Solving the Substitute-Teacher Conundrum

A startup is empowering community members to bring their talents to classrooms and revolutionizing substitute teaching in the process.

A child and adult sit together on the floor, playing with construction-paper dinosaurs.
Aly Song / Reuters

Miss Frizzle is not a certified classroom teacher. Neither are Dora the Explorer or the bill in Schoolhouse Rock singing on the steps of the Supreme Court hoping to become a law. But that doesn’t stop these cartoon education tools from taking center stage on days when regular classroom teachers are off the job.

Substitutes are almost always put in sink-or-swim situations: They’re with a class for a limited amount of time, lesson-plan-preparedness is often inconsistent, and students can be less than helpful in describing what they should be working on. And so, movies and word-search puzzles become inevitable mainstays in the substitute teacher’s arsenal. Parachute Teachers is hoping to disrupt that rhythm.

The company, founded by Sarah Cherry Rice, operates as a marketplace for community members—whether they’re scientists, writers, actors, or engineers—to leverage their talents in front of a classroom when the students’ typical teacher is unable to be there. Parachute Teachers create lesson plans based on their areas of expertise and then bring that knowledge directly to students; essentially, a day without a classroom teacher suddenly becomes a special career day instead.

I spoke with Cherry Rice about the substitute-teacher shortage and how Parachute Teachers hopes to fill it. Our conversation below has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Hayley Glatter: What were your experiences with substitutes like as a student?

Sarah Cherry Rice: I grew up in Arkansas and I distinctly remember when substitute teachers came in, there was always that old VCR cart that would roll out. And if it wasn’t a movie, then it was a worksheet that was passed out that was totally unrelated to anything we were learning in class. It was just meaningless. And I saw that when I was a teacher and when I moved into district leadership, too. Sometimes I’d go into middle-school classrooms and kids were coloring a sheet with crayons—in middle school. And you’re like “Oh my gosh, this whole day, these six or seven hours are totally being wasted.” And sometimes the videos might just be something like Lion King for the 20th time. And I certainly would say that there are substitute teachers out there who try to bring in either experience about their career or bring in something that's a learning experience for students, but oftentimes they were very sparse or very few.

Glatter: So how does Parachute Teachers create a different experience for students compared to the traditional VCR cart rolling in?

Cherry Rice: Part of our thinking was that there’s tons of talent in communities. Currently, community members or families are kind of not welcome in the school. It's “drop your kids at the gate, leave them here with us, pick them up in seven hours, and don't really engage with the classroom or the school.” But how do we bring those talents to schools so the community can share in the learning experience? We believe learning doesn't just happen in the four walls of the school. With the internet, with community engagement, learning is happening everywhere, all the time.

We want to make that learning more accessible to students, especially high-needs students. We have engineers who come into our classrooms and offer coding and 3D printing. There are folks that come in and offer art: watercolors and pottery. We have a farm-to-table cooking curriculum through MIT where farmers in the off-season come in and talk to students. So that time is not lost to learning; there’s real learning that’s connected, hands-on, relevant to real life, and coming directly from folks students pass on the street all the time in their own neighborhoods. The second thing we think about are the connections and the social capital that it gives to students. You can imagine when Parachute Teachers come in and talk about their careers, the different career pathways that students are then exposed to, and the social-capital connections that those students can then leverage. Seeing a woman engineer in their classroom in second grade, or seeing someone that's an ecologist come into their classroom in fourth grade. We think a lot about how this builds social capital to the communities in which these students live.

Glatter: Do you provide the lesson plans for the parachute teachers or do they create them on their own?

Cherry Rice: Oftentimes, the regular teacher who leaves will have a folder in the back of the classroom where they leave any lesson plans for the substitute to pick up. I would say the majority of the time, I don’t see substitutes use that folder, and they might be out of date lessons anyway. The teachers are putting something in there that's pretty easy, hopefully that anybody can pick up. But it’s really hard to take someone else’s lesson plan and then execute it. So we don’t believe that anyone can come in, unless you’re a super human, and take someone else’s lesson plan and execute it in a way that’s really effective and meaningful for students. We believe that Parachute Teachers—whatever their expertise is, whatever their talent is—should be teaching what they’re passionate about, and they’re designing their own lessons to deliver to students.

Glatter: After that, what's the oversight like? Are the Parachute Teachers evaluated at all?

Cherry Rice: Our teachers exist in a market place, and schools are going in and saying “I want to have pottery at this time during this day with these sets of students.” So one of the things we’ve implemented is principal feedback. One of our core values is continuous feedback, not only as an organization; our teachers are getting continuous feedback from the schools. And the area that we’re piloting this year is students giving feedback to the Parachute Teachers. We actually think that’s a whole heck of a lot more valuable than principals. Principals might pass by a classroom a few times a day and pop their head in, but they’re managing the school. Students are really the end-user here. Students are sitting in that class, whether it’s an hour or two hours or three hours. So we’re thinking through what it looks like for students to give meaningful feedback to Parachute Teachers to help them develop their practice.

Glatter: Are Parachute Teachers in all types of schools—public, private, charter, magnet, etc.—right now?

Cherry Rice: Right now we’re very focused on urban public schools for no other reason than that’s where my heart and passion is. I worked in Philadelphia; it’s where human capital can be the most scarce. There’s a statistic that, generally, students across all schools spend about six months over their lifetime with a substitute teacher. In urban schools, it can be one to two to three years. So we really do have a focus on serving some of the highest-need schools. However, we have a wait-list right now of schools that want to work with us, and that includes charter schools, private schools, suburban schools. Everyone, if you’re in a school system, believes human capital—who’s in front of your students—is extremely valuable.

Glatter: I saw a story a few months ago that one in four teachers within Chicago Public Schools misses at least 10 days every year, which seems like a lot of time. Is this high demand for substitute teachers a nationwide trend?

Cherry Rice: So yes, the number of days that a teacher takes out is increasing. The average now is [around] 10 days, which is pretty high, and it could be more depending on how many days are in their vacation bank. The second thing that’s happening is that fewer and fewer people are going into teaching as a career profession, and fewer and fewer people are coming out of teacher-preparation programs wanting to be a teacher. That’s due to a number of things: high-stakes tests, perhaps the Common Core Standards, or just the fact that teaching has never been as desirable of a profession as being a doctor or a lawyer.

The second thing is that not only is there a teacher shortage, but there’s a substitute-teacher shortage. When you think of who wants to be a substitute teacher, usually it’s folks who are between jobs and need to make some extra money. It’s also not a very desirable profession, as you see in movies with paper airplanes being flown and the substitute teacher’s trying to keep control of the classroom. Districts are just looking for someone that's living and breathing—the only requirement is “Are you alive?” You cannot operate a school when you do not have someone in the classroom.

So it’s been a high priority, and it’s a space that’s in much need of innovation. Our goal is to have a high-quality teacher in the front of the classroom for every second of every day. No down time. And that involves thinking outside the box in how we tap into the assets communities have and bringing more folks into our schools that maybe don’t want to be a full-time teacher—they want to remain in the lab or they want to remain as a product engineer. But there are opportunities to have flexibility and be part-time in our schools. That is a meaningful way to be engaged with schools.