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Answering the Need for Substitute Teachers

With local schools facing severe staffing shortages amid a pandemic surge, HGSE students step up to help.
Empty classroom with sun shining in

In the face of the Omicron surge, many schools are struggling with acute staffing shortages, threatening their efforts to stay safe and open through the winter. Senior Lecturer Mandy Savitz-Romer recognized these challenges as a unique opportunity for the Harvard Graduate School of Education to help.

“Schools are absolutely at a breaking point, and there is so little they can control,” says Savitz-Romer. “Staffing shortages add to the incredible stress already experienced by so many educators. This is something we have the potential to support and, in my mind, that means we need to step up.” 

Recognizing that many students come to HGSE focused on improving schools and eager for hands-on experience, Savitz-Romer knew they would make good candidates for substitute teaching positions. After reaching out to local school districts to gauge interest, she worked with HGSE Career Services to outline a process for students to easily sign up as substitutes in Boston Public Schools and districts surrounding the city, including Cambridge, Somerville, Chelsea, and Newton. If placed in a school, students are supported by HGSE faculty, including Senior Lecturer Pamela Mason, who is providing coaching and assistance with lesson planning. Students also have the opportunity to earn course credit from the experience.

“Our schools and our teachers are doing everything they can to weather this COVID-19 case surge and maintain in-person learning and support for students — many of whom are grappling with significant trauma as this pandemic continues,” Dean Bridget Long says, noting that HGSE often partners closely with schools in and around Cambridge and Boston, and that she saw this as another way to do so.

To date, more than 30 students have expressed interest in becoming substitutes after Long reached out to the community to encourage participation. It is the hope of the organizers that, by removing barriers from the hiring process, and offering professional supports and the possibility of course credit, students will feel prepared and encouraged to jump in. The organizers also hope that the effort might inspire students and other community members beyond HGSE and across the region to explore the chance to help.

“We’ve told our students, if you have even one day a week over the next several weeks, you would be offering a huge amount of help and support to teachers, administrators, students, and — importantly — their families during this incredibly difficult time,” Savitz-Romer says. 

Amalia Schiff, a master’s candidate in the Education Policy and Analysis Program, started her career in education as a substitute teacher and has since taught for almost 10 years. When she heard about the need for substitutes, she was eager to get back into the classroom. “I’m really missing it and feel for my fellow classroom teachers across country dealing with the challenges that the pandemic brings, as well as creating a safe and welcoming space for students on the daily and maintaining their own physical and mental well-being,” she says.

While Schiff has yet to be placed in a local school, she was doing everything possible to create a schedule for the spring semester that would allow her to take on substitute work. “As an ed policy student, I do see the value of being inside a classroom during COVID and directly seeing the impact of policy put in place and how that’s affecting young people’s daily lives from their academics, learning, social emotional development.”

For Sofia Bosch, this is her first time teaching in a traditional classroom, although she has a background working in nonprofits and afterschool programs. A master’s candidate in the Education Leadership, Organizations, and Entrepreneurship Program, Bosch hopes to teach in a middle school after completing the program and sees this as a fantastic step. “This is a great way to get in the classroom and gain a certain level of comfort,” she says. “I miss being around students. I’m very excited to be in the classroom.” 

Bosch, who has started subbing as a Spanish and Italian teacher in Somerville High School, is also excited to immerse herself in the local community beyond Harvard.

“I’m grateful to our students for their readiness to help — and I hope we’ll encourage others to do the same,” Long says. “As we’ve learned over and over again during this pandemic, schools are the centers of our communities, and solutions to so many of our school-based challenges will require the caring support of the communities around them.”


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