Left to the Commons, Students and Teachers are Seeing the Effects of a Substitute Teacher Shortage


Morning classes without teachers gather in a busy commons to take attendance. Photo by Ila Bell

It’s first period and around 100 kids sit in the Hellgate cafeteria or the “Commons”, waiting for the bell to ring. In recent years Hellgate and Missoula County Public Schools have faced issues of substitute teacher shortages, causing students to be subjected to the Commons for periods where a teacher is absent and no substitute is available. Supervised only by one monitoring teacher, students are left to their own devices.

The commonality of this situation has grown in recent years and students are often in the Commons several times a week. Hellgate junior Ian Barnard said that he is typically in the Commons “at least once weekly.” 

Similarly, 10th grader Jaylee Zander said she had also been in the Commons that day, for two periods. “I had Commons for biology and I have Commons for 7th period,” said Zander. 

Hellgate 9th grader, Chase Kane said that he, too, had been sent down to sit in the cafeteria that week. 

While the situation is not new to Hellgate students, the issue of learning during these circumstances has been something Hellgate has been grappling with. Students find themselves often doing less work than in a classroom environment when they are left in an odd limbo between work time and free time in the Commons. 

“I just stay on my phone,” said Kane. 

Other students said they experienced similar situations where they are left sitting with nothing to do for periods of time. While most teachers assign work during these periods through Google Classroom, students find the work to be much less productive compared to being in a classroom with a present teacher. “They assign work, and we do the material, but it’s self taught so I don’t really learn anything,” said 11th grader Esson Bliss. 

It is not unexpected that students find themselves struggling to engage through a remote platform when no teacher is there, holding them accountable for getting their work done. A study done by two professors from University of California Berkeley and University of Virginia published in the University of Chicago Journal found that students learned and performed better in in-person classes than in online courses. The performance of students overall increased when they were learning in person due to a multitude of reasons, but one of them was engagement in classroom material. 

This issue is tugging on both the students along with the teachers. English teacher Anna Bacon sees her students struggling to keep up with material in missed periods. “It feels as though if I’m not here, students are less likely to get things done. Especially if there isn’t a sub in class and they’re in the Commons, they tend to not look at the classroom and they are behind on work,” said Bacon. 

The time missed in classrooms when students are stuck in the Commons causes the teachers to constantly be adjusting curriculum based on what students are missing. “It’s a matter of moving backwards to make sure we’re still on track,” said Bacon. 

This leads to questions about what students are actually missing in education with a lack of substitute teachers. Even students who stay on track and do assignments online are still left with a sense of lacking when they are without a teacher. “The assignments don’t necessarily feel constructive when you’re down in the commons and somebody just puts something on Google Classroom,” said Barnard. 

Students said they haven’t experienced this in education before, not having a sub and being led to an area where they are expected to carry out their work on their own. The truth is, nobody has experienced this before. The substitute teacher shortage is a nationwide issue that schools across the country have faced. According to a survey conducted by Education Week, 77% of schools reported having issues getting substitute teachers to fill the classrooms. School districts nationwide are shutting down school, resorting to remote learning certain days, and scrambling to do anything to adapt to the issue. 

Hellgate and MCPS in general have worked their own solutions to try their best to counter the issues of a lack of substitutes. One of the major changes made in recent years was hiring a permanent building substitute. Shane Olson, Hellgate’s building sub, is new this year to the position and is single-handedly trying to teach every subject that needs to be filled. 

“You get everything from freshman to seniors, IB classes, to your basic Spanish 1. It’s fun but it definitely keeps you on your toes,” said Olson. Olson fills any sub position at Hellgate he can that is not already filled in the building. While this significantly improves the number of students left in the Commons, one person isn’t enough to compensate for the scale of the issue. 

“It’s generally a pretty busy day,” said Olson. While everyday throughout the school Olson is typically needed somewhere, he said it comes in waves, and the busyness of his day varies. “Sometimes there will be a day where there will only be one teacher gone, other days there will be 11 teachers gone,” said Olson. 

Hellgate, like many other schools, is wrestling with how to amend the lack of substitutes while keeping students learning, engaged, and on track. A product from the start of Covid-19, students are still in the Commons and substitutes, stretched thin across all MCPS schools, are still consistently in demand. Students remain in the cafeteria with unfilled time due to the rarity of subs.