Even on the rare days Prairie Creek Elementary doesn’t need her to substitute teach, Jennifer Eimers still helps out elsewhere in the building. On Wednesday, she supervised breakfast and helped a student pour chocolate milk onto his Lucky Charms. (Rafael Garcia/The Beacon)
Even on the rare days Prairie Creek Elementary doesn’t need her to substitute teach, Jennifer Eimers still helps out elsewhere in the building. On Wednesday, she supervised breakfast and helped a student pour chocolate milk onto his Lucky Charms. (Rafael Garcia/The Beacon)

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After three years of substitute teaching at Andover USD 385’s Prairie Creek Elementary, Jennifer Eimers feels like she’s got the hang of the job.

She’d been a stay-at-home mom before, but she’d also been involved with the school’s PTO, so it was an easy decision to help out by filling in for absent teachers.

Now she’s the school’s regular substitute teacher, and with the widespread substitute teacher shortages, Eimers has a classroom assignment pretty much every day.

“You get to interact with new kids on a daily basis,” she said. “Long-term subbing is especially fun, because you get to work with the kids for a long period of time. The relationships you build — I really enjoy that.”

It’s not easy work, Eimers said, but it’s rewarding.

“They’re some of our biggest unsung heroes,” said Russell Miller, assistant superintendent for human resources at Andover USD 385. “We have a lot of those these days, but our substitute teachers have kept the wheels on the bus.”

Even though overall substitute teacher numbers are up in Kansas, districts across the Wichita area are struggling to find replacements for classrooms that are seeing increased numbers of teacher absences and vacancies.

Amid the need for substitute teachers, The Beacon put together a guide on the process of getting a substitute teacher license in Kansas and putting it to use.

How do I get a Kansas substitute teaching license?

The Kansas State Department of Education issues two types of substitute teaching licenses, said Mischel Miller, director of licensure and accreditation at KSDE. The first is a standard substitute license, meant for individuals who have completed an approved teacher preparation program. This license is generally granted to retired teachers looking to occasionally help out in schools, Miller said, or for filling long-term vacancies such as when a teacher is out on parental leave.

The second kind — what schools generally mean when talking about substitute teachers — is the emergency substitute license. 

Although holders of emergency substitute licenses have more limits on how long they can teach in a given classroom, applicants need to meet only these requirements:

  • Background check
  • Fingerprint check (done by a qualified law enforcement agency)
  • Transcript showing completion of at least 60 college credit hours

Miller said the longest part of the process is clearing the background and fingerprint checks, which can take up to eight weeks. After that, the department typically approves an emergency substitute license within a couple of days.

The background check is mostly to look at criminal histories. Any felonies or crimes involving children flag an application for rejection, Miller said, while other items on background checks, like misdemeanors and traffic tickets, generally don’t count against an applicant.

First-time emergency substitute teacher licenses are valid only for that school year, but renewed licenses are valid for two school years.

The total cost for obtaining a KSDE emergency substitute license is $110 —  $60 for the application itself and $50 for the background check. Some law enforcement organizations, however, may charge to take fingerprints.

The application process begins with registration through the online Kansas Licensure Application System.

What do I do once I get my Kansas substitute teaching license?

The license allows you to work at any Kansas school as a substitute teacher, but you’ll still have to apply in each district or school system.

Some districts may require further background and reference checks before adding candidates to their substitute pool.

School districts in the Wichita area usually pay substitutes at least $100 per day for short assignments. Long-term assignments pay more but may require a standard substitute teaching license instead of an emergency license.

Depending on the individual’s interest in ongoing work, substitute teaching could mean a guaranteed placement for a number of days or weeks, or in Eimers’ case, consistent work at the same building. Other times, it might mean getting an early morning call from a district when a teacher is sick.”

“You have to have some baked-in flexibility in your soul,” Russell Miller said. “If you’re pretty rigid in how days are going to be, you’ll probably be miserable as a substitute teacher.”

The emergency substitute license, though, does allow potential substitutes great flexibility in picking their assignments, he said. School districts like Andover USD 385 allow substitutes to indicate their preferences for grade levels, school buildings and days of the week. 

 That flexibility can create challenges, he noted, especially in Sedgwick County, where dozens of schools are competing for the same pool of substitute teachers.

COVID-19 has caused a lot more teacher absences this year, but Miller said it’s important to remember that regular absences still come up.

“People have other reasons to be gone, whether it’s weddings or doctor’s appointments,” he said. “Stuff happens and people are gone, but our substitutes serve a vital resource in keeping things going when teachers can’t be in the classroom.”

Here are links to Wichita area school districts’ substitute teacher information webpages:

Substitute teachers are still teachers

Eimers, the substitute at Prairie Creek Elementary, said modern substitute teaching is a far cry from what many adults might remember from their days as students.

“I’ve never put on a movie,” she joked. “I remember being a kid and the substitute teacher would put on ‘The Baby-Sitters Club’ or Bill Nye. But I’ve never been asked to just play a movie that didn’t have a purpose.”

Permanent teachers typically are expected to leave detailed lesson plans for substitutes to follow, Russell Miller said, and other teachers and principals in the building help substitutes learn the process of teaching a lesson.

“Our goal is to always fill the gap, so there’s not a loss of learning when a teacher is out of the classroom for a day or two,” he said.

Jennifer Eimers’ college degrees are in business and marketing. Even with no previous education training, she said, it was relatively easy to get a license and learn how to lead a classroom as a substitute teacher. (Rafael Garcia/The Beacon)

Over the years, Eimers said, she’s learned the quirks and tricks of filling in for a permanent teacher. For some students, substitute teachers may even offer a different approach to learning that can make a subject like math finally click.

Substitute teaching isn’t for everyone, Eimers said. But if someone is even thinking about filing for a license, that’s a good sign they’re already qualified, she added. 

“It’s a very rewarding job,” she said. “You pay for the application fee, but once you get it, one day of teaching pays for the license. If you’re on the fence about it, you really have nothing to lose, and so much to gain.”

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Garcia is an education reporter at The Wichita Beacon. He is a Report for America corps member.