networks.

At a news conference on Tuesday, Gov. David Ige said he supports Acting Superintendent Keith Hayashi’s plan to continue in-person classes despite the high number of Covid cases. On January 10, the department recorded an all-time high of at least 1,035 cases in 201 schools.

“We recognize and recognize that in schools there will be absences due to staff and teacher shortages,” Ige said, adding that Hayashi was working hard to find replacements.

Some DOE schools have independently transitioned to temporary distance learning due to high student and staff absences, most recently Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle in Kauai. Last week it was Sunset Elementary and Waianae Intermediate.

Earlier this month, Hayashi told principals they could invoke a school code allowing them to assign non-school staff to classrooms if needed.

John Wataoka, the principal of Waianae Intermediate, said he has not had to assign non-teaching staff to classroom duties, but the school has deployed varsity coaches and resource teachers to cover classes.

Many students and staff have been absent since the start of the second semester after the winter break, with the Omicron variant causing many absences. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Substitutes vary in experience and educational attainment, from those with only a high school diploma to those with a Hawaii teaching license, and they are paid accordingly – from $157.02 to $184.66 per day, rates set by the Hawaii legislature based on the DOE teacher salary grid.

Many replace because of the flexibility of schedules and because it is not a full-time responsibility. This allows them to pursue other jobs or activities, such as spending more time with their families. Some are retirees, others new graduates who want to try teaching before going full-time.

Hawaii substitutes, who are subject to background checks, do not receive benefits such as health insurance and are not paid extra if they fulfill their role for an extended period, which may extend from several months to an entire school year. Long-term substitutes are often responsible for writing lesson plans, assigning homework, giving grades, filling out report cards, and meeting with parents.

Additionally, little training is provided beyond a basic DOE certification course that covers things like how to handle an emergency medical situation in the classroom, but does not cover the basics of teaching such as relationship building or classroom management.

Phones ring without picking up

Preparations are basic: the online substitute teacher certification course in Hawaii takes about eight hours.

Morrison – the long-term maths assistant – said she relied on YouTube videos made by other teachers to really understand what she needed to know in class.

“I just hope I’ve done a good enough job of making sure all my students are learning math,” she said. “It’s such an important topic at such a critical time in their upbringing, and I hope I didn’t let them down because I wasn’t prepared or experienced.”

Most placement requests are routed through an appeal system known as TSEAS, and substitutes are under no obligation to accept them.

Morrison, who is pursuing a doctorate in clinical psychology at Chaminade University, said she receives five to 10 calls a day from the hotline and on top of that several calls from specific school officials who know her personally.

She even receives text messages from teachers for whom she has already been replaced, “asking if I can replace them for the dates they are trying to book in advance”.

“I wish I could help them all, but I can’t,” she said.

TSEAS calls are so frequent for substitute teacher Michelle Librie that she started putting her phone on Do Not Disturb while she slept.

“I could sub every day; enough is needed. The underline calls me constantly,” said the 10-year DOE veteran, who took time off shortly after the pandemic hit so she could spend more time at home with her children.

Librie chooses to subscribe only to Kailua Elementary and Kailua Intermediate, where her children attend, two to three days a week, because she knows their safety protocols and their Covid-19 environment.

In Hawaii, there is a history of strained relations between surrogates and the state. In 2012, the state agreed to pay 9,000 substitute workers $14 million to settle daily wage claims between November 2000 and June 2005. In 2017, the Hawaii Supreme Court rejected an offer to collect $56 million. additional dollars in back pay and interest on behalf of substitute and part-time teachers between 2000 and 2012.

Angela Isaacson was working as a paraprofessional – a class aide role where she floated from class to class – at Kaneohe Elementary School before she was asked to go through the replacement certification process so she could replace a few teachers.

She was a long-term substitute for fifth-grade students and most recently was supplying a third-grade class until a new full-time hire started this week.

Angela Isaacson, a 3rd grade substitute teacher at Kaneohe Elementary School, asks questions about the Charlotte's Web book during a class discussion.
Angela Isaacson was a paraprofessional at Kaneohe Elementary School before becoming a substitute. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Isaacson estimates she makes $40 more a day as a replacement, but she also says replacement is more work.

“It can be difficult. With Covid everything is different,” she said. “Children feel uncertain about many things.”

Still, Isaacson said it helped that the kids already knew her from her lunch and playtime service and her help with pickups and deliveries.

“You get to know kids by sight,” she said. “If I was completely new to school and went into the sub, then it would definitely be a lot more difficult because you really have to start from scratch.”

But for some people like Veronica Willkie, who was a former full-time DOE teacher turned substitute, it’s more than low pay that’s causing frustration in the education community.

“Money is part of it, but it has to do with respect,” she said. She said the DOE does not treat teachers gracefully when filling classrooms with 25 to 30 children or requiring teachers to purchase school supplies.

Sometimes it’s the little things that count.

At Kainalu Elementary, the school does not use the term “substitute” but “guest teacher”, which makes the children happy.

“That’s what keeps teachers coming back, every day,” Willkie said. “It’s knowing that even if the bosses who hire you don’t value you like you know you should be valued, your students do.”

Civil Beat reporter Blaze Lovell contributed to this report.

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