Editor’s Note: Kathy Payne helped launch a corporate program at State Farm in which employees used their “time-off” benefit to become substitute teachers in local school districts. At its height, the program grew to over 700 state-certified substitute teachers in 54 different school districts.

In the fall of 1991, I left my teaching position in a public-school classroom in Illinois to take a job with State Farm, the insurance agency. My first week at my new job was “chair-inspection” week which meant the folks in Administrative Services came around and made sure my chair was comfortable, adjusted to my liking and in good working order. I was slightly overwhelmed. I had been in a public school where I was just happy to HAVE a chair – and now worked for a company that wanted me to like my chair.

It was the beginning of a lot of realizations for me about how differently public and private sectors operate.

Fast forward to 2000. I was now working with our CEO on State Farm’s investments in public education. We were involved in many initiatives, one of which included hosting a series of meetings around the state with our governor’s appointee for education to listen to the concerns of public school educators.

There were countless issues discussed but at every meeting—whether in a rural or metro area—teachers and principals overwhelmingly cited the constant need for ongoing professional education. The main deterrent mentioned was the lack of funding in a school’s budget to assure that all teachers were given the kind of continual education they needed.

I was again reminded how different my experience was working in a for-profit company. At any time, if I needed to update my skills, there was an opportunity available to do so. Often, without asking, I was given the chance to learn something new or a new way to do my job better. Given the company’s desire to make a difference in public education, we looked for a way that we could address the issues we heard about in the meetings.

Like many companies, State Farm provided a “time-off” benefit so employees could attend various school activities that occurred during the work day. Many parents of young children took advantage of the benefit. But we found that as children aged, fewer of our employees took advantage of the benefit. And for empty nesters or those without children, there was little interaction with public schools. We thought we could help our public schools—and provide our employees a meaningful learning experience—by connecting the “benefit day” for our employees with partnering public schools.

We launched S.L.A.T.E. (State Farm Learning and Teaching Exchange) in the spring of 2002 in three counties in Illinois located near State Farm’s corporate headquarters. The idea was simple; to provide an opportunity for our associates to become certified substitute teachers and then offer their services to our public schools on days when classroom teachers were scheduled to be out for pre-arranged professional development.

We saw it as a “win-win.” Our associates would gain a much better understanding of what teaching really entailed while teachers would get the professional development they needed and deserved. We provided a no-cost solution for the schools since we didn’t charge schools for the substitutes. S.L.A.T.E. allowed principals to bring all their same class level teachers together to talk through curriculum. The program allowed teachers to attend conferences without the additional cost to schools to cover their classrooms.

Over 500 State Farm associates began the process to become certified substitute teachers in the first year. During 2002-2003, partnering schools within the three counties benefited from over 240 S.L.A.T.E. state-certified substitute teachers in classrooms providing coverage for teachers involved in pre-arranged professional development. The program saved the school districts the expenditure of substantial resources by providing adequate numbers of state-certified substitute teachers. This meant that schools could increase the number of teachers who were offered professional development.

This was not without some initial resistance from the educators involved who were somewhat wary of “corporate” influence. It took a couple of progressive principals to get the ball rolling.

We made sure all our involved associates had completed a course we offered on site taught by retired educators. The course consisted of school law, classroom management, and other pertinent issues. Our folks were required to pass a background check just like any other substitute. And we only provided our folks as subs for pre-arranged professional development days. We didn’t cover sick leave or other issues because we wanted our folks to collaborate with a partner teacher, and teach to the lesson plan provided. Our intent was to affect the need for professional development.

At its peak, the corporate program grew to over 700 state-certified substitute teacher associates with an additional 300 in the pipeline at any given time. It grew to include 185 schools representing 54 school districts in 7 Illinois counties. S.L.A.T.E. programs were instituted at State Farm facilities in 12 states and the program expanded to include State Farm retirees. We also reached out to the greater business community to join the program as well with some success. In the first two years, 565 Illinois classrooms benefited from having a S.L.A.T.E. substitute teacher from the corporate location, and in the 2003-2004 school year alone, partnering school districts saved more than $41,000 as a result. Imagine the savings at today’s cost.

As with all companies, State Farm constantly reevaluates programs and makes decisions based on current conditions. Though the S.L.A.T.E. program is no longer active, its impact remains as there were clear benefits for our associates as well. Supervisors of our S.L.A.T.E.-involved substitutes reported an increase in personal awareness, the ability to think on their feet, and strategic planning.

Our associates also demonstrated a greater understanding of the challenges faced by our educators and had greater empathy for the changing dynamics and culture of a classroom. Many expressed a heightened interest in school board elections and issues that impacted children.

Allowing “outsiders” a window into the real world of a classroom benefits us all. It provides a clearer understanding of the diverse needs and challenges faced by our educators and hopefully impacts their continued involvement. Like all professionals, educators need and deserve the chance to enhance their skills and learn something new. S.L.A.T.E. was State Farm’s way to help.

If you or the business you work for are interested in exploring this idea further, contact Substantial at hello[at]substantialclassrooms.org.

Kathy Payne

Kathy Payne

Kathy was a 12 year veteran Special Education teacher before joining State Farm in 1991. She spent the majority of her career shepherding State Farm’s philanthropic efforts around public school education. She served on various boards including America’s Promise Alliance and Youth Service America. She retired in 2015.