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No More Sink the Sub

By Lory Hough, on January 8, 2017 11:37 AM
What if you brought in a musician or farmer instead of a worksheet when a teacher was out for the day?

Sarah Cherry RiceOne day, while Sarah Cherry Rice (left) was visiting a public school, she noticed an adult sitting in the back of a class texting. “Who’s that?” she asked.

It was the substitute teacher. “I was like, what? It felt like there was a babysitter. No teaching or learning was going on. I already don’t like inefficiency, so the thought that we were paying folks to be in a class and babysit and do nothing or just pass out worksheets or put on a movie” didn’t sit right, she says.

At the time, Cherry Rice, now a second-year Ed.L.D. student, was consulting in schools for Mass Insight and hadn’t given much thought to the subject of substitute teaching. But then another incident happened. “I sit on the site council for my daughter’s school in Boston, and a mom asked me when there would be a substitute in her son’s class. She said she wasn’t going to send him in on those days because it was always such a horrible situation.”

Is the state of substitute teaching, what one Atlantic Monthly writer calls “education’s toughest job,” really that bad?

Turns out, it kind of is. “Almost everyone appreciates at a gut level that what happens in the regular teacher’s absence is not often something to brag about,” said researcher Raegen Miller, Ed.D.’05, in a recent Education Week story. “It’s kind of an underbelly, one of the darker secrets of what happens in public education.”

As Cherry Rice discovered, substitute pay is very low, averaging about $105 a day. Left with busy work, even subs not texting often have difficulty keeping kids engaged (sink the sub, anyone?). Across the country, a substitute shortage is leaving schools shorthanded while teachers struggle to prep lesson plans for subs to use. While some substitutes are excellent, at the extreme end, Cherry Rice discovered numerous stories about substitutes getting assaulted or having inappropriate relationships with students.

She was blown away. “It was like, holy cow.” She wondered: Wasn’t there a better way to provide schools with high-quality substitutes that made it easy on them, hassle-free for teachers, and full of useful learning for students? “I didn’t think I was the person to solve this,” she jokes, but nonetheless, she came up with an idea that one Boston principal calls “amazing,” one he wishes he himself had come up with.

An Uber for substitute teachers.

What It Is

Called Parachute Teachers, Cherry Rice’s idea is, at its core, actually pretty simple: Parachute finds high-quality subs, handles background checks, offers basic training, and does the scheduling. Principals in Boston Public Schools, where she’s been piloting the program since last school year, email her when they need someone and she takes care of the rest. (Eventually, there will be a database that principals and office staff can log into to book Parachute subs themselves.)

But here’s why the idea is actually so “amazing”: Parachute is more than just an outsourcing service that provides a warm body when a teacher is out. It’s more than just a way to counter the substitute shortage. The subs themselves are unique. Cherry Rice knew that, in order to be successful, “Parachute had to disassociate from the existing substitute teacher model,” beginning with the teachers.

“I started interviewing people, and it turns out Boston has an incredible ecosystem of people who have expertise and want to be in schools, but there hasn’t been a clear pathway to come into schools,” she says. Most people don’t know where to begin or who to call to get started; many assume you need a teaching degree or at least have some classroom experience to be a sub. (You don’t. Requirements vary by state, from as little as a high school diploma or GED to a bachelor’s degree in any subject — not specifically education.)

Cherry Rice decided that Parachute teachers would be a different kind of substitute — experts in a range of fields — and they’d teach in a different way. Instead of handing out worksheets or popping in a movie, or even relying on a lesson from the regular teacher, Parachute teachers would instead bring their own project-based plan for the day (or class period), and they would ideally come from the community. They would be passionate about the material. A computer scientist, for example, might parachute into a class and teach kids how to create a game using code. An instructor from Berklee College of Music might teach kids about Yo-Yo Ma followed by a lesson on how to play the cello. A grad student might set up a makerspace and ask students to reimagine regular household items.

Not only does this new approach to substitute teaching make it easier on the regular teacher who doesn’t have to prep a lesson, but also — and more importantly — it gets kids interested so they’re not throwing paper airplanes or falling asleep in the back of the room.

“It’s enrichment, and that’s really appealing to me as a principal,” says Ed.L.D. candidate Jordy Sparks, a principal and former teacher in Charlotte-Mecklenberg, North Carolina, who has been working with Cherry Rice on the Parachute project.

Alexis DanielsAlexis Daniels started as a Parachute teacher last year at the McKay K–8 School in East Boston, where she lives and where she founded an urban community farm. For nearly two years, she has also been director of a teaching kitchen at the local YMCA.

