Corporate Involvement in Substitute Teaching Program Leads To Tremendous Impact

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]

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.

Building a Sub-to-Teacher Pipeline

In the midst of the teacher shortage, West Contra Costa Unified is getting creative about how and where to find teachers who will have success working in our district. Through our data analysis work with Substantial, we learned that one of our most important teacher pipelines is right under our noses—our substitute teacher pool. Last year 20% of new hires came from the sub pool and have since entered or completed credential programs. This year we decided to start actively pursuing this pipeline and finding ways to proactively engage with them. To start, we designed a workshop series to support substitute teachers who were interested in becoming teachers.  

What we did: With help from our friends at Substantial, we developed a three part workshop series for subs. Advertised as a part seminar, part job coaching, the series was designed to educate subs on the options for pursuing a credential, help them understand the district hiring process, and inspire them to take immediate actions to advance their goals. The workshop was held after school from 3:30-5 on three consecutive Thursdays. We posted a workshop description and link to a google sign-up form on the sub system and subs self-registered for the workshop.

What we learned: There were so many unexpected benefits to our first attempt of the Aspiring Teacher Workshop. Here are the most important learnings for me and my team:

  1. It’s a Compelling Pool: The diversity of the group was amazing. We connected to parents, trained chemists, and career transitioning non-traditional candidates who live in our community and already work in our schools. Over half of the workshop participants were parents who had started substitute teaching in their child’s school and realized that they like teaching. A big benefit of doing the workshop (and allowing people to sign up for future workshops if they couldn’t make this one) is that we now have a list of aspiring teachers in our substitute pool.
  2. Subs are Hungry for Professional Community: We made the workshop a three part series, but I think participants would have willingly come back for three more sessions. They developed their own professional learning community right before our eyes, and the connections that were made during that session are lasting. Participants set and accomplished small but meaningful goals connected to advancing on their paths to become teachers—one participant asked a principal at a school where she had been a long-term sub for a letter of recommendation for a credential program, another got her parents to track down her twenty year old overseas high school transcripts to be evaluated. At the end we gave participants the option to find an accountability buddy and were heartened to see participants exchanging email addresses and goals for the next month.
  3. Human Connection Matters: Subs were able to work directly with me and my credential analyst to define their individual path to getting a teaching credential. It was great for my team to connect with candidates outside of our normal office setting and to build meaningful, professional relationships. We usually only interact with substitute teachers when there is a problem, it was so meaningful for us to get to know these substitutes and to think about how to help them along their paths. Not all of them will end up pursuing credentials or be successful in our hiring process, but we are rooting for each one to find their professional success.

I will end by sharing that this was also a meaningful experience for me personally. The workshop helped me to reconnect with why I work in HR in the first place—to develop future teachers and leaders so that our students get the best possible educational experience from each adult they encounter. I was so inspired by the people I met in this workshop and can’t wait to build on it next year.

Cheryl Cotton

Cheryl Cotton

Director of Certificated Human Resources


Cheryl is the Director of Certificated Human Resources at West Contra Costa Unified School District. She has been a teacher, principal, and leadership coach focused on equity. She is passionate about building leadership capacity in principals and helping people along their professional journeys. Cheryl holds a BA in Social Welfare from UC Berkeley, a Masters in Education from Mills College, and is currently pursuing a EdD in Educational Leadership from UC Berkeley.

Five Reasons Why Every College Student Should Try Substitute Teaching

This spring, the Substantial team had the privilege of supporting 12 UC Berkeley students to become substitute teachers. At the end of the semester, we sat them down and asked them about the experience, and overwhelmingly they said that every college student should be a substitute teacher, here’s why:

1. If you’re thinking about teaching, the best way to know for sure, is to do it.
Being a substitute teacher gives you a chance to practice, reflect and improve, before you step into the classroom as a full-time teacher; this was a huge benefit. The students in on our inaugural cohort came from a variety of majors. All were interested in working with youth or in education, and about two thirds were actively considering getting their teaching credential.

“Being a teacher is a really huge commitment. And I think before I actually get a teaching credential and go into the classroom permanently—for the sake of my own sanity and the sanity of the students—I need to be sure. And subbing is a really good way to do that.”

“I’ve already worked with a lot of low income youth, predominantly black youth, and even from such a young age, I’ve seen their struggles and they’ve confided in me about the things that they face. I wanted to see if maybe later on down the line, if teaching is something I might be interested in, but also a way for me to give back now.”

