As a student, you had to have endured as least one nightmare substitute teacher scenario in your life, but have you ever given any thought to what it might be like to actually be a sub?
The team at the education technology (edtech) nonprofit Substantial Classrooms certainly has.
As founder Jill Vialet notes, you’re often given as little as a half day of training, and there’s only a 50-50 chance the teacher you’re subbing for the day provided a lesson plan. To make matters worse, you don’t know the class size, where to park, where the restrooms are, or the drop-off and pick-up procedures. You also don’t know anyone in the building, or where to go to ask questions.
Vialet and her team at Substantial believe there are better ways (substitute ways, so to speak) to address these problems and how to solve them. Thanks to the AT&T Aspire Accelerator program, which awards edtech companies and nonprofits a $100,000 grant and access to expertise and mentoring, Substantial Classrooms is poised to make substitute teaching a better experience in even more schools.
Substantial offers a software platform that helps schools more effectively plan for substitute teachers. Instead of jotting notes or writing lesson plans by hand-still common today-Substantial allows teachers to log in from anywhere and create lesson plans that will work for any sub, along with providing notes specific to their classroom and students. Schools can also set up “best practices” for subs to learn about campus-specific details like drop-off and pick-up times and the best person to ask for help.
“The Substantial platform is closing the communication gap between schools and subs,” says Cristin Quealy, managing director. Substitute teachers can access those lesson plans and offer interactive teaching materials that students are used to doing. This adds a level of familiarity and continuity that’s often lacking with a sub in the classroom.
Founder Vialet isn’t new to either education or nonprofits; she started Playworks, a playground-based learning program, more than 20 years ago. Through the years, Vialet noticed a recurring theme: when she’d visit a school, the principal would approach her “with this quiet desperation” asking to borrow the Playworks coach to fill in as a sub. As Vialet contemplated how to solve this problem, she spent a year as a fellow at the renowned Hasso Platner Institute of Design at Stanford University. There, she studied how to apply design thinking to other disciplines, like decoding why schools struggled to find good substitute teachers and looking for bright spots in existing data on subs.
A lot of what that data showed wasn’t promising at first. “If you’re willing to believe that in work, humans need a certain amount of meaning, mastery, and community to be happy and thrive, it’s as if we’d forcibly extracted those three elements from the work of subbing,” says Vialet. While she’d initially envisioned Substantial as “Lyft for subs,” the information the team collected and analyzed showed that the problems with substitute teaching didn’t involve recruitment, but retention.
Geeking out on data is an integral part of how the Substantial team both operates and innovates. Managing director Quealy led the charge on building a data tool that broke down subbing from this overwhelming problem into specific action steps schools could take. It turned out that often subs would work once or twice and never return, and Quealy was then able to show those numbers to the schools in ways that made sense. The bottom line: schools need to work to keep existing subs coming back.
By finding simple ways to make substitute teachers feel welcome, informed, and appreciated, those retention numbers went up in those schools that were using Substantial. Something as simple as teachers sending thank you notes to subs that had filled in for them through the platform boosts sub retention at a school. “This platform creates a digital bridge that enables the human connection that we value,” says Vialet.
Most important, a valued sub can bring quality learning and continuity into the classroom. Using tech like the Substantial platform to create stronger in-person connections doesn’t just benefit substitute teachers. It also sets up students, teachers, and schools for greater success.