PARCHMENT, Mich. — Principal Julie Kaemming spent part of Friday morning searching through the neighborhood for a special needs student who bolted out the door unexpectedly. She wandered the streets for several minutes, found him and brought him back safely.
She cares about her students, she said during an interview at Parchment Central Elementary. She wants to provide them, and her teachers, with everything they need to succeed. The only thing she can’t give them, most of the time, is a sub.
“I would want to see,” said Kaemming holding back tears. “I want to be able to support my teachers in the way that they need to be supported.”
Her voice cracked and she cried.
“That’s what I want,” said Kaemming wiping her eyes with tissue. “I'm so sorry. It’s just tough, ya know.”
Kaemming’s been an educator for 24 years and has spent the last 14 as a principal. She said each year there’s a shortage of substitute teachers and it’s growing. It’s impacting her teachers and students almost daily.
“It’s terribly frustrating,” said Kaemming. “I mean my secretary and I spend more time trying to figure out everyday who is covering what classroom.”
Kaemming said her “fabulous” secretary spends hours looking for substitute teachers to fill in for the staff. This year several of the science teachers have to be trained on new teaching techniques. The sessions are scheduled for five different dates between October and November. Her secretary’s already looking for subs to replace them but it's hard.
“We’re in a Catch 22 in that we have mandatory training. We have to get our teachers trained to teach in a new way and we have no one to take their classroom," said Parchment Schools Superintendent Matthew Miller. “So then what? You keep the teacher back in the classroom.”
Miller said he wants teachers to get the training they need but sometimes there's no way around it. He's just as frustrated as Kaemming. He said sometimes principals or other people in the district will end up subbing in for their teachers.
“In my building I have quite a few moms that do have degrees that are able to sub,” said Kaemming. “I am fortunate in that manner but not every building has that.”
Kaemming said she's always grateful for their help but other school districts aren’t so fortunate. If a teacher calls out sick or has to attend a training, then the the students are divided up into groups of four or five and sent to other classrooms. She said when this happens it can cause stress for both the student and teacher.
“The people I have talk to in education, it is happening everywhere,” said Kaemming. “It’s happening in Kalamazoo County. My brother-in-law use to be a principal in Chelsea, it’s happening there. To my knowledge it’s happening all over the state.”
It’s happening nationwide. Miller believes the shortage of substitute teachers is due to low funding and a lack of interest in the education field. Parchment Central use to have local college students, majoring in education, substitute teach at their schools. But according to Kaemming they haven’t been around in five years.
“I know Western Michigan University’s enrollment in their school of education is way down,” said Miller. “I believe I read recently that nationwide it’s down about 25 percent.”
So they’ve gotten their subs from EduStaff, Miller said, an agency that staffs schools with qualified substitute teachers. Sometimes it works out. Sometimes those subs cancel at the last minute, he said. EduStaff has been advertising throughout the state in search for more substitute teachers, putting up billboards along I-94 and Route 131.
Both Miller and Kaemming said they fear for the future. It's a “vicious cycle” what's going on now, Kaemming said, and sometimes there seems to be no end in sight.
“I’m pretty nervous about what the next few years are going to look like,” said Kaemming. “I mean, I’m very nervous about it. We’re barely getting by now.”