How to Become a Substitute Teacher


Substitute teachers play an important role in the education system by ensuring that students receive an uninterrupted flow of instruction throughout the school year. From covering a class for a teacher out with the flu to relieving a teacher with extended medical needs such as surgery recovery or maternity leave, substitute teachers are trained and hired to follow lesson plans, adhere to a specific curriculum, administer tests and quizzes, and maintain a classroom.

The need to hire substitute teachers is prevalent in nearly every school district. The job opportunity is one that allows prospective full-time teachers to get a feel for the field; individuals make money without committing to a full-time career; and retired educators an option to blend a more flexible lifestyle with the ability to make supplemental income.

By definition, a substitute teacher is someone who fills in for a regular teacher when the teacher is sick, on leave, or engaging in another activity that takes them outside of the classroom. While substitute teachers frequently spend a day or two in a classroom before moving on to a new class or school, some stay on for long-term assignments. For example, in the case of maternity leave, a substitute teacher can take over a class for a six-to-eight week stretch. In this case, certification or a teacher permit is required in order to teach the same class for an extended period of time.

Various states recognize two different types of substitute teachers: a ‘traditional’ substitute and a working professional. As seen in the state of Arkansas, the job requirements vary for each:

Traditional substitutes generally do not need any education beyond a high school diploma or GED. Obtaining a license or permit from the state is not a requirement, and there are no special examinations to pass. While some school districts in Arkansas prefer to hire those with some classroom or teaching experience, it is not required to apply for this type of substitute position.

Working professionals have Professional Teaching Permits. Those with at least a bachelor’s degree in the subject area they wish to teach qualify for a Professional Teaching Permit. In Arkansas, the first year of teaching must be accompanied by 40 hours of Professional Teaching Permit pedagogy training. Individuals must also have at least three years of working experience in the content area they plan to substitute for to acquire a Professional Teaching Permit in Arkansas. Qualified individuals must also pass the proper Praxis II content area knowledge test (such as Mathematics or English) which coincides with their area of expertise.

Below you will get a better sense of what it takes to enter the substitute teaching field:

What are the job requirements for becoming a substitute teacher? 

Requirements for substitute teaching not only vary by state, but also according to city-, county- and school district guidelines and policies. The path that a prospective substitute teacher follows generally involves completing the following steps:

  1. Familiarization of School District Requirements: Local school districts expect prospective substitute teachers to fulfil various requirements before qualifying for placement. Most states require a high school diploma, while some require college coursework (though not necessarily in education), a bachelor’s degree, or specific certification.

For instance, counties in Florida are able to decide upon their own requirements regarding the hiring of substitute teachers. Whereas Miami County requires applicants to have a minimum of 60 college credits and an overall GPA of 2.50, Pasco County hires substitute teachers that possess an Associate of Arts (AA) degree, an Associate of Science (AS) degree or higher; or complete at least 60 credit hours from an accredited college or university.

Some school districts require the completion of basic aptitude tests.

  1. Fill Out an Application: In order to be considered for a substitute teaching placement, it is necessary to complete the appropriate paperwork and applications.
  1. Obtain Substitute Teacher Certification, if necessary: On a state-by-state basis, requirements for substitute teachers vary. While some districts require certification, others do not. In some states, you may teach for an extended period without certification, but in other locations, only certified teachers are permitted to work as substitutes on a long-term basis. The certification process often involves completing a training course and passing the appropriate written exams. According to school district guidelines, substitute teachers are also expected to keep a certification valid by undergoing a renewal process that for many states, usually takes place every year.

Additionally, certain regions and states have put into place emergency plans and temporary teaching allowances in an effort to ease the shortage of substitute teachers. The California Commission of Teacher Credentialing implemented a system of day-to-day substitute teaching opportunities, and grants an Emergency 30-Day Substitute Teaching Permit to qualified individuals so they may accept openings in grades preschool and kindergarten through 12.

