Great Idea: Where to find a substitute teacher in rural Nebraska

Great Idea: Where to find a substitute teacher in rural Nebraska

While conducting research for my recent Edutopia story, “Modernizing the Search for Substitute Teachers” I came across a fantastic program in rural Nebraska. While the story focused mainly on technological upgrades to the cumbersome morning process of finding substitute teachers, this win-win still relied on human capital. The North East Nebraska Teacher Academy (NENTA) deploys Wayne State College student teachers as subs in surrounding school districts where there simply aren’t enough people to fill the need.

It reminded me of other programs, UTSA’s UTeachSA program and the “JA in a Day” partnership with between local school districts and Palo Alto College. All of these programs capitalize on the benefits of getting student teachers in front of  students as soon as possible. All help student teachers find their niche, or get out of the profession before it’s “too late.” The programs also give an infusion of enthusiasm and youthful energy to the classroom. Teachers, like parents, love it when their kids can learn from other people (especially when that new face is saying exactly what the familiar adult has been saying for weeks…but now the kids will listen).

What makes the NENTA program stand out is considerable need it meets for regional school districts.

Finding subs in rural Nebraska is really…really difficult. My research for the Edutopia article unearthed two cool Uber-like technologies that allow districts to cull from a giant sub pool. Of course, proximity to such professionals is helpful, which is why it’s not surprising to see one of the Uber-like companies working to get into schools in New York City and Boston. The other works in Washington DC, New Jersey, and the Bay Area, all densely populated. Gig-based systems flourish where there’s a concentration of supply and demand.

In rural Nebraska, the situation is a little different. Winside, Nebraska is a village two hours northwest of Omaha, and its public schools have a serve around 200 students. The district keeps about six or seven subs on their internal call sheet, said Principal Sarah Remm, but even with a tiny district, that’s rarely enough. When she took the position 17 years ago, she said, they had 20 on the list, which is closer to what the district needs. Now, when slots go unfilled, she often has to step in herself.

As subs have become harder to find, Winside has increasingly relied on student teacher from nearby Wayne State College. These college students are studying to be teachers, and NENTA has turned out to be a win-win, Remm says, “I’ve used them a ton.”

Like other student teacher programs, Remm said the Wayne State subs bring welcome energy. She also welcomes the fact that she can focus on her job as principal. When there aren’t enough subs to go around, Remm herself has to fill in.

While urban and rural settings differ in terms of the sheer number of available subs, the qualifications for the position remain the same, said Nicholas Shudak, dean of Wayne State’s school of education,“The (priority) is to be able to make sure that we fill these positions with qualified people.”

Those people can be hard to find, he said, because of long drives and lower pay in many rural areas. Wayne State, like many colleges in small towns across the country, is ideally located. It’s a reservoir of exactly the kind of talent needed, Remm said.

Student teachers treat the subbing experience as professional opportunity. They are eager to apply what they have learned, and keen to do a good job and get asked back to sub again. Jobs in rural areas are harder to come by, and subbing allows students to support themselves while pursuing the career they want. Some students earned up to $4,000 in a semester, Shudak said, “You can’t make that kind of money with a side job.”

The ultimate hope of course, is that a sub gig could lead to a permanent job.

“Many of them that go into NENTA feel ready to do this work,” Shudak explained. 

There’s plenty of need to go around, he said, and it would be an easy model to scale. With 42 total substitute teachers in the program, NENTA completed 542 sub jobs last school year. Another 319 gigs went untapped.

NENTA has worked out some of the inevitable kinks of mixing business and education. They tried a fee-based model with NENTA as a sort of staffing agency, but in the end it worked better if the subs were independent contractors. The districts pay a little more, but most are willing to do so for the quality of the subs.

Nebraska’s State education agency requires that the student teacher have at least 60 credit hours. They apply to the NENTA program, which counts as a one-hour course credit per semester. Tiffany Plager facilitates the program, and said she treats the students teachers like “reflective practitioners.”

“They get great insight into the classroom,” she said. When they return to class, they get a benefit that most subs don’t have—a community of colleagues.

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