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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

The Power of Place, the Sharing Economy, and Why We Should Care About Substitute Teachers

By Guest Blogger — December 12, 2014 4 min read
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Note: Andre Feigler, the founder and CEO of Enriched Schools, is guest posting this week.

I spend a lot of time thinking about the requisite qualities of a compelling speaker or substitute “guest educator” in a 21st century classroom. What “special sauce” makes one teacher captivating in a computer lab of 2nd graders when ST Math logins fail? What makes another influential with a room of 25 over-age seniors three weeks before graduation? Acknowledging there are experts with far greater knowledge in this field than me, one thing I’ve been increasingly curious about is the seemingly under-explored role of “place” in this discussion.

In post-teaching conversations with Enriched substitute “guest educators,” we often hear teachers encouraged by their ability to motivate students based on collective commitment (to their city, their identity, or simply the material at hand) rather than the teacher’s own individual expertise or interests. I think this stems in large part from the educator’s ability to build relationships with young people from a place of shared origin and background.

As such, if students are invested in school as a place to gain relationships, inspiration, and resources to make their own street, neighborhood, or city a better place to live, they are much more likely to persist. College for more income may help with short-term motivation, but for long-term success teachers must tap into students’ desire to live in a better community by creating it.

Connected to this need for more explicit emphasis on place as it pertains to teacher recruitment and delivery of instruction is a structural opportunity to broaden paradigms on just who can be involved in the entire learning process and how that “sharing” might work. It is here that the education industry can take cues from distributive workforce trends and the sharing economy, including the “uberification” of the US service economy and rapidly proliferating businesses like Homejoy, UrbanSitter, and Doctor On Demand.

Like so many aspects of our current education system, traditional staffing models built around 30 students sitting in rows collecting knowledge delivered by 1 teacher are remnants of a factory model of education desperately in need of disruption.

Let’s take a hypothetical: an urban public high school wants to offer Intro to Mandarin in its course offerings. None of its current faculty speaks Mandarin, and the school, district, or network hiring manager doesn’t have the time to stray from recruitment of core subject teachers to find a qualified prospect—not to mention there’s no budget for a full time Mandarin teacher.

But let’s say the school is able to share a Mandarin teacher with 3 other schools across town that also want to be able to offer the language, and they agree to split the cost of the teacher. Provided of course that the school culture is appropriate and onboarding is effectively conducted, there is suddenly great value for all parties, including a subject matter expert who gains the flexibility to work with multiple groups of students while teaching their passion.

The promise of technology offers many interesting additions to this train of thought. Video lessons delivered by experts can augment lessons or even take the place of archaic textbooks. Personalized learning tools can allow every child’s path to be tailored to their own progress. Flipped classrooms and dispatching tutor-mentors can guide students through independent learning time. On-demand mobile services can enable real-time deployment of specialized teachers from the convenience of a smart phone.

This brings me to my final point and the dirty (big) secret of school staffing: substitute teachers. The data around teacher absence is staggering: over $4 billion is spent on subs annually, the average teacher is out 10 days each year, and a student has a sub for a total of an entire year of their school career. It’s a problem that no one really wants to talk about but that every school has to confront, whether by choosing to outsource the process to a temp agency, maintaining their own network or district-wide “sub list,” or using “internal coverage” to have staff cover for each other during their planning periods.

After teaching in a district with a less-than-stellar substitute staffing system and having many conversations with school leaders who articulated this common pain point, I launched Enriched with the goal of ending the loss of learning that occurs due to teacher absences—and meaningfully connecting communities and schools in the process.

We have much work to do, but I’m encouraged by our progress so far: strong feedback from a rapidly growing collective of school partners about the value we’ve provided, appreciation from an engaged community of educators about the opportunity to share their time with local schools in a way that works for their life, and students who report high levels of interest in the subject matter presented by guest educators from diverse and often similar backgrounds to their own.

Substitute staffing doesn’t have to be painful, and it doesn’t have to be an incremental solution either. Ultimately, the chance to help solve a real problem for teachers and principals, provide transformational learning experiences for kids, and facilitate a more porous schoolhouse in which the tapestry of talents of a community are interwoven into a child’s education is what drives me every day.

--Andre Feigler

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.