How to Become a Substitute Teacher

Substitute teaching is a bit like being a stand up comic with a new audience every day. Anonymous
Teacher works with elementary students

Anyone who has completed elementary and high school is likely to have had at least one substitute teacher, if not many more than that. But have you ever considered becoming a substitute teacher yourself?

If you hold a bachelor's degree and are looking for a steady source of work opportunities as well as the chance to get your feet wet as an educator, becoming a substitute teacher is a fantastic way to hit the ground running.

A substitute teacher serves in the place of a teacher who is unable to perform his or her duties due to an absence. A substitute teacher may be called in for any teaching position within a school. The job may last for a day, a week or an entire year.

The goal of the short-term subbing teacher is to continue with the lessons of the full-time teacher. Being a substitute means you must continue all duties of the teacher if possible. This could include lunch or recess duty, bus duty, giving and grading assignments, handling discipline and keeping order within the classroom while teaching the provided assignment.

Substitute teachers must be prepared to teach any class at a moment's notice. Being a substitute teacher can be a daily adventure into the unknown.

So can anyone be a substitute teacher? For those who hold bachelor's degrees in nearly any subject, the answer is yes, though work opportunities may vary depending on your particular area of expertise.

Many substitute teachers begin their careers without teacher certification, though for some it is the first step toward a full-time teaching career. Anyone certified to teach can also be a substitute teacher, making it a popular option for teachers who are seeking more flexible schedules, are planning mid-year relocations, and more.

The following article is a guide for anyone interested in becoming a professional substitute teacher. It includes substitute teacher tips, how to go from a substitute to a full-time teacher, and other resources for substitute teachers.

Qualities of a Substitute Teacher

Keep in mind that substitute teaching is not simply walking into a classroom and showing a movie, as some may believe. A good substitute teacher will arrive prepared in case no lessons have been left behind and is flexible and authoritative.

Substitute teachers are in a unique position in which they may only see a student for a single hour, but must remain in control of the class as if it is a daily job.

A substitute must have a sense of humor yet be able to control a classroom full of children without being threatening. A substitute should also be thick skinned, as the students are often much tougher on substitute teachers than a daily teacher.

A good substitute will also leave a note for the returning teacher on what assignments were completed and a few positives about the day, include a name and number if you wish to be called back.

Tips for Substitute Teachers

It can be daunting for a substitute teacher - especially a first-time substitute teacher - to enter a new classroom of students. Even those who have the perfect disposition to meet the job's spontaneous schedule still benefit from having a substitute teacher bag of tricks, which makes it possible to enter any classroom with a sense of poise and authority.

Below are a few tips for substitute teachers to excel in any classroom:

Arrive early. This isn't always possible for substitutes, who are sometimes called in moments before the school day starts or even mid-day. However, if you have advance notice about your assignment, try to arrive with enough time to get comfortable in your temporary classroom prior to students' arrival. This leads to the next tip…

Review lesson plans. Teachers often have fairly specific instructions for substitutes to make the most of their classroom time, some of which - like classroom activities and worksheets - will provide a structure to carry through a full period. Though it can be overwhelming to arrive on a new campus, as soon as you get to your classroom, take time to review what has been left for you, as it may help things run more smoothly.

pointing to students with hands raisedEstablish expectations and follow the disciplinary measures of the school. Though many substitutes are concerned about students defying school rules in their presence, in truth, they will be much less likely to act out if they're aware that they will still face the same consequences as in the presence of their usual teacher. It's important to maintain consistency in your rules and guidelines so that students are absolutely clear about what is expected of them. This is especially true at the beginning of the class. One of the most popular substitute teacher tips for classroom management is, "You can go from strict to lax, but you can't go from lax to strict." This is to say that once you have gained students' respect and awareness of the rules, it is easier to loosen up your class, but it is almost impossible to impose rules in an already loose classroom dynamic.

Keep students engaged. Students - especially younger ones - benefit greatly from a variety of educational approaches in a single class. This can include traditional class discussion, collaborative group work, and more. If you are able to feature multiple activities in a single class session, you will be more able to sustain your students' attention in the long term.

Introduce yourself to school faculty and administrators. When possible, it's a great idea to get to know the team at a school where you are substitute teaching, especially if you would like to be contacted for future positions. This is also one of the most important tips for long term substitute teachers, who can in some cases effectively be serving as faculty members at their schools.