Currently, she subs at least once or twice a week at McKay (Parachute subs can teach as little or as often as their schedule allows), bringing hands-on activities and lessons about nutrition and food systems. Recently, she taught kids in a fifth-grade science class about emulsion and polarity, secretly couched within a lesson on how to make salad dressing.

“I brought in about a dozen jars, experimental ingredients like red wine vinegar, baking soda, mustard, mayonnaise, honey, and flour, and we went through the scientific process, seeking to answer the question: Do water and oil mix?’” she says. “We created hypotheses and made mixtures.” The goal was not just to mix the ingredients, but for the ingredients to stay mixed.

“Students had to guess what qualities made the water and oil stick together and record their results,” she says. “To describe the concept of an emulsifier, I used the analogy of being at a dance, with boys on one side of the room and girls on the other. They don’t want to touch, so you have to add something else, something special, to make them stay together.” They discovered that mustard was the best emulsifier, but Daniels’ favorite discovery came at the end of class.

“One girl who had moved her chair to the front of the room said, ‘Oh! I get it. The emulsifier is like a good song that comes on to make the boys and girls dance together!’ It was a brilliant ‘aha’ moment.”

Jordan Weymer (below left), principal at McKay, loves these aha moments. He says that while they still use traditional substitutes — and stresses that they have several great regulars — he loves using Parachute teachers because “they provide students with an opportunity to experience things they hadn’t ever talked about before.” One Parachute sub brought in a 3-D printer. Another had students do yoga and learn about mindfulness. During one of Daniels’ recent classes, Weymer watched as students learned that their neighborhood is a food desert — an urban area without many fresh food options. “It was different from what they normally learn. The kids loved it.”

Why It’s Needed

Parachute may have come at just the right time. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of May 2015, about 626,750 substitute teachers are hired annually to cover days when regular teachers are sick, at the dentist, observing a religious holiday, dealing with a family emergency, or attending professional development. Estimates show that, on average, teachers are out about nine to 10 days during a 180-day year. However, a 2016 Education Week study found that nationally, 27 percent of preK–12 teachers were absent for more than 10 schools days in 2013–14. Teachers in Hawaii topped the chart at 75 percent absent for more than 10 days, followed by Nevada at 49 percent. Last year, in Providence, Rhode Island, where Cherry Rice is hoping to work next, 47 percent of teachers were out for more than 18 days per year.

The logistics of replacing these teachers, as Cherry Rice learned from talks with principals, was often a huge hassle. Although some bigger districts have online systems for requesting a sub, typically, Cherry Rice says, “A principal would call Central. Someone would pull out a Rolodex and start calling people and then wait for them to call back.”

Too often, they don’t call back or already have plans, leaving schools shorthanded. In Boston, Cherry Rice says the district needs about 200 subs a day, and “there are about 30 schools in the district that can’t even get people because of the shortage and because some subs only want to teach in certain schools.” Schools have even resorted to housing several classes of students in the gym all day with one teacher.

More often than not, other adults in the building fill in the gaps.

“We actually had a protocol for this it was so frequent,” Sparks says. “First, the grade chair would disperse the class into other classrooms on the grade level. If there were too many students, a member of my leadership team would teach the class. If folks’ schedules were too loaded, I would generally teach the class. To be sure, I enjoyed doing this and did it often; however, I’m still not confident that the lack of preparation benefitted students in the same way a prepared substitute would be with a great lesson and passion for the subject.”

Jordan WeymerIt’s even a strain on the regular teacher trying to take a day off as he or she scrambles beforehand prepping curriculum for a regular substitute to use.

As a result, “there are a lot of teachers who come to work sick because it’s more work to take a day off,” Sparks says. “It’s really a three-day ordeal: prepping for the substitute the day before, the day you’re out, and the next day getting things back on track. That’s a lot of stress on teachers. I want them instead to know that if you want to take a day off, we have an awesome teacher lined up.”

Research has also found that teacher absences can affect student achievement. “On average, it’s a six-month loss” of learning over the course of a student’s career, says Cherry Rice, “but in urban areas, it can be as high as a year.” Even 10 days of teacher absences can have an impact, Miller and former Ed School professors Richard Murnane and John Willett found in 2007, reducing, for example, students’ math achievement by 3.3 percent of a standard deviation.

And the cost isn’t cheap. In 2012, in a report for the Center for American Progress, Miller estimated that the cost of substitute teachers and related administrative expenses across the country added up to at least $4 billion annually.

Luckily, another unique feature of Parachute is that it doesn’t cost schools any more than they are already spending on subs.

