After one year of retirement, Lisa McLaughlin returned to the classroom earlier this school year as a long-term special education substitute at Cannon Elementary School in Grapevine-Colleyville ISD.
“I just missed the kids, and I missed being a part of a school—it’s like a family here,” she said.
Prior to her retirement, McLaughlin had 23 years of experience as a special education teacher.
“Right now, [the district] needs subs badly,” she said. “It’s been so rewarding though. It’s worth it.”
McLaughlin is one example of the groundswell of community support that greatly improved the district’s substitute pool following a districtwide closure in mid-January due to more than 900 active cases of COVID-19 among students and staff.
When the district opened back up, the situation changed significantly, Director of Human Resources Gema Padgett said. Roughly 150 people submitted substitute teacher applications after the closures, which Padgett said makes the substitute fill rate the highest the district has had since the pandemic began in March 2020.
“When we came back that next week, we had just a huge amount of community support, [with many] people wanting to sub with us,” Padgett said.
Following the January closure, churches, such as 121 Community Church in Grapevine, had parishioners and staff members volunteer to serve as substitutes, Padgett said. And several area firefighters also volunteered to serve as substitute teachers while off-duty, she said.
Since then, the district’s pool of substitutes has remained strong, Padgett said, putting the district in a better position than many others in the region, although data shows there is still a need in some situations.
“I’m hoping that’s an upward trend, and we’re going to continue down that path,” Padgett said.
Padgett said the district is currently staffed appropriately.
“Sometimes we’ll need a specific kind of technology teacher, and that’s hard to find,” she said. “But [when] the school year starts, we’re usually right on target with everything we need.”
When a substitute teacher is not available to cover a class, campus administration has discretion on how to take care of the students that are without a teacher, Padgett said. Often, students are divided up and other teachers add a few to their existing classes for the day. School staff have also stepped in to cover classes, she said.
Before the district shut down campuses in January, Padgett said officials even put several classes that were without teachers in the cafeteria to be monitored by a handful of staff members. Grapevine Middle School Principal Laura Koehler said finding enough substitutes is often still a problem. On March 25, she said the school had 13 teachers out for the day, but staff was only able to find two substitutes.
In that instance, Koehler said teachers helped decide how best to use the substitutes that they had on campus, while shuffling around to cover any gaps during their off periods.
In October, the district’s board of trustees approved a pay rate increase for substitutes teachers of $15-$20 per day based on experience as well as rates for many auxiliary and paraprofessional positions.
The district usually hires around 150 new staff members each school year, and recruiting for positions that officials expect will need to be filled for the 2022-23 school year has already begun, Padgett said.
“Even though I anticipate more people will leave than normal, I am hopeful that, with our recruiting efforts, we’re not going to have an issue,” Padgett said.
She explained that some of the district’s student teachers will be brought on board as full-time staff members. And district representatives also attend local college job fairs to recruit.
One issue the district did have earlier this year was finding sufficient staff for GCISD’s Early Childhood Development Center, officials said. That facility provides child care for employees’ children ranging in age from 2 months to 3 years, according to district documents.
In February, the district considered closing one of the center’s classes due to a lack of adequate staffing, Padgett said.
“Because the market outside of GCISD was paying a lot more for child care workers, our child care workers were leaving to make a lot more money outside of the district,” Padgett said.
The GCISD board approved an increase in the starting pay for the center’s staff at its Feb. 28 meeting. Pay rates increased from $13.50 per hour to $22 per hour, effective March 1. Padgett said that increase has helped with filling staffing needs.
“Because we were able to increase that pay for that group of people, it’s really made a difference,” she said. “And we’re going to be able to expand that benefit to [more of] our employees.”
Becoming a substitute
Those interested in becoming a substitute teacher must first apply for the role online, according to the district. Applicants are then invited to interview in person, Padgett said.
“We want to know, ‘Why do you want to be a sub, and do you have any experience with children,’ just to gauge what kind of training this person is going to need,” she said.
From there, Padgett said applicants go through a daylong training program, where they are taught classroom management techniques, how to facilitate special services to students in need, safety procedures, the educator code of ethics and more.
“I was pretty nervous knowing that I would be in charge [of students] when I still felt like I should be in the classroom myself,” substitute Savannah Dodd said. “But the information from the training was super helpful, and I felt prepared after that.”
She first became a substitute earlier this year to fill in for her mother Candy Dodd’s kindergarten class at Grapevine Elementary School. Candy Dodd left after the beginning of the 2021-22 school year to start chemotherapy for breast cancer and her daughter, Savannah Dodd, became her long-term substitute.
“I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do career-wise, with the uncertainty of COVID[-19],” Savannah Dodd said. “So [becoming a substitute] just made sense.”
Savannah Dodd served as the class’ substitute teacher from September to December before her mother returned to the classroom earlier this year.
She said she never thought she would pursue teaching, but continued on as a substitute for GCISD after her mother’s return. She is also pursuing a teacher’s certificate that could allow her to become a full-time teacher.
“Once I got to know the kids, that changed everything for me,” Savannah Dodd said. “The kids are sweet [and] the staff is awesome. It’s a pretty special experience.”
Substitute fill rate rises after high vacancies in Grapevine-Colleyville ISD
Substitute teacher Greg Flowers answers questions after eighth grade science students finished a test March 25. (Samantha Van Dyke/Community Impact Newspaper)