Entrepreneurs

Redesigning Substitute Teaching And The Power Of Small Tweaks

By the time an American student graduates from high school, one entire year of her K-12 education will have been taught by substitute teachers. One full year! Pre-pandemic, substitute teaching engaged 600,000 teachers each year, 44% with no training, and cost taxpayers some $4 billion annually. For the last few years, Playworks co-founder and education entrepreneur Jill Vialet has been growing more curious about the question: How might we redesign substitute teaching? This exploration led her to start a change organization, her third, and to co-author a new book, Substantial Classrooms: Redesigning The Substitute Teaching Experience. Marc Freedman, thought leader and founder of the national network Encore.org, caught up with Jill to hear more about the latest chapter in her entrepreneurial journey, the power of intergenerational alliances, and turning challenges into opportunities.

Marc Freedman: Jill, I’ve watched your remarkable journey for many years — I have fond memories of playing mini golf together at the Oakland Coliseum back in 1989! And I’ve followed with interest in and admiration for, one after another, the brilliant innovations that you’ve pushed ahead. Connect the dots for me. How do you get from Mocha to Playworks to Substantial? How did that all unfold? 

Jill Vialet: Ha! I basically think I have one shtick, and that’s an awareness that it matters how it feels. When we met, I was focused on bringing artists into schools to be significant people in kids’ lives, to spark their creativity. While doing that, the principal said, “Hey, can you fix recess in our school the way you fixed the arts?” Really, I was just trying to figure out how I could support principals and teachers in making this time in the day something that helped bring out the best in kids. Then fast forward 10 years into founding and running Playworks, I was having this recurring experience where principals were asking me, “Hey, could we borrow our Playworks coach to fill in as a substitute teacher?” I think at the heart of it, I’ve just tried to be a good listener along the way, and stay curious about challenges that really are just outsized opportunities to get a big leveraged change from a pretty small tweak. 

Freedman: I’m struck, in looking at each of these iterations, how you managed to upend a broken system hidden in plain sight, a system that nobody thinks about—recess in the case of Playworks, substitute teaching now through Substantial, the organization you started a few years ago. And how you’ve flipped them to reveal the huge opportunity made possible through a small tweak, as you say. What’s the tweak in substitute teaching? 

Vialet: It starts with redefining the challenge as an opportunity. Whenever you talk to people about what’s wrong with subbing they say, “We just need more subs.” But when you dig a little deeper, what you find out is that most subs come three times or less, and then never do it again. So at Substantial, we work with school leaders not to find new subs, but to get the subs they have to come back. It’s intentionally shifting the focus from filling the gap to building relationships. The bigger tweak, moving from improvement to innovation, is around asking ourselves not “how do we find more subs?” but “what might we do with 10% of student time and $4 billion that we spend a year on substitute teaching?” How might we tie this to building the teacher pipeline? Or how might we use that time to bring in other content? Or how might we engage students to be more significant drivers and owners of their own education? If you flip the challenge, and define the problem differently, you open new opportunities. 

Freedman: I saw this happen firsthand in my father’s life. He was born to teach, but because of the financial circumstances of teaching, he was forced to become an administrator and principal and it wasn’t until he retired from those roles at the age of 60 that he got to go back to teaching. The way he did it was by being a substitute teacher for 23 years. I saw not only what he was able to contribute to the schools, but what it meant for his own life. And how he was able to finally do what he loved, on his own terms. He didn’t have to teach every day. He had more flexibility. Do you think older people like my father are a good source of substitute teaching talent? 

Vialet: First, I love this story. One of the amazing things about substitute teaching is the sheer diversity of who does it. It’s an amazing role for retired people, including retired teachers — and other teachers feel confident and comfortable bringing retired teachers, especially former colleagues, into their classrooms. Those retired teachers who work as subs also have a huge potential role as mentors for other newer teachers. Subbing can also be a great route for younger people who are considering going into education, a paid way to get to experience being in different school settings, explore what subject area or what age group, or do you like working in urban schools? You can really kind of get a taste to see if it’s the right thing for you. Doing that in an environment where there’s somebody with more experience, who can talk to you about how subbing is different or similar to teaching, who can take you under their wing. We all are so hungry for that level of connection and these kinds of relationships. 

