Design Lab


The Design Lab is where we incubate new ideas by building real world prototypes and putting them into action. Substantial began as a fellowship project at Stanford University’s so design thinking is in our DNA, and it’s how we tackle almost everything at Substantial.

The design thinking process challenges you to learn by doing and to start with empathy, so we work closely with one or two partners to develop, test and refine every substitute teaching idea before rolling it out to others. We know districts have limited time and resources; this allows everyone to get the benefit of trusted, effective solutions.

Prototypes Currently In the Field


Our Hypothesis

If local college seniors get meaningful practice in the classroom by becoming subs, then a district’s sub pool will grow and the students will consider becoming permanent teachers — and be positive role models for local youth.


The Prototype

Substantial is partnering with UC Berkeley’s Stiles Hall and Mills College to connect college seniors with local schools in need of subs. Using California’s Emergency Substitute Teaching Permit for Prospective Teachers, students get training, financial and logistic support for permit requirements, and peer mentoring. Check out this blog post from West Contra Costa Unified’s director of certificated human resources for a progress update.

Proven Prototypes

Data Dashboards

Our Hypothesis

If districts are able to get a 360-degree view of what’s happening in their sub system, then they’ll be able to identify what makes the system great and where there are opportunities to improve.


What We Learned

Districts loved the ability to check their assumptions with data, like whether most sub requests came on Fridays or which schools were toughest to fill. It helped them prioritize where to spend precious time on their sub system — and sell their ideas to district leadership.

The Result

Data Dashboards are now available for districts across the country, with easy to understand data visualizations powered by Tableau. Substantial can work with districts to populate the dashboards with their data in a matter of days.

Community Trainings for Sub Recruitment

Our Hypothesis

If we introduce substitute teaching to adults in a community via an introductory training, then aspiring subs will overcome any fears or hesitancy and take action to become a sub.


What We Learned

Effective outreach must meet two needs: explain the (sometimes daunting) sub permitting requirements and build confidence by sharing teaching and classroom management strategies. By partnering with an adult school to reach participants, we were able to reach people where they’re already comfortable gathering.

The Result

“I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to sub. Now, I want to,” said one participant. We’re working on translating these trainings to be available online and make them available to districts and county offices of education as a sub recruitment tool and support for first time subs.

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Substantial is a fiscally sponsored project of Playworks Education Energized (“Playworks”), a California based nonprofit public benefit corporation. Playworks is tax exempt under section 501(c)(3) of the IRS Code and our Federal Tax ID number (FEIN) is 94-3251867.