As a former substitute classroom aide, Barbara Valencia is uniquely positioned to explain what exactly makes being a sub so difficult. How hard it can be to walk into an unfamiliar classroom full of unfamiliar students and try to teach an unfamiliar lesson plan. How daunting it can feel to have to treat every day as if it were your very first on the job; often, because that’s precisely what it is.
Barbara appeared recently on Frontline Education’s K-12 conversations podcast, Field Trip, where she shared some of the often-uncomfortable thoughts that run through the minds of classroom-wary substitutes:
“It was like being on a job interview every single day,” Barbara said. “Everything was new. I didn’t know where to go, who to talk to, where to get lunch, where my classroom was.”
Now working in Human Resources at Spring Grove Area School District, Barbara has discovered a creative way to marry her experience as a substitute aide — coupled with her experience working the phones at a local electric company – with the needs of the district.
With the team at Spring Grove, she is focusing on something that’s key to substitute engagement, but rarely brought up in discussions regarding K-12… customer service.
By focusing on the thoughts, feelings and overall fit of Spring Grove’s subs, Barbara has implemented a substitute management system that places the emphasis on the “customer” — the substitutes. They’re making a concerted effort to keep subs engaged as they support Spring Grove’s students – and that, Barbara says, is what keeps substitutes coming back to Spring Grove.
“When you have good customer service, people tend to return. It’s no different with subs.”
Putting People First
The truth is that substitutes have a choice. If one district doesn’t communicate well, or if another refuses to rid themselves of archaic substitute management processes, substitute teachers can simply choose to work elsewhere.
That’s why Spring Grove has made a concerted effort to focus on customer service — putting people first – to ensure that substitutes choose to work in their classrooms.
Administrators at Spring Grove know that phenomenal customer service isn’t based on a single interaction. They start by ensuring that substitutes feel welcomed from the moment they enter a school, meeting them when they arrive in the morning.
Leaders then take it a step further — like the time Barbara baked a plate full of cookies as a thank you to a sub after putting them in a less-than-ideal situation. From cc’ing subs on emails regarding important administrative changes, to sending cards on their birthdays, it’s all about substitute engagement and communication.
“It’s more of a team effort and they’re not just a sub or just a number or just a breathing person to walk into the room. They actually are part of our team.”
But that’s not the only change Spring Grove has made.
The district holds an open house every summer, aimed at updating interested substitutes on any new processes. They provide training for all online software systems the substitutes may have to use, and they even distribute a booklet on the district, including information on other teachers and student highlights. And when a new sub does start in the district, they make sure to provide context for everything, ensuring the substitute remains as in-the-loop as possible.
Substitutes at Spring Grove are even offered the same benefits as part-time employees, just another example of Spring Grove’s commitment to its most vital resource — its people. Ultimately, what Barbara wants Spring Grove subs to know is that working with the district is not a one-time, one-off experience. Once you’re part of the Spring Grove family, you’re always family.
“Once you’re a Spring Grove employee, you’re getting retirement benefits, you’re getting all the same benefits our part-time employees do, so it’s no different to be a substitute than it is to be a Spring Grove part-time employee.”
What Barbara and Spring Grove have managed to accomplish with a simple adherence to a singularly important factor — placing the emphasis on people — is significant.
Spring Grove is on track for a 94-99% fill rate. That’s up from 84-93% before they started using Frontline Absence & Time, their employee absence management software.
When Barbara first joined the district in 2015, they had about 50 substitutes who worked regularly. Now? 155 regular substitutes.
Perhaps more importantly, Barbara regularly hears that substitutes love teaching at Spring Grove, largely because they feel appreciated and supported.
“I had one substitute who made sure that she caught me at the end of an event that we were having at one of the schools and took me aside and said, ‘I can’t believe that I was so scared to substitute because I found that, when I was in the classroom, I was enjoying the kids so much that we got through everything we needed to and were able to accomplish all the teacher’s goals for the day and it wasn’t like it was work.’”
That’s a far cry from a self-conscious substitute, tossed into a classroom they don’t recognize, struggling just to get their bearings.
Barbara credits a long-term view of the district’s future, coupled with their newfound commitment to customer service, for the improvements in Spring Grove. But none of it would have been possible without her early career experiences as a sub.
“I knew, first-hand, what it felt like to be that substitute, brand new in the system,” Barbara says. “So, I wanted to change the culture and the feeling substitutes would have when they come to Spring Grove.”
Through a focus on substitute customer service, Barbara and Spring Grove have managed to build a reputation for being a great place to work—a reputation that has served, and continues to serve, the district well in filling unexpected teacher vacancies, hiring the best candidates for the district and improving outcomes for Spring Grove students.
Cal Setar is a writer living in Philadelphia. Previously, he's written about sports, music, television, books, politics and, well, just about everything else.