How a Fairfax Co. military mom helped fill substitute teacher shortage

Fairfax County, Virginia, substitute teacher Ashley Salas.

When Ashley Salas moved to Fort Belvoir, Virginia, in March, she planned to continue running her photography business at night and during weekends.

Despite attending Penn State University and taking early childhood education classes, she had never used her degree, working in the optical industry for nine years when her husband joined the military.

But after a few conversations with Fort Belvoir Elementary School Principal Jamey Chianetta while dropping her fourth- and sixth-grade students off in the morning, Salas asked how she might be able to help the school, anticipating there could be opportunities to volunteer in the cafeteria.

But instead, Chianetta asked if Salas had the 30 credit hours of coursework needed to be eligible to become a substitute teacher, detailing the shortage the school has faced since the coronavirus pandemic began. With some substitutes’ families transferred from the military base, and others reluctant to return to classrooms because of the pandemic, the school didn’t have any returning substitutes at the start of the school year.

So, in September, Salas reported to the school as its first available substitute teacher. She sent several emails to Chianetta the night before, hoping to ensure her outfit was acceptable for the first day of school.

When she arrived, teachers sought her phone number to have handy in the event they needed to miss a day. And with the help of social media, Salas, now a familiar face for students in the hallways, has helped draw five additional substitute teachers to the school.

“I get super soft toward the kids,” Salas said. “Lots of moms and dads leave, and you just never know what they need. All these kids are going through something a little extra than most, so I just want to stay here, try my hardest.”

Since starting at the beginning of the school year, Salas has taught three or four days a week, noting there’s the demand for her to sub in on a fifth, but balancing both jobs would be difficult.

Fairfax County Public Schools has about 3,000 active substitutes and has been able to fill about 73.4% of daily substitute requests since Aug. 23, a spokeswoman said. The school board also voted in October to increase hourly pay for substitute teachers.

For Salas, the opportunities have enabled her to spend most of her time in fourth grade classrooms — she said fourth grade is her “soft spot” — but she has periodically made stops in third and fifth grades and in the library.

Her most impactful moment, though, came when she was filling in for the gym teacher. While most of the students were jump roping, a student with special needs was struggling. Salas brought the student a hula hoop, and the student felt “she was doing exactly what everyone else was doing,” Salas said.

“I was so nervous for her, because I wanted it to go well, because it’s such a huge need,” Chianetta said. “She’s a natural. Since then, she has been helping us share the good news.”

Rather than arrange to play a movie, Salas messages teachers a day or two before she’s scheduled to teach to get lesson plans. She checks to see if there’s anything she needs a refresher on teaching, hoping to make it a smooth transition for the students. And as time allows, sometimes a class will involve a game of Hangman or Simon Says, which have been well-received by students.

“When you’re a sub, you can kind of be a little celebrity to the kids,” Salas said. “If I even walk in the fourth grade hallway, some of the classrooms, the kids just go wild.”

Hoping to give the school some additional substitute options, Salas took to Facebook to try to recruit additional help. She’s in the military spouses Facebook group for the Fort Belvoir community and uses social media often for her photography business.

An initial post describing the shortage was met with 100 comments, with many commenters messaging Salas to learn how to help.

“I have to bring in enough staff that the teachers feel comfortable with taking off days, that they’re not having to shove two classes in one or separating three kids here, I just want the school to run as best as it can,” Salas said. “I know there’s lots of military spouses, specifically on posts, that look for something like this.”

And while Chianetta credits Salas with expanding the school’s substitute teacher pool, she’s not going to have to worry about filling Salas’ slot soon.

“We’re at least here for three or four more years,” Salas said. “So I will definitely be a sub at the school for three or four more years.”

Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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