Then, too, in the middle, we see a lot of parents who are staying at home, who hear about how being a sub at your own kid’s school can be incredibly convenient, and an incredible contribution that you can make to that environment, right? Where you’re going to school, you bring your kids with you, you show up, you’re there, it helps out, you make some extra money. There are so many ways in which it is an opportunity for different humans to plug in, connect and to interact. I think that’s where the real power is. And for a lot of kids, no matter what their family life is — good, bad, other, indifferent — their teacher is, in a lot of ways, this singularly important grownup in their lives. When that person is absent, it creates a level of vulnerability. The fact that we send in someone who’s perhaps the least trained, the least prepared, and the least supported to really care for our kids in this potentially extra vulnerable moment raises all sorts of questions and creates unnecessary difficulties.

Freedman: There is so much resonance between what you’re doing and writing about, and our own experience at Encore — starting with Experience Corps, our inaugural program, connecting volunteers in the second half of life with children learning to read. First of all, with the mutuality of these intergenerational connections, how two-way that relationship is. It all starts with the kids’ needs, which should be primary. But I’m continually struck by how much the teachers need these bonds as well. 

Vialet: Yes, it’s the surprise inside, jumping out of the cake. It turns out that the best way to meet the kids’ needs is by taking care of the needs of the adults, the caregivers, right? That a grown-up who’s interacting with kids feels safe and seen and cared for and supported is just so much better positioned to then, in turn, to provide those same things for the kids they’re working with. 

Freedman: I love your new book. And it prompted a thought listening to the president’s 100 day address last week. I found myself wondering, what’s the central message you would want the president, the new administration, to take away from the book? And what would you want them to do with that message? 

Vialet: What’s really needed now is a long-term commitment. A commitment to seeing these major investments through. The challenges that we face in our educational system, our health system, the climate issues, the issues of addressing systemic racism, the inequitable pay for teachers, the way that our school system hasn’t been optimally designed for the new worlds we send kids out into – they are all interconnected, right? Then boiling it down to a simpler ask, it comes back to remembering that it matters how it feels. Right now especially, it matters that we don’t lose sight of the fact that there’s been just tremendous trauma and that we need to get comfortable again in relationship with one another in order to create the kind of safety that is foundational to learning. 

Freedman: You’re rethinking substitute teaching, using human-centered design and design thinking to reimagine a whole set of legacy systems. Not just in education, but more broadly in society. You’ve been remaking legacy systems all throughout your career. What is the next legacy system that you would like to take on? Or that you wish somebody else would take on? 

Vialet: It’s interesting, I am getting more obsessed with democracy, everything from how voting works in our country to how we teach civics and civic education. Why isn’t being involved in politics sexier? Why don’t we have fantasy congress? I’ve been thinking lately about how it would be so amazing if American democracy were more like the NBA. I mean, I love the Warriors, and I also have incredible respect for Lebron James. He’s not on my team, I want to beat him, and yet, my esteem for him is thorough and authentic. How do we get more comfortable disagreeing and not see it as a threat but as a chance to get better? 

I think what I really want is for people to care more, and to believe in their own capacity to make a difference. They may not land in the same place I do. They may, in fact, have a totally different political understanding of what ails us. But I think that’s part of what our democracy needs in this moment – changemakers who respect one another, even as we disagree, and have a shared commitment to trying to make it better.  People are asking me, “Really? You’ve gone from recess to politics?” And I’m saying back, “Recess is where you learn all the basic skills of being an engaged citizen.” In some ways, it is the perfect metaphor for when kids play well together and when they don’t, and when it works and when it doesn’t. That is a little bit where I’m turning my attention. 

Jill Vialet and Marc Freedman are leading social entrepreneurs and Ashoka Fellows.

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