I’ll come clean: two of my own children, perhaps genetically predestined by both parents’ status as fourth-generation educators, have taken up the family trade. One is in higher ed, and the other has toiled through the pandemic in a couple of long-term independent school substitute positions—one that ended as the school downsized in the first wave (lots of international students who couldn’t return), the other that began as a single term and is now nearing the end of its full second year. It is a little ironic, then, that a couple of weeks ago he needed his own substitute as he languished at home with his own case of Covid. Happily he wasn’t all that ill, and in time his tests came out negative.
But there was a certain amount of parental consultation on plans for his colleagues filling in—what to do as a middle-school humanities teacher who sometimes sees the same group of students for two and even three periods in a day.
This got me thinking, pretty hard, about “substitute plans.”
We’ve all been reading quite a bit lately about the challenges facing schools around staffing and just identifying and preparing substitute classroom teachers. Creating a substitute pool is a topic for another day and for experts who have actually been doing it as the coronavirus has picked away at the health, morale, and stamina of the teaching force.
But, consider the “substitute plan”: that lesson plan (will it fill the period? is it gonna be doable by the sub, whoever they may be?) cobbled together by an often suffering teacher late in the night or early in the morning—often followed by a “rinse, repeat” cycle for days on end. And let us stipulate that having the time and energy to concoct a few days’ worth of plans all at once is a dubious luxury, as this is sadly likely to reflect some truly unwelcome interlude in a teacher’s life. Hasn’t every teacher called or sent in a “sub plan” that has just felt like too little, too late?
But there is a better way, and the basic technology of a learning-management system can facilitate this. Why not use this tool, or whatever analog your school might offer, to pre-build learning experiences that are novel, stimulating, and germane to the discipline without necessarily needing to be bound to a curricular plan and that can be tapped as needed due to personal or family exigency? Why not give students the opportunity to engage in disciplinary thinking while trying out their adaptive expertise on new topics?
Simply stated, we could ask teachers to generate open-ended, perhaps project-, place-, or problem-based mini units that are, if not exactly self-managing, easily housed with all resources in the LMS and that require minimum management by a substitute teacher. But how can one design such a thing without knowing WHERE in the calendar of the curriculum it might be needed?
We believe that part of the backbone of academic rigor (a concept that always seems to be in play when “substitute teachers” are part of the conversation, alas for those poor souls) is real-world application of basic disciplinary procedures and principles. The world is rife with ill-defined and complex problems on which students can exercise the creative application of classroom learning in all subjects, and the challenges can be tapped—yes, perhaps superficially, as we are not expecting our students to cure major diseases or resolve the cold nuclear fusion question—for some engaging, meaningful, and even lasting learning.
Let’s look at the reality: How often in the course of just about any curriculum at any level are students invited to use what they are learning in “real world application”? How often do we avoid offering students “complex problems” because our well-crafted scaffolding always seems to require a bit more prior knowledge?
But if you’re a science teacher, aren’t there real-world problems, perhaps involving a bit of research easily managed within the classroom and then some data analysis, that any reasonably well-prepared students could tackle? Does the opportunity to “think like a real scientist” only come as part of upper-level secondary coursework? Could you, O Science Teacher, concoct a contained, perhaps several-day project that your students could be doing more or less on their own that would provide opportunities to look at some aspect of the world as a scientist does and then break this down using whatever essential skills and “scientific dispositions” your charges have acquired, whatever their grade level or age? (Have you ever looked at the questions on the ACT Science section and envisioned the learning that would help students approach these with confidence and skill?)
Global language courses are highly sequential, yes, but could a little unit be devised and socked away in the LMS that focused on some aspect of culture and a modicum of target language use, suitable for application as needed, whether in September or May?
Math teachers, are your students all experts in reading and analyzing graphs and data tables and drawing appropriate conclusions? Would a little more practice, perhaps inspired by some real-world data (The Economist magazine loves its visual displays of information, by the by) be such a distraction from the quantitative thinking they might be doing in the established curriculum as to be without value?
The fields of history and social studies are filled with significant little incidents and curious characters, too granular perhaps for the textbooks, that could inspire some compelling short-term work. Take a tip from the Advanced Placement and assemble some documents or other kinds of texts that might spark some deep analysis of perspectives and sources, and ask students to parse their content. I can imagine doing this with second-graders or final-term seniors and their both learning from and enjoying the experience.
English classes could take a similar approach, or just focus on a single author or text. Here, as everywhere else, duh, lie opportunities for student collaboration—in researching, in work-shopping writing, in presenting—that won’t require the substitute to dress in a lion tamer’s red blazer top hat, cracking a whip and brandishing a chair to maintain order.
I’ve already stepped outside my own areas of disciplinary expertise (sorry, math and science folks), but I am dead certain that the visual and performing arts teachers I have known and the specialists in teaching non-native-English-speakers I have worked with could devise wonderful, wonderful things.
And for academic leaders, just knowing that every teacher has one (or two or maybe three, just to be safe) of these units “in the can” and ready for use would be a stress-reducer, removing at least one layer from the burden of setting up substitute teachers on the fly every day.
For the teachers themselves, I can imagine the fun and satisfaction that could come from building these little units/classes/whatever-you-call-’em. They could start with something about their field or discipline that tickles them personally, or something that they just wish “there was time to do” in the regular curriculum. Because, properly framed and neatly executed, these “sub plans” would elicit serious disciplinary thinking, the exercise of essential disciplinary skills, and the chance to apply learning to novel topics and situations. And that, friends, is what we want our students to be doing, isn’t it?
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)