The Untapped Potential Of Substitute Teachers

From Key and Peele to Jack Black, substitute teaching persists as the butt of a big societal running joke. But there are two big reasons we can no longer afford to treat substitute teaching as a punchline and resist innovation in this area. The first reason is the sheer scale of the issue: at any moment in time, as many as 10% of the teachers standing in front of US classrooms are subs. The second reason is the impact it has on students. If we consistently send people into classrooms who are unprepared and unsupported – or worse, if we can’t even find people willing to take these jobs – we send a very clear message to our students that we don’t value them. Ninety percent of school districts offer four hours of training or less to these educators.

For the past twenty years, I’ve been leading the nonprofit that I founded, Playworks.  We use full-time coaches and other such innovative services to promote the power of play to some 750,000 students in over 1,300 schools around the country.

Two years ago, I was meeting with a principal at one of the schools where we offer a full-time program in North Minneapolis, and 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 for 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?”

I said no to the principal’s request that day, but it got me interested in the state of substitute teaching. While the requirements for being a sub range widely across the country, those requirements tend to be minimal. Of our fifty states, only fifteen require a college degree to be a substitute teacher. The percentage of sub requests filled is about 85% on average, and much worse in many urban communities where the cost of living is higher. Capping all of this off is the fact that, as a nation, we spend just over $4 billion annually on substitute teachers, roughly 1% of the country’s K-12 budget.

I’ve spent the past year at Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (better known as the looking at how we might re-design the way we recruit, train and support substitute teachers. 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 have 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 builds 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.

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 that students spend with these adults when their regular classroom teachers are away, potentially mitigating the negative impact that teacher absence has on student achievement and attendance

In the short-term, it makes sense to consider content that someone visiting a classroom could more readily deliver, flipping the challenge of being new into the strength of novelty. My early prototypes in this area include exploring the idea of “arts subs” and substitute teachers trained to walk high school seniors through the process of filling out the FAFSA form for college applications.

In the medium-to-long term, it makes sense to consider how bringing less experienced teachers into the classroom for longer periods of time could be transformed into a paid on-ramp for targeted recruiting and training of new career teachers. Given current teacher shortages, and in particular, the shortage of men of color going into teaching, this represents an overlooked opportunity.

Finally, this reframe suggests that schools and districts could do a lot in the shorter term to address the challenge of recruiting the substitute teachers by simply considering what they might do to reintroduce meaning, mastery and community.

Schools can start with the talent already in their community—afterschool providers, parents and family members, school volunteers—and invite them to consider substitute teaching. Districts can offer them the training and support they need to succeed, and send thank you notes to substitute teachers for being a part of their community for a day,

Making sure that great substitute teachers feel supported, appreciated, and part of the school community will enable schools to be far more successful in attracting and retaining the talent they need to best serve our students.

Jill Vialet is a social entrepreneur and the founder Playworks (formerly Sports4Kids)