Each time she gets the call, Mary Podlesny says “Yes.”

On Wednesday, Oct. 14, that meant donning a bright yellow jacket, colorful scarf and mask before heading to Northwestern Elementary School.

Podlesny, or “Mrs. Pod,” as students call her, is one of 11 substitute teachers in the Maple School District. The Iron River woman has 53 years of educational experience as a teacher, middle school principal and Northland College educator. She's also been substitute teaching for 20 years, working part-time around her Northland College classes until retiring in 2019. Instead of doing housework, raking leaves or taking the day off, the 75-year-old surrounds herself with youngsters.

“I choose to do it because I have just a strong, strong feeling I want students in schools,” Podlesny said. “We need to be there, and it’s my passion. I’ve done it a long time — 53 years — and it’s just who I am.”

Mary Podlesny of Iron River has been a substitute teacher in the Maple School District for 20 years. (Maria Lockwood / mlockwood@superiortelegram.com)
Mary Podlesny of Iron River has been a substitute teacher in the Maple School District for 20 years. (Maria Lockwood / mlockwood@superiortelegram.com)

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The work she does is appreciated by teachers and staff.

“People that don’t know me thank me. It’s just very heart-warming,” Podlesny said. “Yesterday several people I didn’t know said ‘Thank you for being here.’ It’s a wonderful place to be.”

Substitute teachers have always been an integral part of school operations, but they have become more vital than ever during the pandemic, according to Molly Devine Webb, director of human resources for the Superior School District.

“Quality subs will be the difference between being open or needing to close school,” said Maple District Administrator Sara Croney.

On Monday, Oct. 12, the Maple School Board approved a 50% pay hike for substitute teachers, from $100 to $150, and added a $500 bonus after 30 days of subbing with the district.

“We are trying to lighten teachers’ loads and get prep time back for our teachers,” Croney told staff in a letter the following day.

Board member Adam Landwehr, who suggested adding the bonus, said it’s about staying competitive.

“I just took what I do in my personal professional life,” he told the board Monday night. “If you want people in the door, you’ve got to reward the people that are coming in the door.”

It’s the first time Maple has increased substitute teacher pay in a decade.

The move comes a month after the Superior School District approved raising substitute teacher pay to $150 a day, and in the midst of a substitute shortage in Maple. In past years, the district had a pool of about 20 to 25 substitute teachers to draw from, Croney said. Due to concerns about COVID-19, the number dropped to 11 this fall.

Croney told school board members that staff are stretched so thin covering for teachers who are out that there have been conversations about whether a school can remain open if one more teacher calls in sick.

“I think it’s worth the money because it’s cheaper than what burnout’s going to cost,” Landwehr said of the substitute teacher pay increase.

In addition to raising pay for substitute teachers, the Maple School District is seeking to fill four contracted short-term positions. Posted to the Wisconsin Education Career Access Network (WECAN) Tuesday, the jobs require candidates to commit to working a minimum of three days per week during the school year.

“I hope people apply,” Croney said.

Podlesny said she understands and respects families who choose to stay home at this time, but she feels safe in school.

“The school district has made so many provisions as far as health and safety, and the students have been wonderful. They wear their masks, they don’t complain, it’s wonderful to see them out on the playgrounds laughing and playing with their friends and back in school,” Podlesny said.

Other schools

The Superior School District has seen a small drop in the number of substitute teachers available, Devine Webb said. During a normal school year, the district has 75; this year that’s down to 65, with only about 20 actively picking up jobs. The district hired four long-term substitutes for the school year to help cover quarantines and leaves of absence. As of Thursday, the district had a job posting on WECAN for 10 substitute teachers.

“So far this year we have not experienced being short subs, however, we do realize that could change at any time during a pandemic,” Devine Webb said.

The Solon Springs School District pays substitute teachers $100 per day, $50 per half day. The district has a handful of substitute teachers available, administrators said, although not as many as previous years. The district hasn’t had problems filling positions to date, but more substitute teachers are always needed.

Substitute teacher qualifications

To work as a short-term substitute in Wisconsin, applicants must have an associate degree or higher. They must go through a background check and complete substitute teacher training. There is a $125 cost for the substitute teaching license, and there may be a cost for the training. Some districts cover those costs, provide training or both.

There are no extra requirements for substitute teachers regarding virtual learning. Podlesny, who typically covers classes at Northwestern and Iron River elementary schools, said teachers she’s worked for have had everything set up and prepared; even if they’re home, they do virtual lessons with students. Substitute teachers just need to be there for the students in the classroom and implement the lesson plan the teacher left them, Croney said.

Devine Webb said situations can differ in Superior. Some substitutes are supporting students in the classroom while the teacher is giving instruction virtually, and others are getting support from instructional coaches as needed to connect with students virtually.

“We do have supports in place for subs if they need help with any piece of instruction,” Devine Webb said.