The Impact of Teacher Turnover and Substitute Shortages on Young Children

Last year some children in California had a different teacher in their classroom every day.
Blog Post
July 18, 2022

If you’re four years old, your relationship with your teacher is very important to your success in school. You know what your teacher’s rules are. She knows what makes you feel safe and how to comfort you when you are upset. She knows who picks you up after school, and what your favorite snacks are. And, if your home language is not English, she may know how to speak to you in your home language or may have learned a few key phrases to communicate with you and your family.

So when your teacher is out, due to illness or other reasons, you may experience a great deal of uncertainty. Everything, from your point of view, will be different. Maybe there will be a substitute teacher that you have never met before. Maybe there will be another adult from your school taking over—a literacy coach or even the principal. Either way, these strange adults are unlikely to know you or your classroom routines very well. They may not have experience teaching children your age or know how to come up with developmentally appropriate learning activities. They may or may not have a lesson plan. Or there may be no substitute teacher at all, and you may have to spend the day in another teacher’s classroom. The new room will be crowded with all the extra kids and you don’t know what to expect. Tomorrow, you may not want to go school at all.

A lot has been written about the teacher shortages this year, the lack of substitutes, and the creative solutions some districts have employed to staff classrooms —like bringing in the National Guard. But little has been written on the impact of the teacher shortage on the youngest children in our schools, which can be grave.

Developmental science shows that relationships with stable caregivers are foundational for young children’s learning. According to the Trust for Learning’s Ideal Learning Principles, teachers of young children should “develop a relationship with each individual child that allows them to feel recognized and acknowledged.” We have a great deal of evidence that the absence of stable relationships can cause real harm to young children. Teacher turnover has documented emotional and educational consequences for young children with losses in areas like literacy development and emotional regulation.

And for children who have experienced trauma or adverse life experiences, as many of our children have with losses from COVID and its devastating health and economic impacts, having these stable relationships in school is even more critical.

Anna Arambula-Gonzalez, who worked in Fresno Unified as a dual language learner (DLL) coach for the last six years, says she watched children suffer this year due to the lack of stability in their classroom staffing. Like most school districts in California, Fresno Unified was struggling to fill existing teacher vacancies, and teachers were out often due to illness. Yet there were almost no substitutes, Arambula-Gonzalez said, despite the district increasing pay. As a result, some children had a different person in their classroom every day. And too often, she said, the adults covering classrooms had little or no experience in early childhood. “They were just a body in the classroom making sure that children were safe. Unfortunately, the quality was not what it should have been,” she said.

Fresno Unified has a large early childhood program within its school district, serving children ages birth to five. The district has been a model for California as it expands programs that serve young children.

Arambula-Gonzalez said that without their stable caregiver, children were likely to feel anxiety this year and some had trouble taking part in classroom activities or even getting basic needs met. Educators say young children often do not want to be comforted by adults they don’t know, may withdraw when there are strangers in their classroom, or be unlikely to eat at school, even when they are hungry.

Unstable classroom staffing was also particularly hard on families, Arambula-Gonzalez said. Families also build trusting relationships with their child’s teacher over the school year and struggle to comfort children who are upset when their regular teacher is out.

Arambula-Gonzalez is now working as a child development instructor and coordinator at Madera Community College outside of Fresno. An expert in supporting teachers to work with DLLs, she said the impact can be acute for multilingual learners, which the majority of young children in California are.

“Say for example, I am a teacher in a classroom and I have Hmong students,” Arambula-Gonzalez said. “I already learned maybe 15 words that I use daily to engage with the student. But if I am out for a week or two, the student then has no communication. The student begins to shut down and is no longer interested in anything going on in the classroom.”

In California, the pandemic put additional strain on an already short supply of teachers and these shortages are hitting high-needs schools harder. Districts struggling to fill vacancies were forced to rely on their shrinking pool of substitutes or on teacher candidates with substandard credentials to fill open positions. Nationally, less advantaged schools have less substitute coverage.

As California works to develop its early care and education workforce, improve program quality, and fill the estimated thousands of teacher positions it will need for its expansion of Transitional Kindergarten over the next few years, solving the substitute crisis for school districts like Fresno and for early childhood programs must be front and center. Teachers cannot take sick leave, attend professional development to improve their practice, collaborate with colleagues, or plan lessons without a well-qualified substitute pool.

Arambula-Gonzalez and other teachers we spoke to in California this year said substitutes need more training before being placed into classrooms. They emphasized that those working with the youngest DLLs must have the expertise to do so to ensure that learning can continue even when the teacher is out.

To alleviate staffing crunches and improve the quality of teaching, some districts are investing federal dollars, providing benefits, and hiring substitutes as salaried employees who can “float” to classrooms when needed. Other experts point to more innovative staffing models for school districts and provider networks for early childhood programs where programs pool substitute resources. But these models depend on being able to retain the state’s early childhood expertise and attract new teachers to the field who want to stay and build their careers. Experts say this is impossible without meaningful changes in working conditions and compensation. California has begun some work in these areas, but for the children who depend on relationships with their teachers in order to thrive, change is not happening soon enough.

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