“I applied to Teach for America, where people sometimes go in half knowing and half not knowing…I wanted to be sure. And after going into classrooms as a sub, I realized I need to teach. But I figured that out in a way that didn’t jeopardize that student population. Everyone who wants to be a teacher should sub first! And don’t sub where you’re comfortable, sub where you’ll be uncomfortable. And in the communities you want to serve.”

2. It’s a tangible opportunity that allows you to launch your professional career, right now.
Most college students need some kind of part time work to support themselves, how cool to have a job that’s a worthy contender on your resume, that also happens to have maximum flexibility and decent pay (compared to similar part time work available). It allows you to tell a much more compelling story in that first full time job interview, whether that’s in teaching or not!

“This is an opportunity to launch my professional career. And it feels so cool to have a permit. To say ‘I’m certified to be in the classroom, I’m not just a tutor!’ I feel like it opens many more doors.”

“Being in the school system opens so many doors. The principal came into my classroom and offered me a job teaching a 5th/6th grade classroom.”

“I both wanted to launch my own career to become a permanent teacher but also to have this opportunity to be in the school site already, and be that cool sub who interacts with students.”

3. It teaches you how to be an innovator on the spot.
The reality of subbing is that you will find yourself in moments when you’re confronted with uncertainty—no lesson plans, missing materials, students having conflicts with each other. Yet this is the reality in most of adulthood, especially at work. We have to learn to handle curve balls. Our students saw this in the most positive light possible, and took this as an amazing hands on learning opportunity.

“I showed up and they weren’t expecting a sub, because they never get one. So I spent the first half of the day, until lunch, talking about college. My experience, what’s going on at UC Berkeley right now, what these students can do to get to college, and answering their questions.”

4. It gives you a very different perspective on your community and the students who live there.
A really big piece of advice from the students, was how much they realized this experience wasn’t about them, it’s about the students. And it’s about being an active and aware member of society.

“Whether or not you want to be a teacher, having this experience will allow you to appreciate teachers and substitutes more.”

“When I applied to this, I was thinking that I wanted to be a sub because I wanted the experience, and I want it for me, and a lot of this process was like ‘me, me, me, me,’ until I got into the classroom and realized, this is not about me. This is about who I’m serving.”

5. It gives you a taste of real adulthood.
For some of our students, this was the first time they’d been the “adult” in the room. For many of them it was the first time they’d seen retirement plan paperwork or completed any financial paperwork for a job. And for all of them, it meant going through a rigorous real world application process, ultimately working with colleagues and supervisors in a totally new way.

“This whole experience has helped me ease into the responsibilities of adulthood. To have a job that will lead me to my career is very helpful.”

“The district paperwork was the most difficult part for me! I didn’t know what a W-9 was. I’ve seen paperwork like that, but it’s always been facilitated through my parents.”

“To me this opened my eyes that I just need to be confident applying for the job, and dealing with the paperwork, retirement forms, and all that stuff that’s coming up so quickly.”

“I really liked that the teachers didn’t see me and say, ‘oh you’re a college student, you can’t do this job.’ They validate you. Every period I had someone come check in and ask ‘how’s it going?’ The principal came in during 5th period, and that was my best class. So I was like ‘yes!’”

When we first had the idea to support college students stepping into the classroom as substitute teachers, we saw very tangible benefits: decent pay, flexible schedule, practical experience for the future. We didn’t realize how much more they would get out of the experience: from applying to their first “adult” job, to being a valued member of a school community. We’re now more convinced than ever—every college student needs to try subbing. We’re excited to keep supporting our students and schools to make this happen.

For more on Substantial’s college substitute program read our accompanying blog posts: What We Learned Helping College Students Become Substitute Teachers and The Benefits of College Student Substitute Teachers.

Substantial is currently incubating undergraduate substitute teaching programs at campuses across Northern California. Our goal is to create a simple, student-powered model that exists at every college and university to support their local school district with quality substitute teachers, and just maybe some new career teachers.

Interested in bringing this program to your campus? Send us an email

The Benefits of College Student Substitute Teachers

This spring my district, West Contra Costa Unified, partnered with Substantial to recruit college seniors to serve as substitute teachers in our schools. In our district just over a quarter of substitute requests go unfilled, which impacts both our teachers and students. We were willing to try any strategy to get more classes filled. While the initial cohort delivered on that—once hired, the college students have been regularly working—we also learned that there are additional benefits to hiring college students as substitute teachers.

