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Missoula County Public Schools calls for more substitutes for back to school

Missoula County Public Schools is working to recruit more substitutes by raising wages, recognizing the need for a large pool of subs to better support teachers.
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Posted at 3:30 PM, Sep 10, 2023
and last updated 2023-09-14 15:12:26-04

MISSOULA - Teacher shortages are a well-known issue across the country, but another side of the problem is the lack of substitutes.

Missoula County Public Schools (MCPS) is working to recruit more substitutes by raising wages and raising awareness. District officials recognize the need for a large pool of subs to prevent teacher burnout and provide support for the staff.

Ashley Mix — who is responsible for hiring substitute teachers and paraeducators at MCPS — says on any given day, the school district is down 120 teachers and paras.
Last school year, the pool of subs totaled 80 to 100 people, according to Mix. However, many of those people can only work on select days, meaning the full count is not always available

“We have a lot of people who want to help out, but there's just such a demand for them, we can always use more,” Mix says.

When classrooms are left unfilled, administrators may be forced to sub, other teachers will give up their break or prep time, and classes are combined or turned into study halls.

“It's a little unfortunate, kind of trickles down to everyone if they're not filled,” Mix says. “Kind of all hands on deck.”

Ashley Mix
Ashley Mix, substitute technician for MCPS, hopes to have a roster of 200 subs for the 2023-24 school year.

Even within the first days of the school year, Mix was already faced with a lack of subs. Despite teacher contracts not allowing time off during the first and last two weeks of school, on Sept. 5, 2023, 37 positions were left unfilled.

Kelliann Blackburn taught for 27 years in Whitefish and when she retired two years ago, she decided to start substitute teaching.

“I knew that I wanted to still be in the classroom around kids, and so I signed up to sub,” she says.

Blackburn experienced firsthand the struggle to find substitutes and members being hesitant to take time off in case her students were left alone.

“You know sometimes you'd be gone and not know if your kids were going to study hall all day because they couldn't find a warm body to cover and knowing that your curriculum or what you were learning wasn't happening, so you'd have to come back and get caught up,” Blackburn says. “So what's going through your mind is man, I hope there's somebody there so that my kids can continue, so they have a good day.”

Keliann Blackburn
Keliann Blackburn encourages anyone with an interest in kids to consider substitute teaching. Blackburn spends most of her time at Hellgate High School.

While Blackburn herself has a history in education, she wants to encourage anyone to try it out. She says her best subs during her own teaching career were not educators, but just community members who cared about kids.

“I think the important thing people need to know is that you don't have to be an educator, you just need to care," Blackburn says.

Shawn Gray — a social worker who has subbed for over six years — says throughout her experience, she’s always noticed a need for more subs.

“When I first started I put myself out there to work at a lot of different schools. And then I got overwhelmed because the need was so great,” she says.

Today, Gray spends all her time at Sentinel High School in the paraeducator realm. She likes to work with structured learning and life skills programs because they play to her strengths as a social worker, but she says substitutes don’t necessarily need to be professionals on the subject.

“You don’t have to be an expert in that field, I guess is what I’m saying,” she says. “You know, if you pick up a math class, you do not have to have a math degree. They kind of walk through it for you, so that’s nice.”

Shawn Gray
Shawn Gray decided to become a substitute teacher because of an experience with an educator during her youth. She hopes to have the same effect on kids now as that teacher had on her.

Each teacher leaves a detailed plan for the substitute to follow, and Gray says the surrounding faculty are there for support.

The low wages and misunderstanding of what is asked of a sub are the main causes of the shortage, according to Gray.

“It's twofold. I think one, pay is not a great wage for folks,” she says. “However, I think the biggest fear is folks really don't know that can I really do it? Am I qualified to be a teacher? What if I do something wrong? What if I say something wrong?”

This year, MCPS raised the wages from $14.50 per hour to $15.35 for substitute teachers and $15.25 per hour for substitute paras.

Mix is hoping to see a rise in subs for this school year, “I’m hopeful, very hopeful, and I'm really hoping that the wage increase will really help our numbers rise."

Overall, available substitutes are needed for teachers to feel comfortable taking time off and to prevent lapses in student education.

“You know, we ask the teachers to be there for all of these mouths day in and day out and sometimes they also need a break, whether it's a vacation or a medical thing or whatever,” Gray says. “So for them to know that we have a pool of subs that they can call on and be like, I need you. I trust you to come in and join my class. I think it's super, super important.”

Mix says she works to make the hiring process as easy as possible. Candidates need to have a minimum of a high school diploma and can apply on the MCPS website.

“We tried to turn it over as quick as we can. So when someone's interested, they can start as soon as possible," Mix says.