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Field Trip: No Substitute for Customer Service (2021)


Note: This episode was originally released in 2018, but with districts around the country facing a worsening substitute shortage in 2021, the story remains relevant today.

When a teacher is out, a substitute to take over for the day isn’t a given. Many districts have a difficult time keeping a pool of substitutes that’s adequate to cover all vacancies. Today, we speak with Spring Grove Area School District about how they tackled this problem. With a focus on customer service, here’s how they built a reputation among substitutes for being a great place to work.

Barbara Valencia works in HR support at Spring Grove — but earlier in her career, she was a substitute classroom aid. And she saw how tough it is to walk into an unfamiliar building and stand in front of an unfamiliar class, every single day.

Barbara spoke to us about:

Full Transcript  

The substitute shortage isn’t new. Even in the Before Times, before most of us had ever even heard the word “coronavirus,” many schools found it tough to hire enough people willing to the difficult work of stepping into an unknown building and covering a classroom for a day, or a week, or more.

And now, when entire industries are struggling to find workers, when companies like Amazon, Walmart, Costco, and Target have a starting wage of $15 an hour or more, schools have to think creatively to grow their sub pools to where they need to be.

Spring Grove Area School District is doing that creative work, finding ways to make their schools more enticing to substitutes. This episode was first released in 2018, but the story is still very relevant today.


BARBARA VALENCIA: We have six different schools, most of them on the same campus. It consists of three elementary schools, one intermediate, one middle school, and one high school.


Spring Grove Area School District covers just over 90 square miles, with a population of about 17,600. That’s total population – not just students.


BARBARA VALENCIA: Lots of farm land. We have lots of rural areas around us. It’s a small town feeling in our area.


Barbara Valencia works in HR support at Spring Grove. But earlier in her career, she worked as a substitute classroom aid. And she said something interesting about that — which most people have probably never thought about. At least, I never thought about it when I was in school. And that is, just how tough it is to walk into an unfamiliar building, to stand in front of an unfamiliar class. Again, and again, and again.


BARBARA VALENCIA: Well when I was a substitute, it was like being on a job interview every single day, because you were in a new school with new teachers, new students, new situations. And you get those brand-new-job butterflies in your stomach, and what we try to do at Spring Grove is make sure that our substitutes don’t have that butterflies in the stomach feeling.


A lot of it, Barbara said, was just the unknown of it all.


BARBARA VALENCIA: Everything was new. I didn’t know where to go, or who to talk to, where to get lunch, where my classroom was, where I needed to report, what time I was going to be let out, where to park. All of those questions are running through your mind as you’re driving in for the first time to a new building.


“Okay, so what?” I hear you saying. “I have a hard job too.” But many districts have a difficult time finding substitutes to cover all their vacancies — and Barbara believes that when substitutes that don’t feel welcome in a given district, well…


BARBARA VALENCIA: It makes them very nervous, it makes them hesitant to want to work for different districts because they don’t what the situation is that they’re going to walking into.


So Barbara and her team began thinking about what they could do to make Spring Grove a more attractive place for substitutes to come work.


BARBARA VALENCIA: I think I had a passion for changing it because I knew firsthand what it felt like to be that substitute brand new in the system. So I wanted to change the culture and the feeling that the substitutes would have when they come to Spring Grove. 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.


Some of my background was in customer service for the electric company back home. So, I know that when you have good customer service, people tend to return. It’s no different with subs. If you have a good rapport with them, and if you understand how they feel, and help calm their nerves, they have a tendency to want to return. So, a lot of subs want to continue to come here because they know their questions are going to get answered, they have somebody to go to. And it helps them to feel more comfortable. It’s the customer service part that I think a lot of districts miss out on.


Because the substitute teachers have a choice, just like any other consumer, they have a choice of different districts that they could go to. So, they are the consumer, the customer. And once they are introduced to Spring Grove, you want to keep them coming to Spring Grove, just like any company wants to keep a customer coming to that company. It’s not different. Customer service can affect everything from training, to onboarding, to making sure that they’re a part of the team once they get here and they’re comfortable. It’s just a way of making sure that they are aware that they’re in the Grove.


Barbara and her colleagues came up with a slew of things they could do to help these teachers as they come in the doors. Every summer they host an open house for substitutes to come in and learn about anything new that’s in place. And when a sub first begins to work at Spring Grove, they don’t just plop them in the classroom – they provide context for everything that’s happening.


BARBARA VALENCIA: First, we bring them in for orientation. We give them a little magazine that has snippets of information, stories about what our students are doing, what programs they’re involved with, what the rocket team is doing, just so they get a feel for the culture of our students. Then we also train them on any kind of online programs or systems that they’ll need to use to sign into the system, so that when they get into the classroom, they know how to do that. And helping them to know exactly what each step of the day is going to be like.