With a 30-day substitute permit, individuals are not allowed to serve longer than 30 days for any one teacher in a given school year. In addition to being able to substitute on a day-to-day basis, California offers the following permits, which are valid for one year and can be renewed:

  • The Emergency Substitute Teaching Permit for Prospective Teachers: The holder can serve as a day-to-day substitute teacher in any classroom, in grades preschool and kindergarten through 12. The holder may serve as a substitute for no more than 30 days for any one teacher and may only serve for a maximum of 90 days during the school year. Requirements for this permit include the completion of 90 semester units of course work from a regionally-accredited California college or university, verified current enrollment in a regionally-accredited California college or university, and performing well on the basic skills requirement.
  • The Emergency Career Substitute Permit: The holder is authorized to serve as a day-to-day substitute teacher in any classroom, in grades preschool and kindergarten through 12. The permit allows an individual to serve as a substitute for no more than 60 days for any one teacher during the school year. Qualified applicants are fully credentialed teachers that have a degree, and have completed a teacher preparation program and undergone at least one semester of a student teaching experience. 
  1. Background Checks and Immunizations: Whether or not the district requires certification, substitute teachers must undergo a background check and fingerprinting process. Applicants with any convictions or pending criminal cases are automatically disqualified. Depending on the school district, applicants should also be prepared to produce up-to-date immunization records. 
  1. Indicate Grade Levels of Interest: It is important that prospective subs identify the grade levels they’d like to oversee. Otherwise, a school district could place them in a classroom full of high school seniors instead of the elementary kids they’d prefer to supervise. Interests are typically made known on their application or while interviewing with an administrator. Those willing to substitute all grade levels understandably have a higher chance of being placed.
  1. Submit Proper Paperwork to the Human Resources Department: As a day-by-day hire or short-term contract employer with a particular school district, a substitute teacher must submit proof of certification (if needed) and any other requested paperwork before they are able to accept a position, when offered. Some districts also require proof of completing an orientation program.
  1. Become Familiar with Automation System: School districts typically use an online or phone automated system for placing substitute teachers. Knowing how this system works increases a sub’s chances of being placed as well.
  1. Make Connections: Getting to know the administration and other staff members at individual schools not only makes the kind of impression that increases the chances of being called upon in the future for long-term substitute positions, but can also lead to permanent employment when an individual has met all requirements necessary for teaching at a public school. In some districts, applicants are only accepted to serve as a substitute teacher with a nomination from a school principal.

What is the typical work day of a substitute teacher?

A substitute teacher falls under one of two categories: short term and long term. Short term substitutes take over classes for brief periods of time during a teacher’s work absence. Those with long-term assignments oversee a class when a teacher is on an extended leave.

Substitute teaching is an ‘on call’ position, where individuals in the system are not sure if and when they will have work. Because of this, substitute teachers should exercise a high level of flexibility, and should be prepared for inconsistent work hours.

The majority of substitute teachers are hired to work in elementary and secondary schools (578,260 placed in 2014), but can also find job placements through employment services, educational support services, child day care services, and local government agencies.

When work is available, a substitute teacher often receives a late evening or early morning phone call requesting their presence. Once a sub arrives at their designated school, they sign in and locate their assigned classroom. On occasion, a lesson plan is provided by the regular teacher. If not, the substitute uses their time to effectively create classwork, reading material, assignments or discussion topics according to the current lessons and topics at hand.

Substitute teachers usually complete the following:

  • Take attendance
  • Get students settled into their daily routine
  • Address required class assignments
  • Lead study sessions
  • Go over homework

Substitute teachers are responsible for carrying out the instructional materials and classroom management for an absent teacher. They are also expected to maintain and follow the established rules, procedures and policies of the classroom, school, as well as the district.

What attributes are required to become a substitute teacher? 

Effective substitute teachers possess a range of characteristics that makes it easier to deal with the ever-changing, unique situations associated with encountering a wide variety of students, grade levels, subjects, and lessons at different school environments.

In addition to encountering schools with varying levels of disciplinary issues, substitute teachers must be prepared to immerse themselves in a wide range of school environments. Within a week, a substitute may be called to work at several different schools that follow various pedagogues and procedures. Being able to cater to students with varying ages and abilities is a must.Substitute

Flexibility is an attribute that allows subs to thrive, as they teach lessons that other teachers have created instead of leading a classroom shaped by their own ideas. Being able to quickly discern and adjust to a school’s expectations and environment is vital. Substitute teachers are viewed as ‘visitors’ to a school, and must adjust their behavior and expectations to each new environment.

