As Iowa teachers burn out, schools are recruiting, paying more for substitutes — but there aren't enough

Phillip Sitter
Des Moines Register

When substitute teacher Laura Kincaid reports for duty at an Ames public school, she's met by exhausted teachers.

They're stressed by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, students' growing needs and acts of or threats of violence, she said. Sometimes, Kincaid said, they cry in hallways. 

“You can see physically exhausted teachers pouring their hearts out daily and seeing the best in our students — and being asked to do more and more," Kincaid told the Ames school board at a recent meeting. 

Increased teacher burnout is leading to an unprecedented demand for substitute teachers across Iowa, school officials say. For example, Iowa recorded 39 long-term subs last school year, which was more than the average of 12 over the four preceding school years.

And qualified substitutes are in short supply.

While the state is home to nearly 9,000 people with a substitute license, the Iowa Board of Education Examiners has issued fewer licenses each year since 2019. This year, they awarded just 1,009 licenses, 400 fewer than in 2019, the state agency said. 

The situation is forcing school leaders to put more demands on the teachers who show up to work, asking them to cover classrooms rather than plan or grade papers. 

To attract more substitutes to run classrooms, school districts in central Iowa are raising daily pay. But teacher advocates and substitutes themselves have said that money is not enough. They say more needs to be done to support full-time teachers to keep them in classrooms rather than rely on substitutes and administrators to fill in.   

Fights have been a problem in Ames and Des Moines ...

There have also been rumors of threats against schools:

Iowa teachers are increasingly absent

School leaders across the state say they are dealing with higher levels of teacher absences, which is causing a chain reaction across buildings as other educators and administrators scramble to cover classrooms if a substitute is unavailable. In some instances, central administrators are being asked to step into classrooms.   

“Our teachers are very worn out right now," said Steve Gray, Nevada’s superintendent.

While the state does not track the number of active substitute teachers over multiple years, school officials from Ames to Waukee report a steady level of substitute teachers. Full-time teachers, however, are calling out sick in higher numbers. In Ames, for example, teachers are using sick days 50% more than they did in 2018, said Kristin Johnson, the district's human resource director.

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In addition to more sick leave, Johnson also said there's been more parental leave being taken this year — including an increase in unpaid leave. The number of maternity leave days being taken in the district has more than doubled since 2018, driven by a huge increase since 2020. 

Days off for bereavement are also up, she said. 

Taken together, for just one week in October, 20% of the district's teaching staff was out at least one day.  

And stress is a leading cause to absenteeism and a potential tidal wave of teachers retiring, education observers say.    

A nonprofit RAND Corp. survey of almost 1,000 former public school teachers who had quit their jobs found stress was cited twice as often as reason for quitting compared to low pay, and most former teachers were willing to take jobs with similar or less pay and fewer benefits.

More:'Stretched too thin': With staff 'exhausted,' schools cancel class or return to remote learning

Almost half of the teachers who decided to leave their career early since March 2020 did so mainly because of the pandemic, which has "elevated stress by forcing teachers to work more hours and navigate an unfamiliar remote environment, made worse by frequent technical problems," RAND found in its February report.

More:More young children are killing themselves: The COVID-19 pandemic is making the problem worse

Offering more money may not help with staffing

In a bid to attract more substitutes, school districts are raising daily pay. 

As of Dec. 27, Des Moines Public Schools' daily rate was $150 or $165 a day, depending on subs' exact status. 

Outside of Des Moines — according to data collected by the Ames district this fall — Ankeny and West Des Moines had been the top payers at $145 a day, but others are catching up or surpassing that rate.

Urbandale increased its pay rate for subs from $135 a day to $165 just before Thanksgiving. And once subs in Urbandale have worked for 50 days within a school year, they receive a loyalty bonus to bump their pay for the rest of the year to $185 a day.

The Nevada Community School District — which has fewer than 1,500 students — bumped daily pay for substitutes to $140 in early December, outpacing many larger school districts.

The Ames school district also bumped its pay to $135 per day just before Thanksgiving.

The raises, while welcomed and helpful, won't be enough to either attract more subs or keep teachers in the classroom, said Iowa State Education Association President Mike Beranek.

"Chronic underfunding, overcrowded classrooms and disrespect for the professionals who work with our children every day have driven what we are seeing today," Beranek said. 

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Beranek said school leaders and policymakers should also address systemic issues facing teachers, including a perceived increase in hostility from parents and students. 

"Speak up and stand in support of our local public schools and all the employees who make the busses run on time, the meals get served, the classrooms stay clean and healthy, and the educators who teach and help our children grow and thrive," Beranek said.

Marvin Wood, a 45-year education veteran who now subs in the Southeast Polk school district, said pay is not a factor for him. Rather, he and his colleagues, are looking for a positive school environment.

"As one veteran sub said to me, 'If I could have classes that were well-behaved I would not care at all about more money,'" Wood said. 

Phillip Sitter covers education for the Ames Tribune, including Iowa State University and PreK-12 schools in Ames and elsewhere in Story County. Phillip can be reached via email at He is on Twitter @pslifeisabeauty.