Substitute Teaching Job Opportunities

Being a substitute teacher may not be a first choice after receiving a teaching degree. However, being a substitute can put you on the path to being hired at a school that would not have considered a new teacher otherwise.

Subbing provides an opportunity for teacher candidates to show that they are capable and a team player. This could get you noticed as a potential teacher when a full-time job or long-term substitute position opens.

Substitute teaching can also offer a steady source of income while searching for a full-time job. If you have multiple certifications, substitute teaching will allow you to decide which grade level or subject area you most enjoy.

Statistically, substitute teachers are always needed. Teachers everywhere need to take days on occasion. With that said, substitutes will frequently have the opportunity to work.

Examining the Substitute Teacher ShortageFor years, schools across the United States have been dealing with a substitute teacher shortage, a problem that intensified during the pandemic with effects still being felt now. This has an impact on students and educators alike, as a low availability of substitutes can force schools to temporarily combine classes or even cancel them for students.

So why is there a substitute teacher shortage? In fact, the issue goes beyond just substitutes, extending across the teaching profession. An overall shortage of teachers has had a ripple effect: with fewer full-time teachers, more substitutes are needed to fill in.

While the effects of the substitute teacher shortage are highly detrimental to schools, for those looking into this line of work, it means there will be numerous opportunities for employment as well as the opportunity to make a difference in addressing the substitute teaching crisis. With a high demand for substitutes, many schools are offering competitive pay rates, flexible schedules, and even training programs for new substitutes.

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What are the Requirements for Becoming a Substitute Teacher?

People from all different educational and professional backgrounds are eligible to become substitute teachers, and indeed, the profession attracts a wide range of candidates.

substitute teacher in front of the classSo what degree do you need to be a substitute teacher? Typically, substitute teaching requirements include a bachelor's degree at a minimum, which usually can be in any area or subject. The education requirements for substitute teaching differ than those of a licensed teacher, because substitute teachers are not required to complete an education degree or a teacher education program.

If you hold a bachelor's degree in a subject that falls outside of a typical primary school course load, don't worry: your unique area of specialty could end up being an asset to you and to the schools where you work. After all, it's important to use creativity when finding substitute teacher shortage solutions, and chances are you offer a perspective that you can bring into the classroom, enriching your students' education in the process.

How to Become a Substitute Teacher

In most states, a substitute will have to pass a basic skills proficiency exam. This exam assesses basic math, reading and writing skills. Scores for proficiency exams vary by state so you must pass with a score in the state in which you serve as a subbing teacher, not where you attended college.

What Does a Substitute Teacher Do?

A substitute teacher takes the place of the regular teacher for a period of time.

Substitute Teaching Job Duties

All substitutes could be required to complete basic duties such as:

  • Making announcements
  • Taking attendance
  • Monitoring lunch, recess, or bus duties
  • Following lesson plans
  • Teaching and keeping students safe throughout the day

Short-term substitutes do not typically attend meetings, enter grades or make calls to parents, but a long-term substitute may be required to perform all duties of a full-time teacher.

Long-Term Substitute Teaching

A long-term substitute teacher can work in the same school in the same classroom for an entire school year if needed. This job may end in a year or lead to a full-time position.

Long term substitutes are often needed for a teacher who has fallen seriously ill and cannot return mid-year or when an unusually high number of students are enrolled in a certain grade for a year. In many cases, long term substitute teachers are needed when female teachers need to take maternity leave.

Long-term substitutes may even be eligible for health benefits through the district.

A Professional Substitute Weighs In: Why I Love Substitute Teaching (Really)The following comment was provided by a working substitute teacher.

When I tell people I'm a substitute teacher, they often respond with pity. "I remember how my classmates used to treat subs," they'll say, as if to apologize for how my students have treated me. It's true: it can be a difficult job, partly due to the time-honored tradition of students messing with their substitutes. But as I have gained experience, I've found that substitute teaching can be engaging and rewarding work that makes a huge difference to schools.

If you want to know what it's really like to be a substitute teacher, the answer is that it's always changing. But for those seeking variety in their schedule, that can be an appealing aspect of the job. Those interested in longer-term work (or more regular work offers) can use this as an opportunity to scope out different schools, grade levels, and subjects and see where they will do their best work.

So is substitute teaching worth it? In my experience, the answer is yes - as long as you have the right attitude about it.