Here are three reasons why hiring college students as substitute teachers makes sense for my district, and why I think you should try it in yours:

1. Reinforce a College Going Culture: As a district, we are constantly thinking about how to get our students exposed to different professions and to the idea that they could go to college. These young adults know what it is like to decide to go to college today—things have changed a lot in the 24 years since I was a college senior—and our students can relate to them. They can answer questions about what it is like to live in a dorm, how they decided what schools to apply to, or how they decided on their major.

2. It’s a Source of New Subs: Not sure about your district, but we are always in need of substitute teachers. This spring we realized that substitute teaching makes a lot of sense for college students. This is a deep well of untapped talent. It’s flexible, meaningful work and helps them explore the profession of teaching. Plus the pay is pretty good relative to the other types of jobs that fit with a college student’s schedule. Many students have either Tues/Thurs or Mon/Wed/Friday off and we have found that these students are working more days that we anticipated.

3. Pipeline! This is a way for us to get to know future teachers—and for them to get to know our schools—before they enter the job market. That’s huge for us! We have a lot of work to do to make substitute teaching a supportive learning experience for these young adults, but we think it’s worth the effort. This year Substantial provided training and an ongoing seminar to help the college students build their skills and make meaning of their experiences.

Imagine if every new teacher had a year of learning how to stand in front of a classroom, manage student behavior by building rapport as quickly as possible, and deliver a lesson (either theirs or someone else’s). Consider the benefits of new teachers having tried out a variety of schools and grade levels to find their perfect match. I hope you will join us in embracing the challenge of making substitute teaching a powerful experience for college students.

For more on Substantial’s college substitute program read the accompanying blog posts: Five Reasons Why Every College Student Should Try Substitute Teaching and What We Learned Helping College Students Become Substitute Teachers

Interested in bringing this program to your district? Send an email to

Cheryl Cotton

Cheryl Cotton

Director of Certificated Human Resources


Cheryl is the Director of Certificated Human Resources at West Contra Costa Unified School District. She has been a teacher, principal, and leadership coach focused on equity. She is passionate about building leadership capacity in principals and helping people along their professional journeys. Cheryl holds a BA in Social Welfare from UC Berkeley, a Masters in Education from Mills College, and is currently pursuing a EdD in Educational Leadership from UC Berkeley.

Five Things Schools and Districts Can Do Today to Improve the Substitute Experience

November 18 is the final day of American Education Week, and today we appreciate the contribution of Substitute teachers across the country. In honor of their critical role in schools, here are 5 practical ideas you can implement to improve the substitute teaching experience, starting today:

  1. Send thank you notes. Yup, your mom was right: thank you notes are important.  Substitutes often feel isolated and under appreciated; let them know they are an important part of your school community. This simple gesture helps build a relationship, making subs more likely to return to your school. Thank yous can come from anyone or everyone: students, teachers, school secretaries, principals.
  1.  Invite subs to school events and in-service trainings.  It’s great if you can pay folks for these things, but even if you can’t, inviting substitutes to school events is an important gesture of inclusion.  If you have an online system or resource for professional development, think about making the platform available to substitutes too.
  1. Standardize the sub folder. Consider walking into a brand new school or classroom every day and having to wade through a different set of instructions. We can acknowledge the reality of a substitute teacher by trying to make this part of their day a little bit easier and a lot more consistent. Building a common folder for use across classrooms in your school, or schools in your district helps subs know that you care about them and their daily experience. We recommend folders live in the front office, so they can be regularly checked, updated and supplemented—by anyone on staff—especially if a teacher has to call out sick.
  1. Solicit feedback, every time. Taking substitute teachers’ experience and advice seriously will help you build a stronger, more welcoming school community.  You can do this by creating a survey for subs that you include in the sub folder, or a link to an online survey they can take when they get home. Whether you use a survey tool or not, make sure you ask subs how their day went and share what you learn.
  1. Finally, encourage subs to do activities that build trust and rapport with students, and remember that these activities take time.  Two things that we often forget to mention to subs before we send them into the classroom are: first, spending time with students can and should be fun; and second, teaching is much harder if you haven’t established trust with students. Give subs permission to get to know students—and for students to get to know the subs. Games, going outside, art, music, and experiential learning activities engage students and set the sub up to succeed.

However you decide to convey your appreciation, take this day to say thanks to substitute teachers. They play a critical role in our schools but often don’t feel included or appreciated.  Without them, it would be more difficult for our nation’s educators to step out of the classroom when they need to care for themselves, care for their families, get married, have children, and, of course, grow professionally.  


Photo Credit: Thank You! By Carol VanHook (CC BY 2.0)