But it’s not just about training. They make sure substitutes know – and feel – that they’re a true part of the team.


BARBARA VALENCIA: They are viewed as an integral part of the employees. They’re not set apart in any way. The programs that we run out to employees, we typically make sure that the substitutes are aware of it as well. They’re eligible for all of the same benefits that our part-time employees are. So they’re not missing out. It’s not like you just show up for the day and then you’re done. Once you’re a Spring Grove employee, you’re getting retirement benefits, you’re getting all of the benefits that our part-time employees do. So it’s no different to be a substitute than it is a Spring Grove part-time employee. They’re one and the same.


Barbara said she goes the extra mile with her substitutes, as well, like recognizing their birthdays, and making sure subs know if it’s going to be a dress-down day, so they don’t show up overdressed. And these small gestures — actions that cost Spring Grove next to nothing — make a big difference.


BARBARA VALENCIA: We make sure that we acknowledge them in some way. It’s something small, but it just helps them to know that we care and we know when their birthday is. I’ll send out a drink card that they can redeem at any of our schools the next time that they’re working. It also helps them to bring them in so that they can redeem the card. And it lets them know that we’re thinking of them, even though they may not have been here. It helps bridge that gap and let them know that Spring Grove still has them on our roster.


I think most schools view substitutes as just an extra for the day, and bringing in the customer service part of it and making them feel like they’re cared for, whether they’re at Spring Grove that day, or they’re not, I still send them cards, or touch base with them. If they were out for a period of time because of a family emergency or something, I’ll check up on them. That kind of stuff is the customer service part of it, that I think school districts don’t think about.


 When a substitute accepts a job at Spring Grove, it’s a whole team effort to make sure that sub has what he or she needs to be successful that day.


BARBARA VALENCIA: The principals are key in making sure that the substitutes feel comfortable when they get to the building. Our front desk secretaries, and principals, and assistant principals are all involved. I let them know every morning with a 6:30 email that goes out to each and every one of them, who their substitutes are for the day, if any of them are brand new to the district, so they know their name before they even get to the school. That way they can kind of be watching for them, help them get to the right classroom, and help them know what the day’s going to look like. That 6:30 email is key in making sure that everybody is on the same page in the district.


And all of this work, all of these little details and small gestures of appreciation… they also come in handy if there’s a particularly challenging absence to fill, or if Barbara needs to find someone at the last minute.


BARBARA VALENCIA: If they are going out of their comfort zone and I push them a little more than voluntary, then I will send them a card that gives them a free lunch on a day of their choice in a school of their choice. So that, that way, the next time that they’re called at the last minute and they don’t have time to pack lunch, that they have a card in their pocket that they can redeem a lunch, and know that they’re going to be fed that day.


There was one time when I absolutely needed a teacher in a particular classroom. It was a hard classroom to get a fill for, and I called a substitute and begged her to take the class and told her I would bake her cookies for Christmas if she did. And so she took the class, and at Christmas time, I delivered her a plate of cookies. And she was blown away at the fact that I followed up and gave her a plate of cookies, but sometimes it’s just that extra nudge that we need to get out of our comfort zone. And sometimes when our substitutes find that they go out of their comfort zone, they actually like it and they have a fun day. So, they’re not so eager to turn down the job next time, they’re okay with taking it the second time around.


I asked Barbara whether she thinks other schools and districts also take this approach to substitute management. Is what they’re doing common?


 BARBARA VALENCIA: No, not at all. I think that’s why I’m tailor made for what I do, because it’s not just the system, working it and letting it ride, and if a teacher goes unfilled, it goes unfilled. I’m there to make sure that the substitutes and the assignments match up. And if somebody needs to be moved from one school to another, I’m there to take care of that, and call the substitute, and make sure that they know where they need to report. That’s part of the customer service. Instead of them getting to the school and finding out that their job has actually been assigned to another school, I try to bridge that gap.


Spring Grove uses substitute management software, Frontline Absence & Time, to manage their program, automatically fill absences, and track all of the data they need to make informed decisions.


BARBARA VALENCIA: Yeah, I absolutely use reports to pull the birthdays of all of my substitutes so that I can get in touch with them the month of their birthday and send them a special birthday card. I also pull reports on the number of days that they’ve worked that month or that quarter. At the end of the year, I’ll do a report based on how many days they worked that year and send them out something. We also pull reports for high volume days so that we know when they’re going to be working and can send out some advance notice so that they can book their calendars on days that we’re going to need subs.


