The 'Elephant in the Classroom': Q&A on Substitute Teaching

| Corrected: October 16, 2017
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For the last 20 years, Jill Vialet has been working to improve what’s supposed to be one of the most fun parts of the K-12 experience: recess. Through her nonprofit Playworks, she’s brought professional training and recess coaches to about 1,800 schools across the country, and helped turn learning breaks from a time for potential bullying and ostracism to one in which students can build self-confidence and community.

In her new venture, she’s tackling an aspect of K-12 education that’s equally ripe for innovation, but somewhat harder to garner the public’s enthusiasm for: substitute teaching.

Teachers are absent about 11 days during the school year on average, according to a 2014 analysis of large districts by the National Council on Teacher Quality. That means that over their K-12 experience, students spend just under a year being taught by someone other than their classroom teacher.

Jill Vialet
Jill Vialet

“My key insight from Playworks is that it matters how it feels. And substitute teaching and the way it’s currently handled is having a negative impact on the way it feels to be in schools, for kids and for teachers and for principals,” Vialet said. “And it’s having a much bigger impact on school climate and culture than anyone is talking about.”

During a recent yearlong fellowship at the Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, she began exploring ways to better train and support substitute teachers—who in many districts, she’s found, are a key pool from which full-time teachers are coming. Her new nonprofit, Substantial Classrooms, is working with school districts to dig into their data and find ways to improve the substitute experience for everyone involved. The group is training substitute coordinators, figuring out why substitutes return to certain schools, and helping develop relationships with local universities in states that allow undergraduates to substitute teach.

We caught up with Vialet to hear about her vision for substitute teaching and what her startup is doing to help. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.


What made you start looking into substitute teaching?

I had this experience where I would be out in the field visiting a school where Playworks had a coach, and repeatedly, principals at some moment would look at me with desperation in their eyes and say, “Jill, can I ask a favor? Is there any way I could borrow a Playworks coach to fill in and substitute teach this one class? I haven’t been able to get a sub to last, and I’ve been farming the kids out to the other classrooms and my teachers are just completely at wits’ end.”

And every time I’d say no. But I was really drawn into the topic. So I started doing research online and it was just sort of mind-blowing when you got into it, and you realize it’s this elephant in the classroom. Somewhere between 6 and 10 percent of a student’s time in their K-12 education is taught by subs.

And if you look across all the states, the regulations and requirements vary. It’s a pretty low bar to entry and virtually no training or support.

I got sort of obsessed with it. It became clear to me really digging in that the way to make systemic change on this issue was to help districts and schools redesign the way they recruit, train, and support subs.

Are schools and districts working on this on their own?

[People] agree it’s a problem. It’s hard to prioritize. [Substitute teaching] is usually in its own kind of division that’s sort of neglected. There’s a hopelessness and resignation [around substitutes] that’s really deep and profound and striking.

The pain point is felt at the school but they’re not in charge. They’re in some ways disenfranchised from solving their own problem [because the district generally finds and places substitutes].

Talk a little bit about how your team is using data to help solve problems districts are having with substitutes.

All the districts across the country and charters are amassing this huge amount of data around subs [including on the rate at which schools fill slots and who fills them]. But what seems to be universal is that there is very little synthesis—very little meaning-making—with that data.

We found that it was possible, if you started to look at the data, to transform substitute teaching from being this monolithic, intractable problem into something with definable edges.

It has been super rewarding to see the ways in which the data call into question a lot of tightly held assumptions. People [claim they] know categorically there are more teacher absences on Mondays and Fridays. But, in fact, it turns out it’s really evenly distributed.

They also know that their lower-income schools or schools with a higher percentage of free-and-reduced-lunch kids are going to have a harder time getting subs. And, in fact, we’ve found plenty of examples where that wasn’t the case. We have super high-poverty schools with 100 percent fill rates. But they are often places where the school secretary is sending thank-you notes, doing things to go out of their way to make a sub feel welcome—asking, “Did you find a place to park? Are you all set for lunch?” It’s very little things that systemically create a different environment and make subs feel supported.

Do you differentiate between short-term and long-term substitute teachers?

Yes, there’s a difference between what’s needed for a short-term sub and what’s needed for a long-term sub. And we [as a country] just haven’t brought much creativity to it.

With short-term subs, it does makes sense that you could do something short-term, almost like an inside-out field trip. Someone could come in with a special area of content knowledge—financial literacy or art or how to fill out the FAFSA form. There are all sorts of things you could do that tap people’s interests and areas of expertise in the short-term.

And then long-term you really need a classroom teacher. One of the things that was sort of surprising that came out of the data was that, in fact, the sub pool is often one of the single biggest sources of new teachers that are hired. And that a huge number of subs are aspiring teachers. Having great subs available is going to help with teacher retention as well as teacher recruitment. It’s just not seen as that.

What’s the master plan here? It seems like you’re coming at this from a lot of different angles.

The master plan is that we want to build the capacity of districts, and of schools, to do this.

We have a suite of things we’ve done—activities, a data tool, some consulting, some coaching, some projects working with colleges and universities to create pathways for subs, some trainings for subs, some trainings for classroom teachers who work with subs, some trainings for school secretaries. We’re creating a bunch of different resources and then meeting people where they are.

[In West Contra Costa, the data showed that 20 percent of incoming teachers began as substitutes. The district created an “aspiring teacher workshop” to try to recruit strong subs into full-time teaching and advise them on getting their credentials.] That was so amazing. If we’d come in and run that and left, I’m not sure how sticky that is. But they put that together.

We haven’t had any dramatic overnight changes—it’s not like a movie where we did this one thing and suddenly substitute teaching is perfect in that district. For me a win is [a district] feeling like [it] can fix this. That’s empowering.

We’re trying to build a pretty virtuous model financially. I’ve gotten some foundation support [about $750,000 from the Thomas J. Long Foundation and the Jenesis Group in Texas]. I’d ultimately like to build something that relied on fees to actually deliver the services, with foundation and philanthropic support to test new ideas.

Are you looking into increasing pay for substitutes?

It hasn’t been a priority [for us]. I do think the pay matters. I think meaning, mastery, and community matter more actually. And it’s easier to begin to address these other things.

Districts know about paying people. As they’re solving their own problems, they can come to that conclusion.

Federal data shows that about a quarter of teachers are absent more than 10 days a year. Why not work on the teacher absence issue rather than putting resources into substitutes?

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I actually think if you’re just going after the absence issue, you’re going after the wrong problem. Because on the empathy interviews [we’ve conducted at schools], I learned people get sick. This is a stressful job, being an educator in America. You’re going to need subs. Disproportionately, women teach—women between the ages of 20 and 40, and those are childbearing years.

It exists as a truth that teachers are going to have to be absent sometimes.

Vol. 37, Issue 10, Page 9

Published in Print: October 25, 2017, as An Innovator Tackles Substitute Teaching
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Correction: 
An earlier version of this article misstated the group's funders. They are the Thomas J. Long Foundation and the Jenesis Group in Texas.

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