Why Substitute Teaching?

A Story from Substantial’s Founder

In 2014, I was meeting with a principal at a school in North Minneapolis. In addition to founding Substantial, I’m also the CEO and founder of Playworks, a national nonprofit leveraging the power of play to transform children’s social and emotional health. This school, like thousands across the country, has a full-time Playworks coach to facilitate recess. In the middle of our conversation the principal cut me off. “Jill,” she said, “I have to ask a favor. We’ve had a teacher who has been out the past two months, and we haven’t been able to find a substitute teacher. I’ve been farming the students out to the other classes, and my teachers are just stretched too thin. Could I borrow my Playworks coach for a week to cover the class and relieve a little bit of the pressure? She is so amazing with the kids.”

I had to say no to the principal’s request that day, but it got me interested in the state of substitute teaching.

As a mother, I know that my kids need other grown-ups in their lives offering guidance and support, but I would definitely feel hostile if one of them was referred to as a “substitute mom.”

I started slowly researching the challenges: talking to principals, teachers, and trusted district leaders. I scoured the news for word of substitute teaching triumphs. I read studies, blogs, and books. I found example after example that told me I was onto something. Eventually I started monopolizing conversations and boring my family to death over dinner. They finally stepped in and said, “You have to either do something about this, or stop talking about it.”

Taking that ultimatum as inspiration, I applied to Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (better known as the d.school) and spent the 2015-2016 school year at looking at how might we redesign substitute teaching. An integral part of design thinking involves defining the problem. While the problem of substitute teachers is most often framed around the shortage, my interviews led me to see the shortage as a symptom of our collective failure to proactively recruit, train, and support substitute teachers.

Design thinking also emphasizes empathy interviews—in-depth, open-ended interviews of extreme users—and for the first two months of my fellowship at Stanford, I dug in by doing over 40 interviews with substitute teachers, classroom teachers, students, principals and assistant principals, HR directors, the direct managers of substitute teachers, and superintendents and assistant superintendents.

Two particular insights emerged. First, there is no substitute for a classroom teacher, and framing this role as a “substitute” is a set-up. It’s interesting to consider that we don’t refer to any other temporary employees as substitutes. I like to point to the analogy in parenting. As a mother, I know that my kids need other grown-ups in their lives offering guidance and support, but I would definitely feel hostile if one of them was referred to as a “substitute mom.”

The second insight built off my twenty years of working with Playworks and flipping recess from a problematic time of the day into something that contributes dramatically to building a positive school climate. If you give people work that has meaning, the opportunity to achieve mastery, and community, they can achieve amazing things. Looking at the job of substitute teaching as it is currently configured, it is as though someone forcibly extracted meaning, mastery, and community. And it doesn’t have to be this way.

There is no substitute for a classroom teacher, and framing this role as a “substitute” is a set-up.

I’ve learned that substitute teaching needs and deserves to be reframed. It is not simply an issue of renaming the role “guest instructor.” Instead, the challenge is to think through how we might maximize the time students spend with adults, when their regular classroom teachers are away, potentially mitigating the negative impact that teacher absence has on student achievement and attendance.

We’re here at Substantial to partner with schools, districts, nonprofits, and communities to do just that. We’re building a network of schools and school systems who are trying new things with substitute teaching. Join us.

Jill Vialet