Principals are substituting in history classes, math teachers are substituting in science classes and college students are substituting in English classes as schools across the state and country are facing a shortage of substitute teachers, according to an article by Education Week.

Though the substitute teacher shortage is not a new problem, the pandemic has worsened the issue, Sara Skretta, the certification officer in the College of Education and Human Sciences, said.

The majority of substitutes are retired teachers, Skretta said. Due largely to the pandemic, retired teachers are not returning as substitutes. According to a survey of 482 retired teachers conducted by the Nebraska State Education Association, only about 33% were planning to substitute during the 2020-21 school year. The largest reason was that they were at a high-risk age and had a general concern for personal health and safety. 

Skettra said school districts are asking college students to get their substitute teacher certifications in order to fill vacancies. 

“[Students] have been subbing for a while. But now what is happening is districts are asking students to get their sub license,” Skretta said. “Whereas before, it was kind of, if you get it, you get it, and we'll use you.” 

Many education students who have completed 60 hours of credits are eligible to earn their local substitute certificates, Skretta said.

Lane Kelley, a senior agricultural education and pre-veterinary medicine double major, said he began substituting in 2020 after a conversation with the principal at Wilber-Clatonia High School. 

“He told me about the substitute teacher shortage and how they're letting college kids do it now,” Kelley said. “He's like, ‘You should go and do it.’”

Kelley is now in the Education Service Unit 6 Local Substitute Teacher Consortium, which covers districts such as Crete, Waverly and Seward. He said being employed by the ESU provides flexibility around his class schedule. He is only allowed to substitute on days when he does not have classes.

Kelley said substituting provides him with experience outside of his classes at UNL.

“I always kind of wanted to get in the classroom and just experience it,” Kelley said. “Subbing is a great way for us college kids to really dive in and experience it for what it really is.”

He does not always substitute for the area he is getting endorsed for in teaching, which is agricultural education. Kelley said he has substituted for classes such as high school math, and he finds that one of the hardest components of substitute teaching is classroom management. 

“As a sub, kids are going to test you to find their boundaries, and they're going to push them a little bit. You have to be prepared for that,” Kelley said.

Lincoln Chamberlin, an eighth grade English teacher at Goodrich Middle School in Lincoln, said he has had to fill in for other classes during his planning periods, including classes like science and math. Substituting was difficult at times, he said. Classroom management was one of the challenges he faced. 

“Students have an implied perception that when there is a sub, the rules don't apply anymore,” Chamberlin said in an email. “I've had to learn to set expectations pretty quickly when in a new classroom setting because students aren't familiar with how my classes are normally run. Some classes go well. Others can just be hard regardless of what you do.”

Kelley said he felt prepared to handle classroom management partly due to tips he was given in classes he had taken at UNL. However, it is something you have to learn through real classroom experience, he said. 

“It's a true test for them to see if teaching is something they would like to pursue full time,” Chamberlin said. “The cons are that they aren't getting a totally accurate representation of setting class expectations from the first day of school and having students become comfortable with them over time. Luckily this will be something they would see during student teaching, but subbing as a college student would give them a true look of the classroom that exceeds what pedagogical theory they go over in classes.”