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!

Substitute Teaching: A Missing Piece in the Teacher Shortage Debate


puzzled by John Potter (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

While discussions about the growing teacher shortage have traditionally emphasized the failings of our teacher pipeline, the Learning Policy Institute’s (LPI) recent reports warn that our best chance at averting our current path toward a significant teacher shortage is to focus on teacher retention through improved “mentoring, induction, working conditions, and career development.” Defining the problem in this way has significant implications for how we might go about avoiding the crisis, and one significant, generally neglected, piece of the puzzle is substitute teachers.

Think about it. Want mentor teachers to guide novices through ongoing coaching and induction programs? You better ask the resource teacher to cover the classroom or find a sub. Interested in following professional development best practices and have your staff visit master teachers in action? Ask the school admin if she can stitch together coverage with teacher prep periods or call in a sub. Your star physics teacher got a grant to attend a conference and bring those best practices back to the school? Dial up a sub. Your third grade teacher wants to maintain some sort of balance and quality of life and go to her brother’s wedding in Alaska? Better log into the substitute management system. These factors critical to improving teacher retention—effective mentoring, induction, professional development, and great work conditions all share a common denominator—the need for a quality substitute teacher.

The US spends $4B a year on subs, and students spend as much as 10% of their total learning time with subs. Subs play a critical role in many of the reforms mentioned as “must haves” in our education system and have a dramatic impact on school climate, yet their role is rarely mentioned. The difference between having someone covering in the classroom who is prepared and supported, who ensures that students feel safe and that learning can continue, and having someone in the classroom who is unequipped to do these things, is the difference between a functioning learning environment and a dysfunctional one. An environment in which professional development is possible, and one in which it’s not. The difference between a place where teachers are able to take care of themselves—being absent when they are sick or have personal matters to attend to—and an environment that accelerates burnout by sending the unspoken message that being absent is tantamount to putting one’s students in harm’s way.

In fact, most districts see substitute teaching as an inevitable and unfixable challenge. Many teachers find subs so disruptive to their classes that they would rather come to school sick than have to deal with the fallout. Most students deem the day “a wash” when they see an unfamiliar sub enter the classroom. And parents complain when their beloved teachers go on maternity leave, entrusting their students to a sub for the next three months.

But what if we dared to dream about this critical resource? What if we actually used that 10% of learning time and money spent with substitute teachers to not only cover classrooms, but to make the whole “school-level human capital machine” work?

Many school districts are pursuing strategies that acknowledge the critical role substitutes play:

  • San Diego Unified School District recruits artists with teaching credentials to provide visual and performing arts instruction while teachers attend district professional development.
  • Oakland Unified School District provides twice annual training for substitute teachers, enhancing content delivery and classroom management skills.
  • Sunnyvale School District in California’s Silicon Valley created consistent, district-wide substitute folders, so that no matter the school, grade level, or teacher, a substitute can expect the same guidance and instructions every day, in every placement, which helps them provide more seamless, regular instruction for students.
  • Central Falls School District in Rhode Island hired a pool of 15 substitute teachers to serve for the full 180-day school year, assigning them each a school building to they can learn the mission and vision of the school and build relationships with faculty and students. They are offered a week of training, mentorship from experienced teachers, and an incentive—a higher salary or health benefits.

What if more districts across the country had access to these kinds of examples or “bright spots,” along with the tools, plans, and support to execute them?

At Substantial, we are working with schools and districts to redesign how they recruit, train, and support substitute teachers, so substitutes are fully leveraged as the assets that they truly are. We are capturing “bright spots”—examples of effective and creative strategies in classrooms, schools, district offices—to inspire others, highlight best practices and build on the great work already happening in schools and districts across the country. We believe substitute teachers are not only critical to students’ lives but teachers’ as well. Maintaining teachers’ happiness and supporting them to develop professionally will help keep them in classrooms for years to come.

How else can substitute teachers help solve some of education’s biggest challenges? We want to hear from you:

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