Barbara said that since they began thinking more strategically about their substitute program, the results speak for themselves.


BARBARA VALENCIA: Okay, so at the time that we started using the absence management, our fill rates were anywhere between 84 and 93 percent for all employees, that included teachers. The next school years, we jumped up from 89 to 97 percent for all employees.




BARBARA VALENCIA: This year we’re on track to be 94 to 99 percent filled every day at the school district for both our employees and our teachers.


Barbara said she hears all the time that substitutes love working at Spring Grove, because they know their whole experience is going to be a good one. From the principal greeting them in the morning, to fellow teachers asking them throughout the day if they need help, they know they’re going to have a positive teaching environment.


 As a result, Spring Grove’s fill rates have risen, and so has the number of substitutes who are working in the district.


BARBARA VALENCIA: Well, when I got to this position in 2015, we had about 50 substitutes on our roster. To date, we have 155 substitutes on our roster. That helps everybody in the long run, because not only are the substitutes getting work, but the teachers know that when they have to take day off, there’s going to be somebody there and their classroom doesn’t have to be split. So, the data shows every year that we’re gaining people, and that helps our fill rate to get closer to 100 percent every day.


A substitute pool that has tripled in size over 3 years — that’s impressive. But do those numbers reflect how teachers and substitutes actually feel about the program? Barbara says, “You bet.”


BARBARA VALENCIA: Substitutes have made comments to the effect that they love the fact that they are appreciated, that they know who the Superintendent is and that the Superintendent knows who they are. That they understand that substitutes are not just a number at Spring Grove, that they are appreciated and part of the team.


I’ve gotten several emails of people that have moved away, or got a full-time teaching position, and they are so sorry that they are not going to be teaching in Spring Grove because they had such a good time substituting in Spring Grove.


I had one substitute that 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. I can’t believe that I was so scared to substitute, because I found that once I got 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 that day. And it wasn’t like it was work.


I asked Barbara if what they’re doing has helped Spring Grove hire new teachers — are substitutes part of the recruiting pipeline for them? And she said, yes.


BARBARA VALENCIA: I know that the quality of people that we’ve been getting has been a huge impact on our hiring process. We are able to see the substitute at work in our classroom. And because the Principal and the secretaries work with them closely, we get a feel for whether they’re a good fit for our culture and our school district. So, when we have job openings, they tend to fill very quickly because we have a huge pool to pull from of people that want that work. 


It’s clear that the work Barbara and her team are doing is bearing fruit. They’ve been learning from the past 3 years of thinking through this process, and I asked her, “What have you learned? What do you wish you’d have known when you started?” She said that a key thing for them, is thinking long-term.


BARBARA VALENCIA: I think the one thing that happens in school districts is that you just do it day by day. You’re just looking at the day ahead, instead of looking at the long-term effects. And we’re fortunate that Spring Grove looked at the long-term effects of how to run things smoothly for everybody, instead of just looking at the immediate needs and putting out the fire for that day, and then worrying about the next day when you come in. We’ve learned that it’s much easier to forecast things in the future, so that things go smoothly, instead of waiting for that day to come, and then having everything explode.


But ultimately, the biggest reason for investing in their substitutes is because of the impact it has on the education their students are getting.


BARBARA VALENCIA: Yeah, they’re absolutely able to follow the lesson plans that our teachers leave behind. Our students are learning instead of just doing menial work for the day. And it helps to know that the substitute that I’m putting in the classroom is actually a substitute for that subject. We try very hard to make sure that they’re substituting in a subject that they love and have knowledge in.


I have gotten a couple of notes, especially from teachers, that say that they absolutely love the fact that they don’t have to worry about their classroom when they leave, because they know there’s going to be a quality substitute in there. And it helps our students to excel because they’re not taking any down days when their teacher has gone out of class, whether they’re at a conference or out sick. It doesn’t matter, their curriculum is going to continue, and I think that’s why our students, in the past two graduation years, three quarters of our students have gone on to college and four-year education, which is a huge thing for school districts these days, for graduates to decide that they want to continue their education, rather than get a part-time job and start making money immediately. Three quarters of our graduates have decided that they want to continue with their education.


We’ve been speaking with Barbara Valencia from Spring Grove Area School District in Pennsylvania.


If you enjoyed this podcast, be sure to subscribe – you can find us on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher, or pretty much anywhere else fine podcasts are served. Field Trip is a production from Frontline Education — bringing you the Frontline Insights Platform, a holistic software solution for K-12, designed to help you recruit, hire, engage, retain and grow your employees, and provide unparalleled insights into what’s happening in your district.


For Frontline Education, I’m Ryan Estes. Thanks for listening, and have a great day.