SALT LAKE CITY — It's 6 a.m., and calls are going out for substitute teachers.
Some substitutes are already at their computers looking online for openings, while others are hoping the last-minute phone call won't come. Some are hoping for a chance to teach; others bring a book hoping to read a few chapters while waiting for school to get out. Some are willing to drive to a school across the Wasatch Front; others will simply turn down any assignment — near or far — when the planets aren't aligned.
At the end of the day, most substitute teachers see their work as a labor of love. But for a growing number of people, it's just labor.
Brittany was a substitute teacher for two years before becoming a student teacher in January. What kept her from quitting were the students, she said.
"We're paid next to nothing to sub, and then they expect a lot out of us. And I did it because I loved being with kids, so it was worth it to me," said the teacher, who spoke on the condition that only her first name be used, fearing her comments would hinder future opportunities to get a teaching job in Utah.
"When I was subbing, I lived in Provo," Brittany said. "(The pay) was bad enough that even though I lived in Provo, I still tried not to take those jobs. I would rather drive" to another school district.
A shortage of substitute teachers is a challenge more schools are grappling with as the economy continues to improve and Utah's unemployment rate remains low. Substitute teaching is now only one of a multitude of options for people looking for part-time work, and it doesn't always compare, according to Ben Horsley, spokesman for the Granite School District.
"The work is inconsistent. You have to drive all over the valley to go fill those positions on a daily basis. The work environment going into a classroom, particularly with secondary students on a subject you may not be familiar with, can be a difficult and daunting task," Horsley said. "Obviously the work conditions are not ideal when somebody can go make a better wage at Wal-Mart, frankly, and get consistent hours."
Substitutes usually earn between $60 and $160 per day, depending on where they teach and what their experience level is. A kindergarten teacher from the Alpine School District, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said raising that rate would motivate more substitutes to take on jobs and improve their teaching ability.
"I just think we need some kind of incentive for people to want to sub and then also do a better job," she said. "It's something they should strive for."
Normally, about 99 percent of requests for substitutes are filled in the Alpine District. But that rate this year has dropped by 3 percent districtwide, and even further in schools off the beaten path, according to district spokesman John Patten.
"It is really good for a district average, but what the data is telling us is that the locations in the district that are having the hardest time filling the substitute positions are the ones farthest away from the I-15 corridor," Patten said. "That would include areas of Eagle Mountain and Saratoga Springs, mostly."
Alpine and other school districts use a temporary employment agency to hire and train substitute teachers. Substitutes who apply for employment can set preferences on assignments, such as what days they're available and what schools, grades or subjects they're willing to teach.
When a teacher is sick or has a planned absence, they log on to the temp agency website and report the name of the school, how long they'll be gone and any special needs in the classroom. The temp agency then reaches out to a pool of substitutes, who can either accept or decline the request over the phone.
The Granite School District doesn't use a temp agency to find substitutes, but Horsley said the district has seen a similar increase in its "fail to fill rate," or the percentage of substitute requests that aren't filled each day. The deficit is coupled with a statewide shortage of full-time teachers, though district administrators don't see teacher absence as a growing problem.
Being unable to find someone to fill in isn't always because of a shrinking pool of substitutes, nor is it only a problem only in schools that are out of the way, Horsley said.
"Whether a substitute (has to) drive to a nearby school or drive across the valley, they'll just not accept the request," Horsley said. "In the past, we've had the same or less substitutes in our sub pool and still have not had the rate of fail to fill that we've had as of late."
At Morgan Elementary School, the problem is amplified by a need for substitutes who are trained and willing to work with students who have special needs. The school often draws on substitute pools from the Weber, Ogden and North Summit school districts.
The school also advertises for people within Morgan County who are willing to become substitute teachers and receive training at the school. But economic growth in other sectors and the distance people have to travel keep substitutes away, according to Principal Tim Wolff.
"It has been a significant issue at times on our campus this year," Wolff said. "My perspective is it's a better economy, and so folks who were willing to take one day or two-day substitute contract jobs are now meeting their financial needs other ways. I think there's a lot that goes into it. Certainly, geography's part of it."
Calling in sick
When a school isn't able to find a substitute, administrators have to rely on staff, other teachers or even a school principal to fill in at the last minute. Sometimes, students are split up into groups and sent to other classes in the same grade.
While such instances are rare overall, taking a sick day, for some teachers, is no longer worth the potential cost to their colleagues.
"I know the burden it puts on other people when I call in sick. Rather than put it on everyone else, I just go in sick because I just think it's probably better for everyone," said the teacher from Alpine District. "I've had probably five or six teachers in our school who feel obligated and they show up because there's no one there."
Patten said the district's policy allows teachers to call in sick "without obligation" and prevents school administrators from requiring teachers to come in to work.
"I can't see one of our principals telling a throwing up, coughing, sneezing person, 'No, you need to come in.' They just can't do that," Patten said.
Even when substitutes are available, their effectiveness in the classroom is often lacking, the teacher said.
"It's just kind of a free-for-all," she said. "That's how I feel as a teacher — it's not working right now what's going on."
While the Davis School District joins the rest of the state in a drought of full-time teachers, district leaders said they have no problem finding substitutes on the days teachers are out.
The district, which does not use a temp agency, has a pool of about 1,600 potential substitutes, not all of whom are currently active. From that pool, the district has established a "short notice" substitute teacher pool of about 90 people, who have committed at least one day of the week to being available.
"You can still turn it down, but what I think it has done is it's ratcheted up that prior commitment to a point where, 'I feel obligated. I've told the district I'm available that day, so I will take that assignment,'" said district spokesman Chris Williams. "That has helped us out."
Wolff said Morgan Elementary School has seen success in using social media to ask for help filling in when a teacher is absent. Regular substitutes and parents can see when an opening comes up and volunteer their time.
The school also offers regular trainings for substitute teachers, which draws additional applicants, Wolff said.
"We really are looking for creative ways to address it. We use social media now. We hadn't done that in the past," he said. "I think that's been positive for us."
Districts that struggle finding substitutes for remote schools are looking at ways to advertise locally. Some districts' leaders are also considering whether funds could be diverted to improve the pay rate for substitutes who have to travel farther.
"That's just an idea that's out there," Patten said.
Brittany said there's a noticeable difference in how willing substitutes are to return to a school when there's support from other teachers, who try to make the school a welcome environment. She said professional development could also entice more substitute teachers to become full-time teachers.
"If we could have some classroom management training, I think that would make substituting so much easier and less intimidating, and it would be a draw for future teachers," she said. "It would be a legitimate learning opportunity."
Contributing: Mary Richards