First and foremost, substitute teaching requires composure, flexibility, and a great sense of humor. It's true: classroom control can be difficult. But if you don't take students' disruptions too seriously, it's possible to enforce a school's codes of conduct while keeping interactions positive and classroom sessions productive. In fact, one of my biggest first time substitute teacher tips is to stay calm, even as you're getting your bearings, because your energy will set the tone for the room. Even if it may be the opposite of how you're feeling initially, you'll be amazed by how adaptable you become. After a bit of time substitute teaching, you'll be ready for anything.

Substitute Teaching Jobs & Job Description

From time to time, classroom teachers require time away from the school, leaving the school to fill a gap in care for students under their guardianship.

Common practice across North America is for schools or individual teachers to draw from a pool of already-certified teacher candidates who enjoy guest-teaching on occasional basis, or who are looking to bolster their resume in hope of becoming a full-time teacher. Jobs do vary from district to district, but at the elementary or high school level, high school teachers:

  • Arrive early enough to be posted for before-school duties (i.e. bus duty, yard supervision) that they may be required to cover
  • Report to school office prior to start of school day to touch base with administration and gather required materials and class schedule; return after the day is over to return materials
  • Enforce and promotes a classroom environment that is conducive to learning and is appropriate to the grade level and interests of the students
  • Guide the learning process toward the achievement of daily lesson plan goals as well as curriculum goals and objectives as indicated in the lesson plans
  • Attempt to adhere to the broader scope and intent of the lessons, units, or projects assigned
  • Record attendance in accordance with school and district procedures
  • Ensure that students are never left unattended in the classroom or in the yard
  • Perform duties usually required of absent teacher such as lunchroom duty, hall monitoring, etc. at principal's direction
  • Collect and relay information about students and staff with utmost regard to confidentiality
  • Negotiate and influence students well within the confines of the classroom dynamic

Certified substitute teachers have a number of employment avenues open to them in various aspects of the school environment. Keep reading to learn more.

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Where Can Certified Substitute Teachers Work?

A substitute teacher can work in any public, private or charter school. In addition, many substitute teachers also serve as tutors or teach online classes.

Substitute teaching is different from teaching, in that tenure is not gained from being a subbing teacher, nor is there a guarantee for work each day.

Substitute teachers are needed at all levels Pre-K through high school and in all subject areas and specialties.

Public Schools

Many substitute teachers will begin work in a public school. A public school is free to attend for all students. The curriculum is controlled by the county, though teachers typically design the specific way in which the information is shared.

To become a substitute teacher in a particular area, visit the board of education for that district to fill out an application. Some areas allow teachers to call substitute teachers of their choice while others use an automated calling list. Some areas use a combination of both.

Private Schools

Other substitutes may wish to become involved with a private school. Private schools require tuition for students to attend. The curriculum is often chosen by the school, but students must meet all state standards. Private schools may also have a religious affiliation and require substitutes to be part of the denomination or in the least understand and adhere to the principles of the school.

Charter Schools

Charter schools also guide the curriculum independently, but are held at a higher standards because of the choice to be a charter school.

Charter schools could be selective in choosing students and the same holds true for teachers and substitute teachers.

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Substitute Teacher Organization

NSTA - National Substitute Teachers Alliance: The NSTA's mission is to promote dignity and respect for substitute teachers who provide educational continuity for our nation's students.

What is the Salary of a Substitute Teacher?

Substitute teachers usually make a daily wage that, at full-time hours, amounts to an average of $42,680 per year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' 2022 data. The amount depends on the school or district. However, most substitute teachers do not have a consistent schedule and do not work full-time.

Substitute teachers are able to work for both the public and private schools in a given area as most are not on contract.

Substitute teachers can earn benefits (health/retirement) when a certain number of hours are worked.

(Salary data for substitute teachers reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in May 2022. Figures represent state data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Information accessed June 2023.)


Do you need a degree to substitute teach?
Substitute teachers are typically expected to hold bachelor's degrees in any subject. Depending on your area of specialty, this may help determine which subject you will teach.

Do you need a teaching credential to become a substitute?
No, you do not need to be a certified teacher in order to become a substitute, though having one may make you a more desirable candidate for long-term substitute positions.

How old do you have to be to be a substitute teacher?
Given that the general requirement for substitute teachers is to hold a bachelor's (four-year) degree, one can assume that the youngest a substitute can be is around 21 or 22 years old. While there is no specific requirement for substitute teacher ages, it is important for there to be enough of an age difference between substitutes and their students that they can be entrusted with the supervision duties of an adult.