Across the U.S., students spend 10 percent of their class time with substitute teachers, at an annual cost of $4 billion! Yet student achievement with substitutes is uneven and generally disappointing. Jill Vialet, Founder and CEO of Playworks, spent a year as a fellow in the Stanford Design School, reimagining substitute teaching. She says there are bright spots. “People are succeeding at the job when they lead with building rapport and trust with the students, and then use the time to engage students by sharing content, like art, music, poetry, coding or even the economics of owning a car, that they are qualified and excited to share.”

For’s third “Innovation Conversation,” I spoke with Jill about her new organization, Substantial, which was among the Fast Pitch finalists at’s 2016 conference.

MIKE MOWERY: Jill, do you have any updates since your Fast Pitch presentation? What can you share about roll-out plans for Substantial?

JILL VIALET: We’re working on a prototype for the training of substitutes (“subs”). We’re testing a substitute registry with MOCHA (the Museum of Children’s Art in Oakland), where artists could sign up to be subs and provide essentially an in-school field trip to students. We’re also partnering with the Alameda County Office of Education to create a hub for crews of AmeriCorps members to be deployed as subs.

MM: What do you see as some of the potential opportunities and challenges for recruiting encore talent for Substantial?

JV: My theory of change is that this represents a network improvement opportunity, where we can work with school districts to test new ideas about the recruiting, training and supporting potential subs, including encore talent, to create systemic change. A key insight from my design school fellowship has been that, if we think just about improving substitute teaching, we’re left with a limited array of choices; but if we ask, what could we do with 10 percent of student time and $4 billion, huge possibilities open up.

MM: You’re prototyping Substantial in diverse, low-income districts in Oakland, Hayward, Sunnyvale and East Palo Alto. Does your outreach strategy for recruiting encore talent reflect the diversity of the student population?

JV: My Oakland district contact was swept up in the idea of bringing retired teachers back as “encore subs.” On the other hand, can we also reimagine substitute teaching as an on-ramp for people in the local community who may want to pursue a career in teaching, but may lack the time and resources for traditional teacher education? For example, could this be a way to recruit men of color into the profession?

MM: How do you envision training, especially for encore talent?

JV: I see Substantial’s role as a general contractor which partners with experts to provide training on topics such as classroom management and self-care. I’m also looking at a trial using education technology, where the sub would act as a facilitator, helping students use the technology, thus limiting the sub’s level of content expertise. I also want to test the idea of a “tag team” of subs, who switch off – one would be the teacher of record and the other, a volunteer – providing each other with classroom support. There are also simple things to train a sub to do, such as standing at the classroom door to greet each student by name, thus creating connections and rapport.

I really see an opportunity to disrupt the narrative of “stand and deliver” instruction for urban youth. I fully understand the need for safety and boundaries, but love is way more powerful! It should be OK for subs to have fun and convey affection and care to their students.

Watch Jill’s full Fast Pitch video here

Learn more about Substantial here.

Published: May 13, 2016

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