RHODE ISLAND -- Bradly Widener was working as a manager at one of the nation's most respected regional theaters when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. He and his co-workers were furloughed.
Boredom crept in quickly, so Widener decided to try something different. So, he became a substitute teacher.
“I’m not the person to sit around all day, there's only so much painting the house I can do before I go crazy,” he said.
Widener had taught fine arts in a theater setting, but never in a traditional classroom. After completing the program, he was hired to fill in for an English teacher on maternity leave at North Providence High School.
“As soon as I was done with the program, I was in the school teaching,” Widener said. “The need is so high and they've created this pipeline to really accelerate the process, which is great.”
Highlander partnered with the Rhode Island Department of Education and Freedom Dreams last fall to create the fast-track program after Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo put out a call urging citizens to become substitute teachers.
Highlander’s executive director Dana Borrelli-Murray said the original goal was to train 200 substitute teachers and have them in schools by December.
“We thought that sounded like a very lofty goal. Within the first week there were 1,200 people that signed up,” she recalled.
The free, 10-hour online course is unapologetically rigorous, designed to prepare first-time substitute teachers for COVID-19’s unique challenges. Its five modules cover topics like classroom management, lesson planning, educational jargon, virtual learning platforms, COVID-19 response and a day in the life of a substitute teacher. The program is asynchronous, so participants can complete the courses in any order they like.
“Substitute teaching is very challenging in normal circumstances and in COVID it's even more challenging,” Borrelli-Murray explained. “You can’t just take someone off the street, they’re going to have to have some learning about how to actually operate in a hybrid learning, distance learning or in-person environment.”
Each module has a pre-assessment to help participants gauge their background knowledge on the topic, reading materials, videos and a post-assessment.
For the last module, participants are given a scenario and have to come up with a solution to an issue they might face in a real-world classroom.
So far, the program has been a moderate success. While the course gained plenty of interest -- more than 1,500 signups since its launch -- the rate of those who finish the course and make it into the classroom is much lower.
Some applicants to the program are denied because they don’t meet the state’s educational requirements for working as a substitute teacher. Others have started the program but not followed through.
“Retention and attrition has been tough,” Borrelli-Murray admitted. “We've been polling those that drop out (or decide to never start) and we are hearing lots of reasons."
Some applicants paused because a family member got COVID-19. Others quit because their furloughs ended or they decided they were no longer comfortable going into school buildings after infections surged.
There are even candidates who completed the program but were turned off by complex hiring processes within the school districts. In spite of the demand, some districts still want an updated resume and three letters of recommendation.
“Many people answered the call to be subs and they only wanted to work one day a week and they were wanting to do it to give back to the community, and they’re just going to roll their eyes and not do it if you put barriers up,” Borrelli-Murray explained.
Nevertheless, 200 individuals have completed the program and about 140 are currently substitute teaching. There are a couple hundred more currently in the program, with new students graduating every day.
While the program was designed to address the state’s need for substitutes amid the pandemic, Borrelli-Murray believes the program could also meet another, long-term problem -- the lack of diversity among the educators.
“We also saw this as a potential opportunity for the state,” she said. “We knew that there was a huge shortage for teachers of color and this could potentially be an opening.”
The Providence Journal reported in 2019 that 89 percent of Rhode Island's educators were white, as opposed to just 58 percent of students.
Meanwhile, nearly 30 percent of those who enroll and graduate from the Highlander program were people of color.
Widener encouraged anyone who has an interest to try substitute teaching, but said that a background in teaching helps.
“If you have any teaching experience and you enjoy teaching, go for it. I don’t think you have to have teaching experience, but if you do it’s going to give you such a leg up,” he said.
After fulfilling his month and a half contract at North Providence, Widener returned to his former job at the theater, which had reopened. Nevertheless, he said he enjoyed his time subbing and was grateful for the experience.
Substitute teaching can be a difficult job, but a rewarding one. It can also offer a great deal of flexibility -- substitutes can choose which school districts they'd like to work in, what grade levels they're comfortable being assigned to and even with the days of the week they'd like to work.
Brenda Luhring, deputy superintendent at the North Central Ohio Educational Service Center, said schools in the area and across the state are in dire need of substitute teachers.
“Even before COVID, we couldn’t get enough substitute teachers in our districts,” she said. “We’re at this point in Ohio and I believe it's the same all over the country that there's just not enough substitutes.
"People aren’t going into education like they used to.”
Kevin Kimmel, superintendent of the Mid Ohio Educational Service Center, said there was already a shortage prior to the pandemic due to a large generation of retiring teachers and the availability of full-time teaching positions.
“The number of graduates (studying education) has steadily decreased over the years. Those that are coming out of college are able to land a job very early and they don't have to sub a year or two before they get a full-time job, which was not the case five years ago,” he said.
Kimmel said that many school districts responded by pulling in administrators and intervention specialists to teach, hiring full-time “floating” subs and by raising the daily rate paid to substitute teachers.
“Almost every school district has tried increasing their sub pay to try to attract more subs, but that really has not helped," he said.
As a non-profit, Highlander makes its tools open-source and readily available to other organizations. It’s possible the program could have even more success in Ohio, where educational service centers walk prospective substitutes through the licensing process. Every public school district is required to contract with an ESC, and most accept newly licensed substitutes approved by their ESC’s board without further interviews or requirements.
Kimmel said he wasn't familiar with the Highlander program, but said he would like to see more training opportunities available for substitutes.
“I think any type of training program, especially for those who did not go the traditional educational route, would be beneficial,” he said.