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What Can Substitute Teachers Do for City Schools?

This start-up dispatches artists and activists to fill in for full-time instructors and teach kids new real-world skills.

Alexis Daniels teaching a class at Donald McKay Elementary School in East Boston. (Steve Holt)

On a Friday morning in September, at the Donald McKay Elementary School in East Boston, Massachusetts, Alexis Daniels shushes a roomful of 13- and 14-year-olds. Daniels doesn’t regularly teach this eighth grade math class, but she’s subbing today: Ms. White is out taking a personal day. Standing in front of a slide that reads, “Mapping [Ideas & Food Systems]: How is food connected to health, society, the environment, and me?” Daniels throws a rhetorical question out to the class.

“How does an apple get to our plate?” she asks.

She passes each table of students a sheet of paper with some steps in the apple production process already filled out. It is up to each group to fill in the rest of the map before discussing it as a class. Later in the double-block period, Daniels asks the students to calculate the approximate cost in gas for a bag of apples grown in New Zealand to travel the roughly 8,750 miles to Massachusetts (Spoiler: it’s $19,075). She uses the activity as an opportunity to slip in a pitch for locally grown apples picked just up the road in Ipswich.

If you couldn’t tell, Daniels isn’t your typical sub, armed with worksheets. She’s a cook and food systems expert who’s working towards a master’s in occupational therapy. For years, she’s taught city kids how to grow their own food, and on this particular Friday she’s teaching math through the lens of food systems with a startup called Parachute, which aims to revolutionize how school time is spent when the teacher’s away.

“My primary aim in introducing a food systems curriculum is to have kids start to look at systems and how they relate to each other. Maps are the easiest way to visualize it,” Daniels tells me later. “I’ve been teaching different grades, and I’m finding they haven’t been taught how to chart out ideas like that. They don’t know the geography of this country and the world. When you talk about the impact our agriculture system has on the country and the world, there’s a lot of confusion.”

The educator Sarah Rice, who served in tough districts like Newark and Boston, believes most school districts are wasting enormous amounts of money on substitute teachers who are little more than “adult babysitters.” On average, teachers are out of the classroom 9.4 days per 180-day school year. Applying a little math, by the time a kid graduates from high school, he or she will have been with a substitute teacher for a solid six months of their school career. That number is higher in school districts serving low-income students, according to a 2007 study of teacher absenteeism in North Carolina. Urban students typically get more sub time as well.

This is significant because teacher absenteeism has been shown to hurt student performance. Several research studies, many of which were summarized in a 2009 review of literature by the Albuquerque Public Schools, have found that students whose teachers are frequently absent perform worse on standardized tests than students whose teachers are more consistently present.

You don’t have to think too hard to know why things don’t necessarily run smoothly when the teacher’s out: the educational rhythm is broken, and many substitute teachers offer little structure. They attempt to follow plans left by the full-time teacher, with varying success. Despite everyone’s best intentions, classes run by subs can sometimes turn chaotic. It’s gotten so bad in some places, Rice says, that when parents catch wind that the teacher’s going to be gone, they may choose to keep their kids home from school altogether.

So in 2015, Rice launched Parachute around one central question: What if there was a great teacher in the class every day?

The concept is pretty straightforward: When a full-time teacher is away, students are guided in a lesson or workshop on a particular topic by someone who knows it best—like an urban farmer, robotics engineer, dancer, coder, or painter. Rice sees the creation of a part-time teacher market as both a way for professionals to share what they’re passionate about and an opportunity for schools to learn from experts in the communities in which they reside. In a word, it’s reciprocal.

Through Parachute, a school can bring in a substitute who’s an expert in a field completely different from what kids are learning. And especially in large, resource-strapped districts like Boston’s, the topics Parachute teachers cover—everything from Shakespearian theater to animation—are unlikely to be broached if not for this program. In fact, Rice would like to scrap altogether the word “substitute”—which conjures images of a remedial experience—and ensure that adults are adding value to kids’ learning experience, even when the full-time teacher is absent. Rice says that in Boston alone, more than 250 people have applied to share their knowledge as Parachute teachers – even a few traditional subs wanting to teach what they love, like puppetry or poetry.

In Daniels’s class, students learn about the food supply chain. (Steve Holt)

Parachute is still brand-new, and many questions remain. Boston Public Schools have given principals a fair amount of autonomy to decide whether they’d like to experiment with a different model for substitute teaching, but thus far Parachute is working with only two schools: McKay and the Urban Science Academy High School in West Roxbury. And in an atmosphere where teachers build up trust over many months, will “a day here, a day there” subs be able to communicate a heady concept like food policy to students in a way that sticks?

For Alexis Daniels, whom I observed Parachuting about food policy at the McKay School in East Boston, it can be difficult tailoring a lesson to a classroom of kids whose personalities and challenges she doesn’t know. On this particular Friday, the hum of chatter is constant, and participation in the discussion is sparse. One student has his head down, sleeping. Another student tries, unsuccessfully, to stage a mutiny to get Daniels to scrap the food lesson and let the class do its math homework instead. Many students perk up when Daniels mentions the snack at the end of the lesson.

“A lot of kids come to school having not eaten breakfast,” says Daniels. “There’s this irony in sitting in a two-hour class talking about these big systemic issues, and I see them fading.”

Rice knows that she can’t expect every cook, engineer, or poet to come into settings like the McKay School with the tools to lead an engaging and participatory learning experience. That’s why she’s recently launched a handful of mini-trainings for Parachute experts to learn how to communicate their fields of study to children in ways that stick. In early September, for instance, Daniels led a workshop on teaching the science of urban farming, but also worked with Parachute teachers on how to facilitate creative projects in the classroom, see the strengths and interests already present in their students, and avoid “information dumping.”

The studies are clear: teacher absenteeism negatively impacts students. But when a teacher has to be out, Parachute could be a way to guard against student backsliding—and ignite a new passion or curiosity in the process.

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