where's waldo

Where’s Waldo? The Hunt for Substitute Teachers Edition

Caitlin Gawlowski Current Affairs, Education

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Teachers have worn many hats for a long time. Some of these hats may have been expected, while others are a surprise.

Teacher hat: check.
Parent hat: unexpected check.
Nurse hat: I never expected to do a lice check on students since I do not know what I am looking for, but that happened; check.
Counselor hat: This probably should be higher on the list; check.
Cat in the Hat: check. You know you have dressed up as something for Halloween, spirit days, or even just because!

Teachers have always proved to be adaptable to any scenario that we might find ourselves in at school. I knew that I would need to be more adaptable than ever going into this new role this year as Instructional Support Teacher and that I would probably be adding some hats to my head this year (looking at you chaos coordinator, also known as kindergarten lunch duty teacher). I never imagined that I would wear this one in particular as often as I have recently: substitute teacher.

Where in the world are all the substitute teachers?

Teachers meticulously plan their absences from work so their students are as minimally impacted by their absence as possible. Teachers do not like to miss work, and often schedule all of their doctor appointments, car or house maintenance appointments, or any other necessary but boring thing during breaks so that a substitute is not needed. I found it usually more difficult to prepare for a substitute than it was to inconvenience myself on the weekends or over breaks (or honestly, to just not do these appointments ever) and to take care of things that I desperately needed to take care of. I always had the most difficult time being away from my students, and I know that I am not the only teacher who has ever felt this way.

Sub requests will be placed in the system weeks in advance so that there is enough notice for a sub to pick up a job. Teachers await the notification email saying that a substitute has picked up their job, but are met with the sounds of crickets chirping. The lack of substitutes picking up planned absences is astounding. It makes it even more challenging for schools to get last-minute substitutes for things that unexpectedly come up like a car not starting in the morning, a sick child, or when your husband accidentally locks himself and your toddler out of the house and you need to leave work to let them back inside because it is over 100 degrees out.

So what do schools do when teachers are out taking the days that they are reluctantly (and 100% entitled to) taking and there is no substitute? A certified teacher in a support role, such as myself, takes on the job; classes are split amongst the other teachers at school, which is not ideal for students being split up, the students in the classroom they are going into for the day, or the teacher who now has another set of students to watch over and manage; administrators will even step in to sub as a last resort. When I am pulled into a classroom to sub, it results in my intervention groups getting canceled at the last minute, and another staff member filling in for my duties as I cover for another teacher. It is far from a perfect system and is more like putting a bandaid on a bullet wound; maybe it temporarily solves the problem, but the problem still exists and is not getting any better.

When teachers are lucky enough to find Waldo, in this case, a substitute teacher, they share their contact information with others at school so good substitutes can be recruited when the need arises. The problem is that this happens at every classroom and school these substitutes are found at and their schedule is booked months in advance with pre-arranged absences. These substitute teachers work as much as they want to, but there are not enough of these gems to meet the demand.

The school district increased the substitute pay this year, which has had no effect on the substitutes picking up jobs. We are still scrambling to find coverage with available staff, and this problem is not exclusive to Arizona. California, Oregon, Ohio, and Florida are a few states that are also suffering from substitute teacher shortages.

Waldo, where are you hiding? There are teachers searching for you across the United States. We would really love to find you so we can finally take a day off.


Caitlin was born to be a teacher, although she did not realize that teaching was her calling until she went to college. She has always loved to write, and began college with the mindset of becoming a journalist. Before beginning her freshman year of college, she changed my major to Elementary Education on a whim and has never looked back. She graduated Summa Cum Laude with a Bachelor's degree in Elementary Education from Arizona State University, and won the Outstanding Student Teacher Award during her student teaching experience in the Cave Creek Unified School District. Caitlin spent 9 years in the classroom teaching 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade. She became a National Board Certified Teacher in 2018, and holds a certificate in Early and Middle Childhood Literacy: Reading/Language Arts. The 2021-2022 school year marks the beginning of her 10th year teaching, where she will be working as an Academic Interventionist, and supporting other National Board candidates on their journey toward National Board certification. If she is lucky enough to have free time, you can find her traveling Arizona with her husband and son, spending time with her friends and family, taking group fitness classes, or enjoying a good book.

Comments 1

  1. James King

    Such an important conversation! I was about to post a blog about substitutes also… I’m glad I read this one first :).

    Certainly, there’s a need for this conversation to get amplified – our school boards and state must take action!

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