It is also widely known that students like to give substitute teachers a hard time. Many students, even very young ones, will test the boundaries of a temporary teacher, with hopes of getting away with behavior that their original teacher would not tolerate. Therefore, patience is a characteristic that is necessary for surviving all grade levels.

What is the average salary for a substitute teacher? 

Since most positions for a substitute teacher are ‘on-call’, the absence of a steady, secure work schedule means compensation for this occupation varies greatly across the United States. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, substitute teachers earned a median annual salary of $26,200 in 2014 . Generally paid a set amount of money for each day of work, school districts establish a pre-determined pay scale often affected by whether a substitute teacher is hired on a short or long-term basis, as well as other factors.

The National Substitute Teachers Alliance estimated the pay for substitute teachers ranged from $20 to $190 per day across the U.S., with an average payment of $105 per day.

The current need demonstrated by various regions and school districts to hire substitute teachers can have a profound effect on salary figures. For example, in 2014, the Syracuse City School District significantly raised substitute pay when faced with difficulties recruiting qualified individuals to fill openings. The Syracuse district then became the highest paying district for substitute teachers in Central New York when they raised pay to $150 per day for substitute teachers working at a school with extended days (7.75 hours) and $130 per day for substitute teachers at schools with traditional hours (6.5 hours).

Other factors that play a role in the amount of money a substitute teacher makes include:

  • Level of Education: Some school districts base their pay for an individual according to the type of degree, training, and level of experience they possess.
  • Experience: Many retired teachers choose to work as substitutes. For them, substitute teaching provides a way to continue working in a school environment without the hassle of a full-time job commitment. Because of their experience, they may qualify for higher pay than someone just starting out in the field.
  • Geographic Location: Compensation for substitute teachers varies greatly across the United States, with substitutes generally making more in major cities, and earning less in rural and more remote areas. In New York City, substitutes can expect to make $158.09 per day. In rural Alabama, they might be paid as little as $35 per day.
  • Statewide Averages: Certain states exhibit higher annual mean wages for their substitute teachers. In 2014, the BLS identified the following five states as paying the most for this occupation: Alaska ($44,860), Oregon ($43,700), Hawaii ($41,710), California ($38,290), and Washington ($36,620).
  • Type of Employer: Although most substitute teachers are employed by elementary and secondary schools, these places of employment do not represent the highest-paying industries for this occupation. The BLS states that substitute teachers hired by business schools and computer/management training programs earned the highest salary in 2014 with an annual mean wage of $36,780, followed by state government positions ($35,700) and junior colleges ($33,970).

Additional compensation and benefits are rare for substitute teachers. However, in areas where substitute teachers have a union, such as Fresno, California, individuals may receive sick time, retirement, health/dental/vision insurance, and other benefits such as the right to counsel.

What is the career outlook for a substitute teacher? 

According to Education Next, full-time teachers in the United States take off an average of 9.4 days each during a typical 180-day school year. This amounts to roughly 1 day per month per educator requiring the assistance of a substitute teacher. The need to hire substitute teachers undergoes cyclical stretches of in-demand periods of time. For example, subs are less likely needed to work during the first few weeks and last week of school, as well as during the weeks where significant school activities are taking place, such as mid-terms and other exams. Conversely, substitute teachers are in high demand in the days leading to and following major holidays and spring break. Flu season also creates more job opportunities for subs.

Various characteristics and factors can play a role in increasing job opportunities for substitute teachers. For instance, individuals with an advanced degree not only look more attractive to schools seeking substitute teachers, but they also tend to encounter elevated chances of locating permanent employment. Those possessing specialized skills, such as bi-lingual abilities or have a background in special education, additionally qualify for a greater number of job openings. Since these skills are becoming more of a rarity amongst temporary employees, candidates possessing them are sought after more often than substitute teachers that have the most basic level of education and experience.

In conclusion, substitute teachers are hired to teach classes at public and private schools, taking the place of a regular educator who is off from school for an illness, short term absence, sabbatical leave, or any other type of absence from the classroom. Substitute teachers must be prepared to embrace a flexible schedule, as more often than not; they are on-call and can walk into a classroom with only a few hours’ notice. With fairly lenient educational requirements overall, substitute teaching is a field that especially rewards those with the most training, experience and credentials. Those with degrees, teaching permits and certification tend to earn the most money and qualify for a greater number of job placements.

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