There’s a shortage behind the NC teacher shortage, and it’s a crisis for our schools | Opinion

Robert Willett/

The teacher shortage in North Carolina is getting worse, but measuring vacancies doesn’t tell the whole story.

There’s also a shortage behind the shortage: There are not enough substitute teachers to fill the growing gaps in the teaching ranks.

“There’s always been a lack of subs, but not as bad as it is now,” said Melissa Easley, a former teacher and a new member of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education. “People are leaving education in droves, and that includes substitutes.”

A 2022 report from the U.S. Department of Education showed more than three-quarters of public schools were finding it “more difficult” to hire substitutes than it was before the pandemic and more than half said it was “much more difficult.”

The extent of the substitute shortage in North Carolina is hard to measure, but a report released last week by the state Department of Public Instruction outlines the need. It said there was 58% increase in vacant teaching positions this fall.

One reason for the big jump is that positions filled by people with who have emergency and provisional licenses are for the first time being counted as vacancies. The change reveals not only the lack of full-time, fully licensed teachers, but also how much temporary replacements have been masking the shortage.

The increasing dependence on less credentialed teachers and daily substitute teachers is a largely unexplored part of the teacher-shortage problem. As more full-time teachers retire and fewer young teachers come in, school systems face pressure to raise pay and lower standards for those who fill the gaps. Some school districts are turning to temporary employment agencies to supply substitute teachers.

Traditionally, many substitutes were retired teachers, but the risk of COVID-19 infections reduced the number of retirees who wanted to go back into schools. Increased student behavior problems since schools reopened and the stress of understaffed schools has also made the work less appealing to the most qualified substitutes.

A growing churn in who fills in for teachers deprives students of quality instruction at a time when many need to make up for pandemic-related learning loss. Even before the pandemic, one study found that, on average, a child’s trip from kindergarten through 12th grade could involve spending two-thirds of an academic year being taught by subs.

Now students’ time without a full-time teacher is growing.

“We hear from parents and students alike that they have classrooms full of rotating subs or their class is being taught by a long-term sub,” Tamika Walker Kelly, president of the North Carolina Educators Association, told me. “We continue to see school districts still advertising for open positions, even now in the middle of the school year. And it’s not a short list. It’s a long list.”

Walker Kelly said the qualifications for substitute teachers vary. School districts set different pay scales and different requirements for education levels and teaching experience. “Some of our subs have an education background and some do not,” she said.

A substitute teacher, no matter how well qualified or well intentioned, does not make up for the absence of a full-time, fully credentialed teacher. Young children in particular learn better when the person who leads their class is familiar to them and the instruction moves along a continuum without disruptions. That was one stark lesson from the pandemic.

In the short run, schools need to find ways to attract and keep well-qualified substitutes. That may mean more state assistance for low-income districts to pay subs more and setting statewide standards for who can fill in. But ultimately, the twin problems of over-dependence on subs and a deficient supply of them are brought on by a shortage of full-time, well-trained and certified teachers.

Every child going into a North Carolina public school deserves to have that teacher. There really is no substitute.

Associate opinion editor Ned Barnett can reached at 919-829-4512, or nbarnett@