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UNK substitute teaching course fills ‘huge void’ for area schools

UNK substitute teaching course fills ‘huge void’ for area schools
UNK senior Keaton Kleespies is a familiar face at Amherst Public School, where he substitute teaches on a regular basis. “It’s a great opportunity to get in the classroom, and you can do it on your schedule,” Kleespies said. “Also, compensation is always a positive. You’re getting experience and you’re also getting paid for it, which is a huge bonus.” (Photo by Todd Gottula, UNK Communications)

KEARNEY – Like most Nebraska school administrators, Roger Thomsen struggles to find substitute teachers who can fill in for his regular staff.

“It’s a chore,” the 7-12 principal at Amherst Public School said. “My list went from around 35 last year to eight this year.”

The statewide substitute teacher shortage was a problem before the pandemic hit, then COVID-19 caused many people to step away from their roles as part-time educators.

Recognizing the bind school districts are in, the University of Nebraska at Kearney responded by developing a new substitute teaching course that puts undergraduate students in K-12 classrooms.

Launched last spring, the one-credit hour special topics course is a win-win for UNK and area school districts. Students studying in UNK’s teacher education program gain additional experience in the field and school districts have access to a large pool of quality substitutes.

“They’re filling a huge void in most school districts,” Thomsen said. “I know I’m calling them all the time.”

The class, which meets four times throughout the semester, provides substitute teacher training for students and walks them through the process of applying for a substitute teaching permit through the Nebraska Department of Education. A partnership with Educational Service Units 9, 10 and 11 allows UNK students to apply for one permit that covers 56 public and private school districts in south-central Nebraska.

“If they weren’t part of that consortium, students would have to apply for a permit at every school district where they want to substitute,” said Jane Blum, a lecturer and director of field experiences in UNK’s Department of Teacher Education. The application fee is $55 per permit, and a permit is good for three years.

Blum describes the UNK course as “the class that pays for itself” since students typically receive around $100 to $150 a day to substitute teach. Each UNK student is required to substitute teach at least once during the semester, but most are far exceeding that number.

“The students who have full days available, we’re bringing them in as much as possible,” Thomsen said. “We need quite a few subs in the building at once sometimes, so we’ve been using the UNK students quite a bit.”


Keaton Kleespies, a UNK senior studying 7-12 social science education, is a regular at Amherst Public School. He’s also taught in Axtell and Minden and been contacted by several other schools in the area.

“I could probably sub Monday through Friday if I had everything open,” said Kleespies, who is completing his practicum at Overton Public Schools.

The Tecumseh native signed up for the substitute teaching course so he could get his foot in the door at different schools and spend additional time in the classroom before he student teaches next semester.

“It’s a great opportunity to get in the classroom, and you can do it on your schedule,” Kleespies said. “Also, compensation is always a positive. You’re getting experience and you’re also getting paid for it, which is a huge bonus.”

As a substitute, Kleespies teaches different grade levels and subjects, giving him a well-rounded view of the profession. He’s already filled in for band, special education, agriculture, social studies, physical education, shop, English and Spanish.

“It’s really interesting to experience a little bit of everything without having to fully dive into it,” said Kleespies, who’s also developing professional relationships with area educators and administrators that will come in handy when he seeks full-time employment.

For Tiffany Conrad, a UNK senior from Aurora, substitute teaching allowed her to gain confidence in the classroom.

“At first, I was very nervous because it was my first time taking charge of a class, but it went really well,” said Conrad, who substitutes at Grand Island Public Schools.

Conrad is majoring in middle grades education with a mathematics emphasis. She’ll student teach in the spring and start a full-time job after graduating in May.

“Substitute teaching is a great experience that kind of gives you a glimpse into the future at what your own classroom will look like,” she said. “You can find your strengths and weaknesses and improve your teaching skills before you’re on your own.”

There are 13 students enrolled in UNK’s substitute teaching course this semester. Each student must have at least 60 credit hours of college coursework, including human relations training, and be fully admitted into UNK’s teacher education program. They’re also required to complete a background check, have a GPA of 3.0 or higher and be currently or previously enrolled in a classroom management course or have an adviser’s recommendation.

It helps if they have a flexible schedule with open days for substitute teaching, too, because school administrators like Thomsen are sure to call.

“Someone in the area always needs a sub, because they just don’t exist,” Thomsen said.


UNK offers online options for people with 60 or more college credit hours who are interested in substitute teaching, but lack the human relations training required by the Nebraska Department of Education.

TE 408/808 is a one-credit hour human relations course that meets this requirement and can be completed in one month.

Those who complete an additional one-credit hour substitute teaching course can apply for a single substitute teaching permit that covers 56 school districts within Educational Service Units 9, 10 and 11.

UNK also provides access to a free substitute teacher training program available online. People who choose this option must apply for a permit with each school district where they want to substitute teach.

For more information, contact Jane Blum at 308-865-8416 or

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