A Letter from Substantial’s Founder, Jill Vialet
While the substitute teaching problem is often framed as a shortage, Jill’s interviews with subs, classroom teachers, students, principals, HR directors, sub system managers and superintendents painted a different picture.
Act 1: A Chance Meeting With A Principal
“Jill, I have to ask a favor. We’ve had a teacher out the past two months and we haven’t been able to find a substitute. I’ve been farming the students out to other classes, and my teachers are just stretched too thin.”
I’ll never forget that conversation with a principal in Minneapolis. I was meeting with her on behalf of Playworks, another organization I founded that offers recess coaches to promote play and make the most of the school day. She went on:
“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.”
Her request got me thinking: Why is it such a struggle to find a substitute teacher for our students? It kicked off a journey that would lead to what Substantial is today.
I talked to principals, teachers and trusted district leaders. I scoured studies, blogs and books. I even managed to drive my family crazy — substitute teaching was all I talked about over dinner.
Act 2: Seeing The Problem In A New Light
After nearly a year exploring the issue, I applied to Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (better known as the d.school) to look at how might we redesign substitute teaching.
An integral part of design thinking involves defining the problem. While the substitute teaching problem is often framed as a shortage, my interviews with subs, classroom teachers, students, principals, HR directors, sub system managers and superintendents painted a different picture.
The substitute teacher shortage is a symptom of a larger issue: our collective failure to proactively recruit, train and support substitute teachers.
When people have work with meaning, the opportunity to achieve mastery and the support of a community, they can achieve amazing things.
The way substitute teaching is often configured, it’s as though someone forcibly extracted meaning, mastery and community. At best, subs are an afterthought. At worst, they’re the butt of a joke.
Substitute teaching doesn’t have to be this way.
Act 3: Blazing A New Trail Together
My 20 years of working with Playworks has taught me that we can flip a problematic time of the school day into something that makes a positive contribution to learning and school climate.
We founded Substantial to improve the substitute teaching experience for everyone. We’re not a sub recruitment or outsourcing agency; we’re fearless optimists who geek out on systems. We work with districts who are ready to go beyond “what we’ve always done” and want a partner along the way.
Our hope? That we can provide students with more than a warm body and a worksheet. Students deserve someone substantial: a caring, energetic and well-trained sub who can make the most of precious class time.
Thanks for reading. I hope you’ll join us on this journey.
— Jill Vialet, Founder