A new group of RI substitute teachers hope to make a difference

By Linda Borg

Please note: This article was first published on November 8, 2020 on The Providence Journal website. We are re-posting on the Throughline Learning website now to coincide with our organization's rebrand (formerly Highlander Institute).

School was Chrystal Wheeler’s salvation.

“School was an escape for me,” she said. “It was a place I felt safe. I didn’t have to pull my father out of a drug house.”

Wheeler, 46, a childhood educator, is one of the first cohorts of substitute teachers to graduate from the Highlander Institute’s fast-track training program. Fifty teachers graduated on Wednesday.

Last month, Gov. Gina Raimondo put out an urgent plea for more substitutes. The need, she said, was enormous. Public schools are looking for 950 substitute teachers, 300 in Providence alone.

The applicants take part in a 10-hour training run by the Highlander Institute of Providence, which has a national reputation for its work in distance learning. Highlander is partnering with Freedom Dreams, founded by Simona Simpson Thomas, and the state Department of Education.

Substitute teachers have been in short supply for years, and COVID-19 has exacerbated the shortage as more teachers retired or decided to work remotely.

After Raimondo’s call, the Highlander Institute expected to get 200 applicants. More than 1,270 responded. They came from all walks of life and all age groups. More than a third are people of color. Many are looking for work. Others are looking to make a difference.

Kevin Millonzi, a 43-year-old caterer from Johnston, is a little of both. A successful businessman, he has seen his company shrink as COVID shut down weddings and other large events. But Millonzi has always been a “community guy,” whether it’s donating to the Little League or serving on the Johnston Housing Board.

Did he ever consider teaching?

“Not in a million years,” he said. “Hats off to the governor. This is an out-of-the-box approach.”

But he thought he’d be a good fit. Hospitality is a people business. You have to be nimble, and be able to problem-solve and handle stress.

“I’d love to be able to do something in the culinary arts,” Millonzi said. “I could teach the things that you’re not taught even at Johnson & Wales. Dealing with people — that’s my strongest asset in a classroom.”

Millonzi said he has been assigned to Cranston but he doesn’t know what age group.

One popular scenario, he said, involves the teacher working from home while the substitute teacher is in the actual classroom.

“You’re the adult body in the room,” he said. “You make sure the wheels are moving.”

Asked what aspect of teaching makes him the most anxious, Millonzi said,

“Nothing makes me nervous. I’ve done 10,000-people events. Like anything, you give 100%. That’s been my business mantra.”

Gordon Lee, 63, is a semiretired lawyer with a daughter at Cranston High School East and a son in college. When he heard Raimondo’s plea for substitutes, it sparked something.

“I thought of what it was like when I was a student in high school and college,” he said. “I thought it would be nice to honor one of my teachers by helping students today.”

Lee said he had toyed with subbing before, but the rules seemed too onerous. Now all you need is two years of college and a clean background check.

Lee is being sent to an elementary school in Cranston.

“That will be a bit of a challenge,” he said. “In some ways, it has its benefits. At least I liked my classes at that age.

“One of the worst experiences I had was taking my daughter on a field trip,” he said. “It was one of the loudest things I’ve ever heard. I’m hoping I don’t have that in the classroom.”

Lee said the training was very helpful, a sentiment echoed by the other applicants. The classes range from classroom discipline to lesson plans, with a particular emphasis on teaching a racially and culturally diverse classroom.
“It’s not just a sink-or-swim situation,” Lee said. “They’re giving us lots of support. I think it was a very good start.”

The Highlander Institute is setting up a help desk to respond to questions, and offering regular check-ins to see how the new teachers are doing.

Chrystal Wheeler brings a wealth of experience to the classroom. She not only has a bachelor's degree in early childhood education, but she worked as a long-term substitute teacher in Maryland. Science is her favorite subject.

She currently works as the education coordinator for the Washington Park Community Center in Providence. But her hours have been scaled back due to the virus.

“I’ve always been an educator,” she said. “When I was little, I lined up [hair barrettes] like they were my students. I always saw this as my future.”

Wheeler grew up in a dysfunctional family, and, as a teenager, moved in with her grandparents in Rhode Island. School, she said, was her ticket to a better life. She embraced every opportunity, joining the cheer team and the academic decathlon.

She gets how important it is to have a woman of color in front of the classroom:

“It lets them know you can do whatever you want in life. There are no barriers unless you set them up yourself.”