Edtech Company Encourages Its Employees to Volunteer as Substitute Teachers

Schools across the country are dealing with a severe teacher shortage.

That shortage has become so desperate at times that state governments have even started letting their employees take paid time off to plug in the holes in missing staff, in an effort to keep schools from shuttering in-person learning.

For example: In late January, Utah Governor Spencer Cox issued an executive order giving state employees up to 30 hours of paid time off to sit in for missing staff at public and private schools.

And at least one edtech company is making a similar offer: Instructure, the learning management system provider that runs Canvas, is encouraging its employees to volunteer as substitute teachers for districts.

The staffing shortages “got really acute” at the end of last year, says Steve Daly, who’s been CEO of Instructure since 2020.

Company officials say it became apparent during the pandemic that school administrators couldn’t get substitutes fast enough.

“It’s not only affecting our teachers and our admin, it’s also affecting us,” says Shelly Ruff, a K-12 client success manager at Instructure.

School administrators kept being pulled from their regular meetings with Instructure representatives or canceling at the last minute so they could cover for missing teachers, for instance.

So Instructure began asking employees to volunteer in schools in Utah, where the company is headquartered—using a preexisting program that gives all employees two volunteer days to use at their own discretion.

And it created a program to train administrators and non-permanent teachers to use the company’s platform when the teacher is out. That program also allows teachers and administrators to give substitutes access to lesson plans and homework, making them more than a babysitter, Daly indicated.

Soon, the company built up enough infrastructure around its substitute teaching effort, that it began coordinating with school districts. When the governor issued his order last January, Instructure’s program was “ramped up,” which allowed them to step in and assist, Daly says.

“It was just really well received,” says Ruff, who was involved with building up the initiative.

Now, Instructure is opening up the initiative to any part of the country where it has “a significant employee base.”

Instructure’s leaders say that they don’t receive money for volunteering, nor do the employees. The company does cover the cost of background checks for employees looking to participate.

All that volunteering and support is philanthropic, but it’s not without benefit to the company.

After all, spending time in the school districts gives the employees an inside view of these districts. “I do think it also helps the company become a better partner with education,” Daly says.

“I think we could do a better job of connecting businesses like ours with the schools that our employees send their kids to,” Daly says. “So I do think exploring more of these types of relationships could help with some of the challenges we’re seeing in education today.”

More Pressure

The staffing shortage plaguing schools has put more pressure on districts to recruit both full-time teachers and substitutes, says Mike Teng, cofounder and CEO of the K-12 substitute placement platform Swing Education.

District recruitment efforts have tried to entice substitute teachers, though school leaders are often more focused on full-time teachers, he says.

“There’s many districts that we’ve seen that have raised their pay rates [for] substitute teachers in particular, over the last year-and-a-half,” Teng says.

For example: School districts in Indiana—which has seen both a decline in teachers entering the profession and an increase in those leaving it—are giving substitute teachers a big pay bump, hoping that the money will better attract qualified substitutes.

Substitute teachers have a role in teacher retention, Teng says, allowing teachers time off to avoid burnout and to pursue professional development.

And substitute teaching can also serve as an onramp into the classroom, Teng says.

While there’s more of a need now for subs, it is easier to recruit them now than during the height of the pandemic, says Nicola Soares, president of Kelly Education, one of the largest staffing firms that places substitute teachers across the country.

Inflation has spurred more people to supplement their income by subbing for a couple of days per week, she says. And there are also a “good number of people” who want to try another career, Soares adds.

To many, subbing is a way to try out teaching.

Healthcare professionals, in particular, have been moving into teaching. Many of them became burnt out from the pandemic and are transferring the “sense of noble purpose” they once found in healthcare to teaching. A nurse who has a degree in a STEM field, for example, can transfer “very beautifully” into a STEM classroom, she says.

There’s also a big pool of younger workers who want more control over their work schedules, something they see in substituting, she says.

“I think it behooves all of K-12 in America to really make sure that the people that have some interest [in teaching], however small it might be, to let them make sure that they can try it as easily as possible,” says Teng, of Swing Education.

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