Sarah Cherry Rice has seen too many substitute teachers sitting in the back whiling away class periods texting on their phones. At best, she says, they distribute worksheets—intentionally easy, “busy” work that the absent teacher selected to not complicate the sub’s job.
While there are some superhuman substitutes, Rice says, the expectation that a sub can arrive 10 minutes before class starts, pick up someone else’s lesson plan and magically make it happen is unreal.
So when the veteran teacher and education consultant began to pursue her doctorate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, her pet project was clear: She wanted to tackle the broken substitute teacher system that too many public schools don’t have the time or means to reform.
In 2015, Rice launched Parachute Teachers, a Boston-based startup that “parachutes” community professionals—chefs, coders, slam poets and others—into classrooms to teach about their areas of expertise.
Rice shares her story with Smithsonian.com.
Let’s start with the problem. What problem are you trying to fix?
There are districts across the country spending an enormous amount of money on substitute teachers. With teacher shortages and with less and less people going into teaching, more and more substitute teachers are being called in. Over the course of a student’s lifetime in public schools, they will spend about six months with substitute teachers. Six months is the average, but it is so much worse when you get into low performing, particularly urban districts.
When substitute teachers are coming in to the classroom, a lot of time there is not a lot of learning going on. They are handing out a worksheet at best, or you might be watching a movie. Sometimes it’s just total chaos. So an enormous amount of time and an enormous amount of money is spent on essentially adult babysitters that are coming into our schools. Right now, I think the number is about $4 billion that’s spent in U.S. public schools.
What Parachute is trying to do is think about how that time that’s wasted and the money that goes with that can be reused to offer high quality learning experiences for students.
So how does Parachute Teachers work, exactly?
We see that there is a teacher shortage, and beyond that there is even a substitute teacher shortage. You might have seen recently that in Michigan [a school staffing company] is putting up these huge billboards saying “Substitute teachers needed,” which basically screams if you are alive and breathing come into our schools. For so long, we see that is the requirement.
Instead of saying let’s just take anyone that’s breathing, we feel like there is a lot of untapped talent in communities—folks that are experts in their content areas that want to be in our schools but they don’t know how to be in the schools. Chefs, farmers, scientists, engineers, who have full-time jobs and probably won’t leave their profession for full-time teaching, but if they could keep their full-time position and spend part of their time in schools, they would.
For example, we have an engineer who teaches 3D-printing to students one morning a week. We have a yoga instructor that has a studio across the street from one of our schools who goes in and teaches yoga with students. We have a chef that runs a community kitchen by one of our schools that teaches farm-to-table cooking with students. They have amazing talent and expertise and are already really passionate about a given content area. What we look to do is figure out pathways for them to be part of the school.
Where are Parachute Teachers being used?
Right now we are working with two schools. We have a K-8 school, which is the McKay School in East Boston. We chose that school in particular because it’s a high-needs school, and because of its location. East Boston is a little bit off the beaten track, so they really had a hard time getting full-time teachers, let alone substitute teachers.
The second school we’ve started working with is the Urban Science Academy. They are a 9-12 high school in Boston Public Schools. Again, it is a pretty high-needs school.
We wanted to look at it from kindergarten to 12th grade. McKay was our first pilot. We piloted the model last year and then we continued this year. We moved into Urban Science Academy for this school year.
We’re moving slowly. We’re pretty cautious, because we want to keep our quality high. We are going to move into a few districts this spring to do some new pilots in the greater Boston area, which we’re really excited about. Then we have a waitlist of districts across the country. We want to really figure out our model before we scale.
How do you recruit teachers?
When we initially started we did a lot of grassroots organizing. Because we are not looking for people who would have looked to do substitute teaching in the past, we are asking at farmer’s markets, community events and STEM-related events. We talk to students on campus. Talent is everywhere. Folks that really want to be active in the community are usually out and about in the community.
As we start to scale and think about going to other districts, we are going to be a little more strategic. We rarely ever market the opportunity as “come be a substitute teacher.” We are really trying to reimagine or redesign that role. We talk about it as “come be a parachute teacher,” which is someone who is sharing their expertise and giving students a hands-on, real-world learning experience when their teacher is out for the day.
How do you support your teachers, who don’t have previous experience in the classroom?
We offer what we call microcredentials. Instead of going back to school and getting a full licensure for education, these are bite-size credentials that give teachers the pedagogy, or the how to teach the thing that they are already passionate about. Our latest one is urban farming, where we take chefs, ecologists, biologists and farmers in the off-season and we credential them in a food sustainability curriculum with MIT.
We do have an in-person coach. She’ll parachute in with teachers to give them real-time feedback as they are teaching. We also support around lesson planning and unit plan development. One of the things we’re big on beyond the pedagogy of teaching is thinking about how we build a strong community. So we offer monthly community events where Parachute Teachers can connect with one another, especially Parachute Teachers that are within the same field. Often times you might never see another parachuter when you’re parachuting in, so these community events are opportunities for those teachers to collaborate across their expertise.
How do you compensate them?
Teachers are paid by the hour, and their hourly rate is based on their expertise. We also allow principals to rate the teacher. Now, this year, we’re piloting students rating their experience. Pay is also based on the microcredentials they’ve earned.
The way it works right now in school districts is even if you have a teacher out for just an hour for a dentist appointment, you have to book a substitute teacher for an entire day and pay the daily rate. With booking Parachute Teachers by the hour, it allows a lot more flexibility for scheduling on the school’s part. We say that teachers should be able to take time off just like any other person who has a job. Let’s just parachute someone in for an hour, so that that teacher can go. While that teacher is gone, we’ll be providing farm-to-table cooking or coding, so that learning time isn’t lost.
Have you run into any trouble trying to explain the program and make it fit with curricular needs in public schools?
That’s a good question. So at McKay, if they have a science teacher out, they will hire a STEM Parachute Teacher. That parachuter comes in and does something that relates to those grade level standards but complements what the teacher is doing. We do try to always complement the curriculum. Principals are going into a marketplace, and they can choose the content are they are hiring for. They can choose math, science, coding, it’s up to them.
We need to think about how to collect feedback from a kindergartner to a high schooler, and how that has to look different for someone who is 5 years old, someone who is 8 years old, and someone who is almost 18 years old. That’s something we haven’t quite figured out yet, and one of our biggest focuses this year. How do we capture meaningful feedback?
Right now we are looking at the model we’ve been prototyping and iterating on and thinking, what does it look like to begin to scale that model to more schools? We’re looking at applying to some accelerators that specifically focus on scaling. We could do a three-month accelerator with our team, where we learn some of the best practices from other companies that have gone through a similar transition.