“We tap into the money they have already set aside for substitutes,” Cherry Rice says. Parachute subs are paid the district-set rate for traditional subs. “And there’s more flexibility” with payments, she says. “A school might only need someone for an hour. However, in Boston, and most districts, you have to pay regular substitutes for the full day. Teachers need that flexibility, like anyone would want in their job, but principals can’t provide it.” Parachute teachers can be hired for just one class — and for those juggling several part-time jobs or needing to get back to the office, this is preferred. Cherry Rice says she is also looking into grants that schools can use to buy materials for Parachute teachers to use.

What’s Ahead

Now in its second year, with about 150 substitutes in its queue, Parachute has added a new — and teachers say much-needed — feature: more training, using something called microcredentialing. While some districts do require a few hours training (usually online), traditional substitutes often get little to no training before stepping into a classroom — certainly a far cry from the amount of time it takes to become a certified full-time teacher. This doesn’t make any sense, says Jim Politis, president of the nonprofit National Substitute Teachers Alliance (NSTA). “NSTA believes this is a serious mistake,” he says. “Substituting, like teaching in general, is as much art as science. Brain surgery, welding, and shoe repair each require specialized training. So does successful substitute teaching.”

Parachute teachers receive about three hours of basic training to start, before the microcredentialing, and in addition to what the district might require.

“We bring them in for a crash course on things like lesson planning, classroom management 101, and how to own your presence in the classroom,” says Sparks, who helped develop the training program. “This is the first step to becoming a Parachute substitute, which is one step more than most substitute teachers get.”

Daniels remembers her first day as a Parachute teacher at McKay. She had plenty of experience working with kids in afterschool settings, but never in a classroom setting.

“It was a nervous day. My very first lesson was very ambitious,” she says. “One of my other gigs is teaching at Tufts, so I’m used to college students. This was a class of sixth-graders, many non-English speakers. I later realized that probably a lot of what I was saying was going over their heads. I’ve since learned a lot, especially to quickly assess what kids know.”

Her initial training helped, but as she told Cherry Rice, she needed a bigger tool kit. “She was hearing the same sentiment from other Parachute teachers. Now Sarah’s developing microcredentials to do that and also to build in incentives to be a better teacher: earning more badges translates into more bookings and feeling better trained,” Daniels says.

Sarah Cherry RiceThese badges are a way to fine-tune teaching skills — skills that people without classroom experience might not think much about or know how to approach, like how to build relationships with students you’ve just met or how to make sure your lesson plan stretches the full 55-minute block. Often described as bite-sized skill development, microcredentialing “sets Parachute teachers apart from traditional substitute teachers,” Sparks says. “The badges are the things that a principal can say, ‘Oh, this teacher has a five-star rating and those credentials,’ which allows for some choice for the principal. And since students spend so much time with substitutes, it’s important for those folks to constantly be learning and improving their craft. That only makes sense.”

The first two badges offered this past summer were “urban farming” and “facilitator of learning.” Future microcredentials might focus on specific areas of interest to teachers: classroom management or curriculum development, for example. Daniels ran the urban farming session with 11 attendees this summer at the Harvard iLab, where Cherry Rice initially worked on the idea for Parachute and where Parachute continues to be part of the lab’s Venture Incubation Program. Daniels says more potential Parachute teachers wanted in.

“I have a waitlist for the next training,” she says. “A lot of people who are interested have a lot of experience with food systems or nutrition or farming and are passionate about sharing it with students,” especially during the cold months, when not much is growing in New England. “They want to be substitutes, but they don’t have school experience.”

During the first training, Daniels shared tips and lessons she’s honed so far as a Parachute teacher — the things you can’t learn from a manual or online training course.

“I told them, these are good questions to ask on your first day at a school. Here’s a great list of things to bring to class,” she says. “Here’s a lesson I did that flopped or one that worked really well.” The course is about eight to 10 hours of work, which includes videos to watch, articles to read, and in-person training at the iLab on topics like behavior management and how to problem solve on the fly. Students had to submit a completed lesson plan.

Cherry Rice says she’s happy with what they’ve achieved so far, focusing on one urban district, but looking forward she wants to figure out how to expand the model to other high-needs areas.

“What does it look like to scale this?” she says. “That’s our big focus.”

Daniels, too, sees the potential in expanding — especially for the students. “You’re bringing in something kids wouldn’t have exposure to or limited exposure,” she says. “It’s something different and enriching. So you’re immediately received positively by kids. We’re working with teachers on how to get the attention of the kids, that you need a hook. For me, people love food. When I first started, I wanted to get to know the students. I went into the lunchroom and asked questions, got to see who they were.” Eventually, she says, she knew it was working when other kids in the lunchroom asked who she was. “And then they started asking, ‘Can you come to my class?’”

Learn more: parachuteteachers.com. Follow them on Twitter: @ParachuteTeach

Photographs by Jonathan Kozowyk