May 22, 2023
By Aleta Margolis, Founder and President, Center for Inspired Teaching
Hooray for Monday is a weekly blog filled with questions, ideas, reflections, and actions we can all take to remodel the school experience for students.
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In his 1975 book Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study Dan C. Lortie explored how schools had become like egg cartons where classrooms existed side by side but there was little interaction between them. It would be nice if that metaphor were dated. But at a time when a lack of school connectedness is a national problem, it’s clear that kind of isolation is still an issue. Disrupting the egg carton requires looking for multiple ways to create connection. One often overlooked opportunity is how schools welcome and support substitute teachers.
Jill Vialet is co-founder and advisor of Substantial Classrooms, a national organization dedicated to exploring ways to “improve the substitute teaching experience for everyone.” This includes finding and retaining substitutes as well as ensuring that they have the capacity to do their jobs well. “The work is grounded in Carl Jung’s concept that to thrive at work, humans need meaning, mastery, and community. Being a sub has the potential to offer all three of those experiences,” Jill explains.
Her colleague Erin Ruegg, director of teaching and learning for the organization, points out that the teacher shortage, trauma as a result of the pandemic, and associated challenges teachers are facing in the classroom have made the role of substitutes particularly critical. “Students need capable, competent people in front of them all the time.”
I asked Jill and Erin what those of us who work in schools full time can do to help out. You can hear our full conversation in today’s podcast. Here are their key recommendations:
- Teach students to connect to the substitute teacher with empathy. “When a sub is coming to the classroom, it is an opportunity to really work with students to be empathic about this person who doesn’t know anybody else there, who could be someone to be curious about, who has a set of life experiences that they are willing to share with the class,” Jill explained. She recommends having discussions with students to plan for a substitute well before you actually need one – this video from the Center for Collaborative Classrooms offers an example of how to have that conversation.
- Always have a lesson plan and make it clear. “What we hear from subs who decide not to continue subbing is that the number one thing you can do to make sure that no one comes back to your classroom ever again is to not leave a plan,” Jill cautions.
- Provide an outline of the hallmarks of your classroom. Let the substitute know about the transitions you use, your class routines, and your schedule. Empower students to proactively teach them about these aspects of the class.
- Have students write you a note about what they accomplished. This expectation makes it clear to the students and the substitute teacher that meaningful work will get done. And it gives you a window into what happened in your absence.
- When there’s a substitute next door, help to make them feel welcome. Invite them to chat at recess; ask if they have lunch already; check in to see how things are going so far with their class. Erin explains that “taking just that moment to say ‘if you need anything, let me know’ can make a huge difference to a sub who’s walked into this environment, doesn’t know anybody, and is new to everything.”
Be a teacher resource. Thirty percent of substitute teachers self-report that they are aspiring teachers. “That’s a huge chunk,” Erin says. “And if we can ask them the right questions and be the person they can ask questions of, we can help them to find that path.”
These small efforts can make a big difference. Erin notes that “creating a climate of inclusivity for all school staff that includes everybody, the students, and all of the stakeholders in the school, including the subs can really be transformational for everyone.”
“This issue of connectedness is perhaps the strongest argument in favor of making professional development available to substitutes,” says Jill. “Because for a kid, their teacher is their person who is their rock, their point of consistency in a day that can be kind of overwhelming. When that person is gone, it creates a sense of disequilibrium… In that situation you want the most trained, the most supported person coming in to fill that gap. You need a well-trained, well-supported human and historically, that has not been how the United States has treated its subs.”
Will you need a sub this week? Might there be one in the classroom next door? Let today be the day you disrupt the egg carton and see what kind of connection you can make.
What We’re Curious About
FLUID INTELLIGENCE AND CRYSTALLIZED INTELLIGENCE
Jill Vialet, Co-Founder and Advisor of Substantial Classrooms
I’ve been reading this book by Arthur C. Brooks called From Strength to Strength. It’s about how in our careers there’s this early intelligence that we bring to bear in working on challenges and issues. It’s a fluid intelligence that rises and then, not that deep into our careers, it tends to start to fall away.
According to this author, humans who over time are the happiest are the ones who jump from this fluid intelligence to a more crystallized intelligence, which is really bringing our experience to bear. I’m very much in the process of trying to jump from the first curve to the second curve. And I’m wondering about how I’m going to land and how that’s going to play out and how I might best work in this system to bring what I have to offer to support others. The thing I’m curious about is, how do I do that gracefully without losing faith along the way?
CULTURE AND COMMUNITY
Erin Ruegg, Director of Teaching and Learning, Substantial Classrooms
I just recently moved to New Orleans and I got to go to Jazz Fest last weekend and this new home experience is making me curious about culture and community. I mean, jazz is so good and there are so many musical roots here and it has so much to do with people’s stories of life and I just want to know more about it. I just went on a dig for historical fiction so that I can learn more about where I live.
That curiosity is also about the food. Everybody’s having crawfish boils right now. (We’re going to our third one this weekend!) You all sit around a table that’s covered in plastic with a pile of crawfish on it and you tear them apart and you suck out the guts. You’re all just sitting and chatting and there are kids and parents and grandparents all gathered together. I’m just very curious about all of it.
This series of warm-up activities activates the mind and body but it also offers the opportunity for students to feel seen and heard right as class begins. Consider naming a student to lead these warm-ups when a sub comes to class.
In this activity at the end of each class period you ask students to select 3 things they have learned or done or ideas they have investigated that they want to remember from that day. This is a valuable activity for students to learn to lead and to carry forward even with a sub.
An Emotion Continuum lives in your classroom all year long and serves as a way for students to share how they are feeling. Put a student in charge of explaining this feature of the room when a sub comes to class. You might even create a clothespin so visitors can participate!