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Thomas College education majors fill 'critical' shortage of substitute teachers

In August, faculty attended a Maine superintendents' conference where administrators expressed a desire for teachers to get more experience before student teaching.

WESTBROOK, Maine — Two months into the 2022-23 school year, districts across Maine are still struggling to find enough qualified people to fill the variety of vacant educator positions.

Colleges across the state are trying to help.

Lewiston Public Schools and the Alfond Center for Workforce and Professional Development started the Educator Pathway Program. The Maine Workforce Development Compact funds the program, making it free for employees of any organization in the compact, like Lewiston Public Schools. The students can become certified ed techs or professional educators.

Now, Thomas College is mobilizing its "pre-service" teachers: students majoring in education.

The college updated its requirements for education majors this fall.

In addition to the 15 weeks of student teaching the Maine Department of Education requires, and on top of the "advanced field" hours Thomas College and many other education majors take during their junior year, Thomas changed its policy to require 200 field service hours before students take "advanced field" hours or student teaching.

Thomas College's Lender School of Education (LSOE) strongly encourages students to earn these hours by substitute teaching.

The change to the requirements comes from direct feedback from district superintendents. LSOE staff attended a superintendents' conference in August where administrators expressed the desire for teachers to get more experience before student teaching.

"Then we started thinking, 'This is a great opportunity for our pre-service teachers. It's a win-win right?'" Dr. Katie Rybakova, an associate professor of education and chair of LSOE, said. "There's only so much you can learn to teach without going out and teaching."

Rybakova said seven students currently substitute in MSAD 54 in Skowhegan.

For education majors like first-year student Delaney Butts, substitute teaching is mutually beneficial.

Butts substitutes in Westbrook, her hometown, where she hopes to eventually teach.

"Subbing is a really good one because you also get paid, and subs are needed everywhere," Butts said. "Ever since I was younger, I've always wanted to be a teacher. I just love kids, and I want to make a difference in their lives."

Nearly every district in the state is looking for substitutes. Many are looking for ed techs. Dozens are looking for classroom teachers.

Data from the Maine Department of Education show substitute teacher pay has dropped significantly since 2013. Then, long-term subs made an average of $42,242 a year. In 2022, that data shows long-term subs made $30,825, a decrease of 27 percent in that span.

This challenge comes in part due to more teachers retiring, some earlier than expected, or leaving the profession for other work with higher pay.

“It's hard. We try to stay as consistent as possible,” Alexis Jones, principal of Saccarappa Elementary School, said. “We try to use staff within the building to support so that they're familiar faces for the kids to make it as easy a transition for the students as possible. But it definitely is a challenge."

“I think the need is critical for the next generation of teachers. I think it also matters to make sure they're well prepared for a very complex system where they're being asked to do a lot,” Rybakova said.

Not only do the pre-service hours fill a need for schools and kids, but it also gives students like Butts a chance to explore several subjects or age groups to find a good fit.

When NEWS CENTER Maine met Butts, she was substituting for an art teacher, leading that subject for the first time.

"You can see how a lesson plan should be. You can see what kids want to do at that age. So, you can see how to plan a lesson when you're in your practicum,” Butts said. "It helps me. I'm not as nervous because I've done it.”

"Hopefully, we're able to give them some good experience moving forward to help them in their careers. And down the line, maybe they'll even be applicants for permanent positions in our schools,” Jones said.

"I want to come back here and teach, and I already kind of have an in," Butts added.

An "in" with the staff, and the students.

"I made a connection with them, and that's my goal. I want to make [a] connection with kids so I can be someone they can trust. If something goes on at home, I want them to come to me and talk to me about it, and I can be that shoulder for them," Butts said.

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