School & District Management

‘Uber for Substitutes’ Promises to Enrich Learning When the Teacher Is Away

By Madeline Will — February 03, 2017 2 min read
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Do students receive the same quality of learning when their teacher is out?

One veteran teacher, frustrated with the amount of movies and busy work she saw in classes with substitute teachers, has come up with a solution that Harvard Ed. magazine refers to as “Uber for substitute teachers.” Her startup, Parachute Teachers, is a way to support high-quality substitutes to do more than pass out worksheets or struggle to implement a hastily prepared lesson plan.

Her concept: Have professionals in the community—a computer scientist, a chef, a musician, a graduate student, and so on—"parachute” into the classroom and teach something they’re passionate about. The idea, founder Sarah Cherry Rice says, is to promote authentic learning in classrooms, even when the teacher is away.

Parachute Teachers has been an option for Boston Public Schools since last school year, Cherry Rice, who is currently pursuing her doctoral degree at Harvard Graduate School of Education, told Harvard Ed. Here are the logistics: Parachute finds prospective substitutes, handles the background checks, and offers about three hours of basic training on common issues like classroom management and lesson planning. Principals email Cherry Rice when they need substitutes, and she’ll connect the substitutes. Critically, principals can reserve substitutes for as little as an hour, making it possible for professionals to teach a class on the side.

This solves two problems, Cherry Rice says: It creates less work for classroom teachers, who don’t have to prep a lesson and it makes sure students have an enriching experience in their teacher’s absence.

On its website, Parachute highlights one substitute who teaches students theater techniques, Western African dance, hip-hop dance, or step. Harvard Ed. spoke to another substitute who has experience with urban community farming—she taught 5th grade students about emulsion and polarity through making salad dressing. Another substitute brought in a 3-D printer. Another teaches yoga and mindfulness.

The substitutes “provide students with an opportunity to experience things they hadn’t ever talked about before,” Jordan Weymer, a principal at a Boston elementary school, told Harvard Ed.

A June analysis by the Education Week Research Center found that 1 in 4 teachers miss 10 or more school days, making the quality of substitutes critically important. But across the country, districts have been confronting a substitute-teacher shortage, my colleague Brenda Iasevoli reported recently. Districts have been looking for creative ways to recruit substitutes, and some are showing their appreciation through initiatives like free lunches and gift bags.

The Parachute model might be a real way to incentivize people to become substitutes. Right now, the startup is only in Boston, but Cherry Rice has plans to expand to Providence, R.I. She also told Harvard Ed. that she wants to bring the model to other high-needs districts.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.