Amid a staffing crisis in Utah schools, here’s what these new substitute teachers learned

Returning to the classroom has given new substitutes appreciation for teachers — and new insights into kids.

(Rachel Rydalch | The Salt Lake Tribune) JaNel Green VanDenBerghe, a substitute teacher, is shown teaching a class at South Davis Junior High in Bountiful on Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022.

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Tyler Winters, a college student recently hired as a substitute teacher in Alpine School District, couldn’t believe the question.

“Can we leave early?”

Just because the 20-year-old was only a few years older than the students in his gym class didn’t mean he was a pushover. He said no.

“What are you going to do about it?” they asked, and Winters said he didn’t know. But when the students left the gym, he called the school’s office. “They got marked with a ‘sluff,’” he said with a chuckle.

Returning to the classroom to help with Utah’s substitute shortage has been strange for Winters — on a few occasions a colleague has told him to get back to class. But filling in at schools in Alpine has changed his perspective on what it’s like to be a teacher.

“Teachers don’t get paid crap here in Utah, and I think that should change,” Winters said. “... Especially kindergarten through sixth grade. They have to teach math, science, social studies, history and they don’t get paid diddly squat.”

A staffing shortage powered by the omicron variant of COVID-19 last month left schools throughout the state scrambling for subs, asking counselors, librarians and custodians to fill in for teachers and other staff who were calling out sick. Gov. Spencer Cox asked 22,000 state employees to take time off to help in schools.

[Read more: Amid the omicron surge, Utah schools are asking businesses for substitute teachers]

About 60% of requests for subs in Alpine School District were being filled early in January. The district sent an email to parents asking them to fill in where they could, and received more than 200 applications. As of Thursday, the fill rate had risen to 95% of requests, said spokesperson David Stephenson.

From Jan. 10 to 19, when COVID-19 cases peaked in Utah, Canyons School District filled about 60% of the requests for a sub, said spokesperson Jeff Haney, but now 80% of requests are being filled. And in Granite School District, the number of requests for subs has dropped dramatically, spokesperson Ben Horsely said.

Here are three Utahns who have responded to the call to fill in, and what they’ve learned.

JaNel Green VanDenBerghe, Davis School District

(Rachel Rydalch | The Salt Lake Tribune) JaNel Green VanDenBerghe, a substitute teacher, is shown teaching a class at South Davis Junior High in Bountiful on Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022.

For the last 20 years, JaNel Green VanDenBerghe has homeschooled her children. VanDenBerghe taught each of her four children through sixth grade before passing them off to the Davis School District for secondary school.

VanDenBerghe still teaches her youngest son, who is in eighth grade, at home part time. The school’s pattern of dividing a student’s slate of courses over two days of alternating classes gives her free days, and when VanDenBerghe read that her school district was struggling to fill substitute teaching positions, she decided to sign up.

“I know that a lot of families don’t have the luxury of having someone able to stay home with their kids,” VanDenBerghe said. “ ... So I really felt like I was helping keep society going — doing a service almost. But then I get paid, too.”

VanDenBerghe, 53, received her teaching certificate at Utah State University. She’s taught her children throughout elementary school, but as a substitute, she’s found that she enjoyed teaching secondary level courses more than elementary classes. It surprised her to hear that other subs were afraid of teaching teenagers.

“Teenagers just have kind of this hard outer shell. [They’re] a little bit prickly,” VanDenBerghe said. “But they really are just kids who want to be listened to and believed and and accepted, just like the rest of us.”

Through a phone application, Davis School District allows subs to indicate what subjects they feel most qualified to teach and what grades they’d prefer. For VanDenBerghe, the flexibility that working as a substitute offers is her perfect. And she gets off work at the exact same time her son gets out of school.

Filling in as a sub has been easier than homeschooling, VanDenBerghe said, because she doesn’t have to prepare her own lesson plans. She prefers to teach English and history, but has also found herself filling in for gym and math classes. She’s enjoyed teaching in the classroom so much that she will keep substituting in the future.

