Jill Vialet was a fellow at Stanford School and was inspired by students … [+]
By the time an American student graduates from high school, a full year of her K-12 education will have been taught by substitute teachers. A full year! Prior to the pandemic, substitute tuition employed 600,000 teachers each year, 44% with no training, and cost taxpayers around $ 4 billion annually. Over the past several years, Playworks co-founder and education entrepreneur Jill Vialet has become increasingly curious about the question: How can we redesign the substitute education? That exploration led her to start a change organization, her third, and help create a new book, Substantial Classrooms: Redesigning The Substitute Teaching Experience. Marc Freedman, thought leader and founder of the national network Encore.org, spoke to Jill to learn about the latest chapter in her entrepreneurial journey, the power of alliances between generations and transforming challenges into opportunities.
Marc Freedman: Jill, I have watched your remarkable journey for many years – I have fond memories of playing mini golf together at Oakland Coliseum in 1989! And I followed with interest and admiration one after the other the brilliant innovations that you drove forward. Connect the dots for me How do you get from Mocha to Playworks to Substantial? How did it all develop?
Jill Vialet: Ha! I basically think I have a shtick and that is an awareness that what matters is how it feels. When we met, I focused on getting artists into schools to be meaningful people in children’s lives and to encourage their creativity. Meanwhile, the headmaster said, “Hey, can you fix the break in our school like you fixed the arts?” Really, I was just trying to figure out how to help school principals and teachers turn that time of the day into something that helps get the most out of children. Then, 10 years after starting and running Playworks, I had this recurring experience where the school principals asked me, “Hey, could we borrow our Playworks trainer to replace him?” I think basically I was just trying to be a good listener and stay curious about challenges that are really just oversized ways to get big leverage from a fairly small tweak.
Freedman: I am impressed as I watch each of these iterations how you managed to destroy a broken system that is hidden in all clarity, a system no one thinks of – pause at Playworks, substitute tuition now by substantive, the organization that you founded a few years ago. And how you flipped it to reveal the great opportunity made possible by a little tweak, as you say. What is the optimization in substitute lessons?
Vialet: It starts with redefining the challenge as an opportunity. Whenever you talk to people about what’s wrong with subbing, they say, “We just need more subs.” But if you dig a little deeper, you find that most subs come three times or less and then never do it again. That’s why at Substantial we work with school principals not to find new subs, but to get the subs they need to bring back. It purposely shifts focus from filling the void to building relationships. The bigger change that goes from improvement to innovation is not asking ourselves, “How do we find more subs?” But “what could we do with 10% of student time and $ 4 billion a year on replacement tuition?” How can we combine this with building the teacher pipeline? Or how could we use this time to bring in other content? Or how can we get students to be more significant drivers and owners of their own education? If you turn the challenge around and define the problem differently, you open up new possibilities.
Freedman: I’ve seen this firsthand in my father’s life. He was born to teach, but the financial circumstances of teaching forced him to become an administrator and headmaster, and it wasn’t until he retired from those roles at the age of 60 that he was able to return to teaching. As he did, he was a substitute teacher for 23 years. I saw not only what he could contribute to the schools, but what it meant for his own life. And how he could finally do what he loved on his own terms. He didn’t have to teach every day. He had more flexibility. Do you think older people like my father are a good source of replacement teacher talent?
Vialet: First of all, I love this story. One of the amazing things about substitute classes is the sheer variety of who does it. It’s an amazing role for retirees, including retired teachers – and other teachers, feel safe and at ease bringing retired teachers, especially former colleagues, into their classrooms. Those retired teachers who work as subs also have great potential roles as mentors to other newer teachers. Can subbing also be a great way for younger people considering going to school, a paid way to gain experience in different school settings, what subject area or age group to explore, or enjoy working in city schools? You can really get a taste of whether it is right for you. Do this in an environment where there is someone more experienced who can talk to you about how subbing is different from teaching, or similar, and who can take you under their wing. We are all so hungry for this level of connection and this type of relationship.
Then we also see a lot of parents in the middle staying home and hearing how convenient it can be to be a sub at your own child’s school and an incredible contribution you can make to that environment, right? Wherever you go to school, you bring your children with you, you show up, you’re there, it helps, you make a little more money. There are so many ways that there is an opportunity for different people to join in, connect, and interact. I think that is where the real power lies. And for many children, no matter what their family life is – good, bad, other, indifferent – their teacher is in many ways that uniquely important adult in their lives. When that person is absent, a certain degree of vulnerability arises. The fact that we send in someone who may be the least educated, the least prepared, and the least supported to truly care for our children at this potentially most vulnerable moment raises all sorts of questions and creates unnecessary trouble.
Freedman: There’s so much resonance between what you do and what you write about and our own experience at Encore – starting with the Experience Corps, our inaugural program that connects second-half volunteers with children learning to read. First of all, with the mutuality of these intergenerational connections, how mutual this relationship is. Everything starts with the needs of the children, which should be in the foreground. But I am always impressed how much the teachers need these bonds.
Vialet: Yes, the surprise inside is jumping out of the cake. It turns out that the best way to meet the needs of the kids is to take care of the needs of the adults, the caregivers, right? For an adult who interacts with children to feel safe and seen, cared for and supported is much better positioned to, in turn, provide the same things for the children they work with.
Illustration from Jill’s new book, co-authored with Amanda von Moos
Freedman: I love your new book. And it sparked a thought hearing the President’s 100-day address last week. I wondered what the central message is that the president, the new administration, should remove from the book. And what would you like them to handle this news?
Vialet: What is really needed now is a long-term commitment. An obligation to hold on to these large investments. The challenges we face in our education system, our health system, the climate problems, the problems of combating systemic racism, the unequal pay of teachers and the way our school system has not been optimally designed for the new worlds that we are Send kids out in – they’re all connected, right? Then, when you reduce it to a simpler question, you will remember that what matters is how it feels. Right now it is important that we do not lose sight of the fact that there has only been one tremendous trauma and that we have to relate to one another again in order to create the security that is fundamental for learning.
Freedman: You are rethinking the substitute lesson using human-centered design and design thinking to redefine a whole host of legacy systems. Not just in education, but in society in general. You have redeveloped legacy systems throughout your career. What’s the next legacy system you want to adopt? Or that you wish someone else would do it?
Vialet: It’s interesting, I’m becoming more and more obsessed with democracy, from how voting works in our country to the way we teach civics and civic education. Why isn’t it sexy to get involved in politics? Why don’t we have a fantasy congress? I’ve been thinking lately how amazing it would be if American democracy looked more like the NBA. I mean, I love the warriors, and I have incredible respect for Lebron James too. He’s not on my team, I want to beat him, and yet my appreciation for him is thorough and authentic. How can we make ourselves more comfortable not to agree and see it not as a threat but as an opportunity to get better?
I think what I really want is for people to care more and believe in their own ability to make a difference. You may not end up in the same place as me. Indeed, they may have a completely different political understanding of what hurts us. But I think that’s part of what our democracy needs right now – change makers who respect each other even when we disagree and have a shared commitment to try to do better. People ask me, “Really? You went into politics after hiatus?” And I say back: “During the break you will learn all the basic skills to be a committed citizen.” In some ways, it’s the perfect metaphor for when kids play well together and when they don’t, when it works and when it doesn’t. That’s a bit of where I draw my attention.
Jill Vialet and Marc Freedman are leading social entrepreneurs and Ashoka Fellows.