Need a Substitute Teacher? Try an ELF Instead

Opinion | Professional Development

Need a Substitute Teacher? Try an ELF Instead

By Robert J. Harris     Feb 22, 2017

Need a Substitute Teacher? Try an ELF Instead

This article is part of the guide: The EdSurge Guide to Becoming a Future Ready Leader.

This past December, my wife and I made our annual trip from Boston to Michigan to visit family for the holidays. As we drove from Detroit to Lansing, we were struck by the number of billboards along the interstate recruiting for substitute teachers.

Although this aggressive advertising campaign was surprising, another regional shortage of substitute teachers was not. As Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources at Lexington Public Schools in Massachusetts, I’ve been studying the labor market for substitute teachers for the past ten years. The current substitute shortage is a huge opportunity for schools to innovate and transform an outdated substitute teacher model.

Substitute teachers play a big part of every child’s schooling experience—especially as teacher absences continue to grow. According to an article published in Education Week in 2016, 27 percent of pre-k-12 teachers were absent for more than 10 school days per school year. Along with this trend, is a declining pool of available substitute teachers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there was approximately one substitute for every 3.22 teachers in 2011. In 2016, this ratio nearly doubled to one sub for nearly every 6 teachers. Hiring substitute teachers can also be costly. A report from the Center for American Progress estimates that U.S. schools collectively spend roughly $4 billion on them each year.

On average, a child will have a substitute teacher in her classroom for anywhere between six months to a full year during his or her pre-k-12 experience. Unfortunately, from the vantage point of student learning, the experience is remarkably poor. Just remember your own days as a student. Recall the lack of continuity of learning, or the goofing off that would often occur. Perhaps you would be left to your own “devices” for the 50-minute period. Maybe you would have a worksheet or two to complete, a video to watch, a study hall, or a substitute teacher who would try to corral the class through an activity. At best, your experience with the substitute teacher was a series of loosely connected activities intended to bide the time.

In 2007, a trio of Harvard researchers found that “even 10 days of teacher absences can have an impact...reducing, for example, students’ math achievement by 3.3 percent of a standard deviation.”

Simply following Michigan’s lead to recruit additional substitute teachers through billboards is especially costly and only perpetuates the problem. Even with limited resources, school districts can harness the growth of online tools and internet-enabled devices to find more creative solutions to address the substitute-teacher problem.

This year, at Lexington High School (LHS) when teachers are absent, an “ELF” now greets students in a collaborative learning space. I don’t mean the small mischievous pointy-eared fairy-tale type, nor the character played by Will Ferrell in the film of the same title. Our “ELF” is an Electronic Learning Facilitator.

The ELF is a full-time, licensed educator, who is trained in the delivery of online instruction. He works collaboratively with classroom teachers across grades and subjects to ensure continuity of instruction in a digitally-rich online format. The ELF also works with instructional technology specialists to modify lessons to optimize their accessibility for students. When a teacher is absent, an ELF can step in and deliver the instructional content so that no class time is lost. The ELF empowers students to set the pace and path of their own learning.

This happens in a blended learning environment called the Independent Digital Learning Center (IDLC). There, students from multiple classes in different subject areas and grade levels, use devices such as Chromebooks and iPads to access the digital lessons their regular classroom teachers built. What was formerly a lecture hall, the IDLC still features stadium seating but has been reimagined to promote collaborative work. Designated group-work tables at the front of the room are used for project-based learning. The lesson goals and instructions for the classes covered in the IDLC are projected at the front of the room so students can refer to them.

Since the pilot began in September 2016, students have overwhelmingly reported that the ELF model produces higher levels of engagement in their learning than when substitutes are leading class. Students feel increased ownership and agency over their own learning. And teachers report that when they return from an absence their students are better prepared for class with no loss of continuity of daily instruction. Teachers are able to rejoin their classes as if they had not missed any time with their students.

The ELF model has also built a culture of collaboration between classroom teachers and the ELF around student learning. Because ELFs are part of the full-time staff, they develop ongoing working relationships with both faculty and students. The use of online platforms, such as Google Apps for Education, further provide classroom teachers with the opportunity to monitor student progress in real-time and give their students immediate and meaningful feedback. And as a byproduct, Lexington High School will now have a repository of on-demand, well-designed, highly engaging online lesson plans for future use.

Lastly, the ELF model is significantly more cost-effective than hiring per diem substitutes. The cost of hiring an ELF was $54,000 with benefits. Last year, LHS, a school of 2,200 students, spent $160,000 on per diem substitutes. Even with our startup cost of $30,000 for 60 Chromebooks and two charging carts, current projections show significant savings in our expenditure on substitutes and other associated administrative costs such as recruitment, training and scheduling.

There is a long history of school districts trying to improve substitute teachers’ ability to deliver core instruction in an efficient and cost-effective manner, but the structure is fundamentally flawed. Given today’s supply-demand imbalance of substitute teachers, coupled with the rise of blended learning, for the first time ever school districts can sustainably solve the substitute teacher challenge.

Robert J. Harris (@rharris_Bob) is Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources at Lexington Public Schools in Massachusetts

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