As schools prepare to re-open after the quarantine-prompted year and a half hiatus, school leaders are wrestling with some significant decisions. School closures in response to the pandemic laid bare a host of pervasive educational inequities – from access to broadband to extracurricular learning opportunities. It also served to make the complexities of teaching and learning abundantly clear to many people who had simply not been compelled to consider them before. In particular, the multifaceted nature of teaching – combining both instruction and custodial care (the unfortunate educational parlance for all things non-instructional) - left many families reeling. Given the challenges of keeping one or two kids engaged at home, the idea of differentiated instruction for a classroom of 30 kids was at last understood to be an almost Herculean task.
One area where the importance of the “care” side of the equation was made particularly evident is in the practice of substitute teaching. While substitute teaching is very much the “elephant in the classroom” – at 10% of a student’s instructional time and a cost of $4B annually in the direct costs of subs – the practice has an outsized impact on the experience of school. Making it even more significant is the issue of “fill-rate.” The national average of 80% - meaning that for every 100 requests for a sub, on average 80 are filled – leaves schools to either sub in other staff (administrators, school counselors, reading specialists), or to distribute the untended students among other classes – a process that is often referred to as “farming out.”
Just as the pandemic helped people to fully grasp just how complicated – and important - care-taking actually is, the real and impactful challenges of substitute teaching were made similarly more visible. Efforts to contain the viral spread of COVID revealed that creating a structure in which subs are not going from building to building also has the happy unintended consequence of enabling them to form relationships – with both students and staff – that contribute to the greater likelihood of their success in the larger educational sense.
It may sound cliché, but there are huge opportunities in the challenges we face. Looking at substitute teaching - universally acknowledged as one of our most dysfunctional and un-loved legacy systems – provides some great examples. The opportunity in this moment is in not simply focusing on how to “get back to normal,” but rather to look at the challenges we face, the innovations that have emerged, and to ask the question “how might we build systems that works?” At Substantial, we have been asking just this question about the substitute teaching experience in an effort to shift the debate from “how do we get enough subs?” to “what might we do with 10% of student time and $4B annually?”
One example that has emerged is re-imagining the role of substitute teacher as a full time school-based position that not only represents an important pipeline for new teachers, but adds flexibility to school staffing that may help in addressing the unanticipated challenges that are likely to arise in the coming year. Another idea is engaging specialty subs in the short term – guest instructors who supplement instruction with a focus on a topic that might otherwise go uncovered like art or financial literacy. From the use of ed tech to inviting students themselves to assume greater responsibility for the “classroom” experience, reframing the design of our responses to emphasize co-creating systems that work for everyone involved proved most effective when our old systems were rendered temporarily unworkable.
This moment creates two very distinct opportunities – responding to our challenges with improvements or innovations – and one very real danger: settling for a “return to normal”. In the case of substitute teaching, a return to “normal” would be asking “How do we get more subs?” Improvement might mean shifting the question to “How might we get the great subs we have to come back, helping them to be even more successful?” Innovation, ultimately, involves asking “How might we design the best possible student experience?” Thinking about the myriad issues that face school leaders as they open from these three vantage points is helpful in sparking empathy for the incredibly heavy lift that they face in this moment.
The question we collectively face – not just in education, but more universally, is what will we do with the lessons of the pandemic? Will we hold on to our appreciation for the challenges of keeping students engaged throughout the day? Will we continue to feel thankful for those workers who were deemed essential and asked to risk more than the rest of us? Will we acknowledge the system’s inequities and seek to redress them? As schools re-open, reconsidering the role of the substitute teacher provides an opportunity to imagine how we might hold ourselves accountable to incorporating these lessons. And as we re-open as a society, we might allow these lessons to prompt our thinking more generally on how we intentionally design this next phase of our collective life in a way that honors the importance of relationships and connection.
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