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The case of the missing substitutes

WHS calls on Swing Education: The Uber of substitute teaching

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The case of the missing substitutes

Fiona Gillen, R1 Editor-in-Chief

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One class was unsupervised. Another was canceled. Students in a third decided to leave after half the period went by with no substitute in sight—only to receive cut slips the next day. For WHS students, these experiences are all too familiar. The underlying problem: a shortage of substitute teachers.

Substitute teachers are vital to WHS. While many substitutes are beloved members of the WHS community, a new problem has emerged in recent years—there aren’t enough.

Secretary Jean Kolterjahn is faced with the daunting task of assigning substitutes to fill daily teacher absences, working to ensure that no class is left unattended. Yet her job is becoming increasingly difficult.

During the recent delayed opening on Nov. 16, 24 teachers called in absent with only 13 substitutes to fill their spots. Ms. Kolterjahn was forced to ask other teachers to supervise classes during their free or preparatory periods. As a last resort, classes were canceled and students were sent to the library or given a free period.

Mr. David Owens, a substitute teacher in Westfield for four years, recognizes the struggle to find substitutes and is called daily about substitute opportunities throughout the district.

“[WHS] is where I do most of my subbing and Ms. Kolterjahn needs someone every day for somewhere,” he explained.

To combat this shortage, Westfield has partnered with Swing Education, a company that supplements substitute teachers for over 1,000 school districts in California, Washington D.C., Texas, Tennessee and New Jersey.

“In chatting with a variety of school leaders, we often hear that schools and districts struggle to hire enough of their own substitute teachers to meet their needs,” said Asha Visweswaran, COO and co-founder of Swing Education. “Instead of relying solely on an internal group of substitutes, schools and districts get access to all of the Swing subs in their area.”

“We’re using the service as a safety net to fill positions when none of our own substitutes have picked up the assignments,” said Westfield’s Human Resources Specialist Barbara Ball in reference to Swing Education. “This does not replace our substitutes, but augments when there is a need.”

Swing Education hires substitute teachers and then allows their partnered school districts to request teachers to be sent to their school—similar to Uber, but with substitute teachers.

“[The Human Resources Department] was pleased to learn that every substitute who works for Swing Education has a college degree and has been vetted by the same background checks and employer verification as Westfield uses,” said Ball.

Visweswaran explained a three-part process to ensure that her company’s substitute teachers are of the highest quality. First, they must comply with all the New Jersey Department of Education requirements, including the completion of a comprehensive background check.

Then, Swing Education provides their substitutes with free access to the Successful Teaching and Educational Development Institute (STEDI) SubSkills course, an organization that has trained nearly 125,000 substitute teachers nationwide. The optional course offers a range of research-backed classes on skills ranging from classroom management to teaching strategies to professionalism.

Finally, districts can build a list of preferred substitute teachers, remove those who weren’t a good fit and submit feedback—all in an effort to ensure the quality of Swing Education substitutes.

While Kolterjahn and Ball are excited to see Swing Education’s impact in Westfield’s schools, others within the district have concerns.

“I don’t like [Swing Education],” said Owens. “[Outsourcing] has become the favored method of corporate America because it keeps costs down. Where [does Westfield] want to allocate their budget? Do they want to allocate it for doing the work on their own or farm it out?”

Owens went on to question why it would be easier for Swing Education to find substitute teachers rather than Westfield’s own recruiters. His theory: lack of advertising.

“I think the reason Swing Education may be more effective is because they have a large advertising and promotional budget to recruit online through various means,” he explained.

Kolterjahn agreed with Owens, saying, “Word isn’t out there, because I always see the same faces.”

Maryanne Molinelli, a consultant for the Department of Education and new substitute, believes many don’t know that the district’s need for substitutes exists. “I think Westfield must go out and start recruiting,” she said.

Swing Education advertises in a wide variety of ways, ranging from conferences to social media and newspaper ads to referrals from existing substitute teachers and schools. Visweswaran also explained how word of mouth could be a helpful recruitment tool.

“School leaders trust other school leaders above all, so we’re fortunate that we receive many positive referrals in the K-12 community,” she said.

According to Ball, Westfield uses the same advertising methods as Swing Education. Her department also encourages college students to become substitutes after completing their student teaching assignments within the district.

“It’s always a pleasure to interview someone who says that it’s word of mouth that brings them to Westfield to substitute because they have a friend or family member who has enjoyed working with Westfield’s students,” said Ball.

Despite concerns, many see the addition of Swing Education to the Westfield School District as a necessary solution to the substitute shortage. Classes will no longer be left unsupervised. Others won’t have to be canceled. Students will no longer receive cut slips for leaving a class after a substitute fails to show. The Uber of substitute teaching is here to save the day—and its name is Swing Education.

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