“Until [my son] is all the way done and until I’m really ready to decide what I want to do with this next phase of my life, substitute teaching is really a great option,” she said.

Tyler Winters, Alpine School District

(Courtesy of Tyler Winters) Tyler Winters signed up to be a substitute teacher in Alpine School District in January to combat the staffing shortage. He's enjoyed substituting so much that he's started working at schools five days a week.

Before Winters applied to be a substitute teacher, he was taking online classes at night through Brigham Young University-Idaho and refereeing youth basketball games. He wanted extra money when he first started, on Feb. 7. But after the first few days, he liked it enough to sub five days a week.

The amount of knowledge and the work ethic that elementary teachers must have impressed Winters after he taught fifth graders at Orchard Elementary School in Orem.

“Like, prepositions and some weird math with fractions and stuff that I don’t remember learning in fifth grade,” he said. “It’s like, ‘are you smarter than a fifth grader?’ type of thing.”

The age group that has given him the hardest time has been high school sophomores. They’ve tried to take advantage of Winters’ youth, he said, asking to leave early or ignoring his lessons and playing on their phones.

“They think they’re all that and a bag of chips,” Winters said. “... You have to make sure you don’t let them get out of hand and make sure you get involved with them.”

Talking with athletic coaches while working as a substitute has pushed Winters toward a new career path he hadn’t considered before. Winters now wants to become a high school athletic director, and he plans to keep substitute teaching while he completes his studies.

Darrell Robinson, Jordan School District

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Darrell Robinson, a school board member for Jordan School District helps students at Fort Herriman Middle School with their school assignments, Feb. 17, 2022. Robinson is serving the district as an aide as the district faces staffing shortages among staff.

As Jordan School District board member Darrell Robinson moved through the halls of Fort Herriman Middle School on Feb. 17, he exchanged fist bumps and a smile with each student who crossed his path.

Robinson would normally be at his job as the Institute Worldwide Manager for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on a Thursday morning. But Robinson has been using vacation time to work as a custodian, a teacher’s aide and with special education students at Jordan schools one day a week since Feb. 4.

“I just noticed that there’s a lot of missing holes,” Robinson said. “... Whatever each of the schools needs, I’ll jump in and do it.”

The district has asked assistant principals and other staff to step in and keep schools clean. With 60 custodial positions available in the district, Robinson is filling in to set an example of service.

“We always say it takes a village, right? So now’s the time for the village to step up and help,” he said.

Schools in the district are struggling to employ all kinds of education support professionals, like teacher’s aides and nutrition workers, Robinson added. Many of the aides who worked at Fort Herriman Middle left because of the COVID-19 pandemic and haven’t returned, Principal Eric Price said.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Darrell Robinson, a school board member for Jordan School District serves as a crossing guard for Blackridge Elementary School, Feb. 17, 2022 as the district faces staffing shortages among its staff.

Staffing shortages stretch employees at the school to cover more positions, Price said. Fort Herriman Middle had to close some of its lunch lines, and one special education teacher eats lunch with her students because she doesn’t have an aide who can give her a break.

On Feb. 17, Robinson teamed up with Herriman Mayor David Watts to work as crossing guards and as teacher’s aides at Fort Herriman Middle.

“Until you’ve walked in their shoes, you don’t understand how difficult their positions are,” Robinson said. He was surprised by the amount of trash custodians had to clean up in school yards after snowstorms.

Working in schools each week has shown Robinson “from the front row” how the board’s decisions affect individual employees, he said. He saw the “headache” that janitors who work at schools without heated entryways dealt with as students tracked salt inside.

He also saw how the school’s recycling bins filled up too quickly, and called city officials about having the bins emptied sooner or getting another bin.

“That shouldn’t be something that we should have our custodians worry about,” Robinson said. “We should have already helped them.”

Robinson wants to inspire parents to return to schools after the district halted volunteer opportunities because of the pandemic.

The school needs more subs and needs more aides, Price said. Anyone interested in applying for a custodial position, as a bus driver, nutrition services worker or substitute teacher, can apply at employment.jordandistrict.org/apply.