Bringing a Little Kindness and Innovation to Teacher Absence

Yesterday’s Washington Post included an eye catching headline: one in four teachers miss 10 or more days of school, earning the label “chronically absent.” Although the article was careful to present a balanced view, the comments section quickly devolved into the predictable argument about valuing vs vilifying teachers. Notably missing from the article—and virtually all conversation of teacher absence and its impact on students—is an examination of how to improve the experience students have when their teacher is out. Life happens and teachers will be absent. In fact, when I think about my son’s teachers, I want and hope that they feel supported as they deal with the curveballs life throws at them—from bouts of mental illness (like the teacher interviewed in the article who was struggling with anxiety) to caring for an ailing family member or having a baby.  

Rather than just focusing on reducing absences, what if we also thought about how to create a supportive experience for students when their teacher is out? Substitute teaching has been largely the same for decades. We know that the current design isn’t working well—the statistics around how much teacher absences impact students demonstrates that time spent with substitutes isn’t cutting it. But what is possible? What if we let go of what we assume substitute teaching has to be and redesigned it from the ground up? Could we create something that supported teachers and actually enhanced students’ learning experiences? Asking this question is more generative and invites more creativity than focusing solely on reducing teacher absence. It’s also something every school and district can work on today.

Intrigued? Here are some ideas about how to get started:

  • Confront Your Assumptions: The mental model for what happens when a teacher is absent has been ingrained in each of us since childhood. Our assumptions can limit our creativity and willingness to experiment with new models. I invite you to spend 10 minutes cataloguing your assumptions, such as “substitute teachers are on call employees.” Set a timer and write everything that comes to mind. If you have 10 more minutes, pick one or two of your assumptions to challenge. Ask yourself, what would happen if this assumption weren’t true? What might be possible? Brainstorm your crazy ideas and see what happens.
  • Pilot Something Different on PD Days: Pick an upcoming PD day and pilot a new model for what happens when the teacher is out of the classroom. Invite your teachers to brainstorm different possibilities and pick a few to pilot. Maybe you could do an inside-out field trip where you bring an expert to school for a day. If the first grade teachers are out, could this be a day for first graders to spend more time with their fourth grade buddies? Challenge your assumptions about what’s possible.
  • Create a Design Challenge with Students: Students are great at questioning assumptions and thinking outside the box. Invite them to bring that creativity and think about what should happen when their teacher is absent. Stanford’s K12 Design Lab has great resources for facilitating design challenges with students.  

We’re starting a national conversation to help redesign the substitute teaching experience. Join us!