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Symposium Sneak Peek: Keynote Speaker Dr. Joe Sanfelippo on “Breaking the Script” of the Substitute Experience

January 16, 2024   •   Insights

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After working more than 25 years in education, Dr. Joe Sanfelippo knows a thing or two about being a substitute. As he puts it, “I’ve subbed for or worked in nearly every position but bus driver. And that was only because I didn’t have the license!”

Such a multifaceted track record was intentional, too. While serving as the superintendent of Fall Creek School District (FCSD), Dr. Sanfelippo ensured that administrators aimed to sub for each role in their district (except the ones behind a steering wheel). 

Why? To create greater visibility into the substitute experience and show essential substitute staff are to keep a school running smoothly.

Under his leadership — amidst ongoing hiring challenges and the wider teacher shortage — FCSD “broke the script” on the typical substitute experience in their schools.

Red Rover CEO Daniel O’Shaughnessey caught up with Dr. Sanfelippo to learn how FCSD maximizes a substitute’s impact, even if they’re on campus just for the day. Enjoy this sneak peek into the insights, knowledge-sharing, and collaboration that attendees can expect from Dr. Sanfelippo and fellow educators at this year’s Substitute Management Symposium!


Integrating Substitutes Into What We Do Deepens Their Impact

O’Shaunghnessey cut straight to the chase with a question many educators may be asking themselves during these challenging times: “How much impact can a substitute teacher really have?”

The answer? It depends.

“When [substitutes] feel like they are part of what [school teams] do each day, they have a bigger impact,” said Dr. Sanfelippo. 

He explained that this philosophy was foundational to FCSD’s efforts to shift the typical substitute teacher experience at their campuses — put another way, to “break the usual script” of a substitute showing up, subbing, then leaving without deeper engagement or support. His team has since woven a new narrative of inclusivity and camaraderie across all of their teachers, regardless of whether they teach at that campus for a day or a year.

From this experience, Dr. Sanfelippo suggested that district and school leaders “learn the gift of hospitality” and support all staff to build these habits. 

O’Shaunghnessey agreed that such practices are foundational for the substitute experience. “Imagine how you might treat a guest to your home,” he added. “What do you do to create a warm, welcoming environment that they want to come back to visit in the future? Substitutes are guests, too.” 

The best part is that anyone in the school community can help here! Even acts as simple as a check-in between a substitute and the teacher next door before classes begin can make a lasting impression. In FCSD, some campuses would assign specific team members to reach out to substitutes, ensuring that there was at least one person on deck to ask how the substitute was doing, what questions they might have, and so on.

“We [district leaders] are all fighting for subs,” Dr. Sanfelippo reaffirmed. “Whatever our interactions are with a sub today will determine their comfort level to come back in the future.”

Consistency Is Key

When asked how FCSD creates that ideal substitute experience, Dr. Sanfelippo shared that consistent expectations were — and continue to be — essential.

He explained, “Our interactions with the people we have [on campus] today are going to determine their comfort level in coming back.”

These expectations apply to all staff, as they set the tone for both a substitute’s impression of a school campus and the school team’s experience working with that substitute. As alluded to earlier, Dr. Sanfelippo suggested starting with expectations for staff to communicate with, reach out to, and receive feedback from substitute teachers who are visiting their sites. They also extend to the day-to-day routines and activities that substitutes will likely encounter. 

It’s a cyclical relationship: as a substitute teacher builds comfort with a new classroom or school culture, they gain confidence to then open up to school staff with questions or even ideas. The more aligned a school team is about expectations, the easier it is for staff to answer such questions and respond to suggestions in return.

“It makes a huge difference [for substitutes],” said Dr. Sanfelippo. “The better that [staff] treat the subs, the more likely they are to come back!”

Solving the Teacher Shortage Means Solving It Together

At the end of their conversation, Dr. Sanfelippo again emphasized the importance of bringing the entire school team together — regardless of roles and duration working at a site

“If we are going to figure out a way to [navigate shortages] together,” he said, “it means people who are currently there on campus need to be willing to lean into and support those who are only there for the day.”

Both O’Shaughnessey and Dr. Sanfelippo agreed that it’s a net-positive investment for full-time staff to support retaining substitutes. When teachers support a substitute on their campus, treating them as best as possible, it increases the chances of that substitute coming back to fill absences in the future. 

The alternative is far more challenging for full-time staff. An unfilled absence or a dearth of interested substitute teachers may mean teachers have to cover that classroom instead, adding yet another stressor to their already full plates. 

“You’re going to get out of [substitutes] what you put into them,” Dr. Sanfelippo concluded. “If you invest in the people that are there, make sure they know they have latitude and flexibility [as part of] what we do, you’re going to give them a better experience.”

Join Dr. Sanfelippo and hundreds of HR leaders at the Substitute Management Symposium

Want more success stories, strategies, and ideas for modernizing the substitute teacher experience? Join hundreds of fellow HR professionals and industry experts at the 2024 Substitute Management Symposium on January 30. You can look forward to hearing more insights from Dr. Sanfelippo as the keynote speaker, earning up to 3 PDPs (Professional Development Points) for re-certification towards the pHCLE, and much more.

Visit our website for more event information, or you can register here for the Symposium.

To learn more about Dr. Joe Sanfelippo, visit his website at www.jsanfelippo.com

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