How to Become a Substitute Teacher (Also Known as a “Spitball Target”)

How to Become a Substitute Teacher (Also Known as a “Spitball Target”)
Working as a substitute teacher can help prepare you for a full-time position, if that is your ultimate goal. Image from Unsplash
Suzanne Wentley profile
Suzanne Wentley October 30, 2019

Substitute teachers have the unenviable task of engaging a class that may never see them again. On the upside, they enjoy a lot of variety and freedom in their work. It's an excellent opportunity for new teachers and for retired teachers as well.

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Maybe you just earned your teaching degree and you haven’t landed a regular job yet. Maybe you’re a retired teacher looking to pick up an occasional day’s pay every now and then. Or maybe you’re a professional in another field who wants to dip a toe into the water while considering a possible second career in education. Or, maybe you’re an undercover cop being put in a hilarious and completely realistic situation. For whatever reason, you’re considering becoming a substitute teacher.

Substitute teachers step in when a regular teacher is unable to lead a class. They play a vital role in bridging the gap when a replacement is needed, often at the last minute. Substitute teachers provide a flexible option for academic administrators who face a dwindling number of independent contractors ready to help. It’s often possible to work in the gig economy—such as driving for Uber or freelancing—while also being on standby as a sub for area schools.

Substitute teachers work in:

  • Public, private, and charter schools
  • Childcare centers
  • Junior colleges
  • Trade schools
  • Learning centers

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were more than 587,000 substitute teachers working in the United States in 2018. Even so, many states report a shortage of substitute teachers. For those who qualify, the opportunities are there to become a substitute teacher.

In this guide, we’ll discuss:

  • What a substitute teacher does
  • What education do you need to become a substitute teacher?
  • Skills that substitute teachers need
  • Benefits of being a substitute teacher

What a substitute teacher does

When a regular teacher becomes ill, is attending a conference, or is absent for any other reason, a substitute teacher is needed. Like a versatile basketball player waiting on the bench for an opportunity to play, a substitute teacher is the “sixth man” (or woman) of education.

Substitute teachers are needed for a whole host of reasons, including when a teacher:

  • Calls in sick
  • Attends a conference
  • Has an injury
  • Goes on leave

Often, a sub is required for a last-minute emergency—meaning you need to be at the ready as a substitute teacher. In this way, you are not only like a bench player in basketball, but also like a firefighter.

Usually, a substitute teacher does not need to create a lesson plan for the day. The absent teacher, or a school administrator, should provide assignments; if not, you will likely end up leading an activity outside the curriculum. That doesn’t mean you can just show up and wing it, though.

Before substitute teaching a class, it’s smart to do a little planning. Review the size of the class. Learn whether there are students with special needs to consider. Find out which kid is itching to give you a hard time. Also, find out if the school where you’re teaching has any unusual practices or regulations. Substitute teaching involves knowing the rules of the school and the school district as well as reviewing all lesson plans for the day.

Substitute teachers need to be able to maintain classroom order and facilitate learning, just as any teacher does. Sometimes you’ll work a full day; other times, you’ll only be needed for part of the day. There are no set schedules for substitute teachers.


“I'm Interested in Teacher Education!”

Graduate degrees for teachers fall into two categories: the Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) and the Master of Education (MEd). Many resources indicate that the MAT is the best master’s degree for teachers, while MEd programs are primarily for aspiring educational administrators, policymakers, and other current education professionals who aspire to work outside the classroom. In reality, it’s not quite that simple.

Both MAT and MEd programs tend to be concentration-based, and while there are more part-time and full-time Master of Arts in Teaching programs focused on advanced pedagogic theories and skills, there are also plenty of Master of Education programs with grade-level, subject-area, and student-population concentrations.

In some areas of the US, a teacher with a master’s degree at the top of the salary schedule can earn close to $40,000 more than a teacher with a bachelor’s degree. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that going to graduate school will lead to a substantially bigger paycheck. The only way to know how much you’ll earn after graduating with a master’s in teaching or master’s in education is to look at the salary schedule in your district. You should be able to see at a glance how your education and experience will translate into dollars. (source)

University and Program Name Learn More

What education do you need to become a substitute teacher?

Teachers are licensed at the state level, meaning that every state has different requirements for substitute teachers. Some require substitutes to meet the same standards as other teachers; others don’t even require substitutes to hold a teaching license.

Most states mandate that teachers have at least a high school diploma (a few states have no statewide requirements for substitute teachers; these include Arkansas, Hawaii, Kentucky, and Louisiana). Some states, such as California, Connecticut, and Illinois, require that substitutes also have a bachelor’s degree in whatever they wish to teach. Some states (Colorado, Iowa) require substitute teachers to meet the same certification requirements as do full-time teachers.

Most state university systems offer excellent bachelor’s degrees in teaching at an affordable price. That’s important to consider since you won’t be earning top dollar as a teacher (and certainly not as an even lower-paid substitute teacher). Getting your bachelor’s degree in your home state has the added advantage of placing you in a program that will likely prepare you for your state’s specific licensing requirements and help you earn a teaching certificate.

You can earn a bachelor’s in education online. Schools offering this option include:

Each state has its own requirements for becoming a substitute teacher. These requirements can be found on each state’s department of education website or on the National Education Association website.

Substitute teacher pay varies by state, district, and level of education/licensing. In Alaska, a certified substitute teacher can earn from $100 to $125 per day, while uncertified teachers make $75 to $80. Delaware pays substitutes $75 a day. North Carolina pays licensed teachers $71 per day, unlicensed teachers $55 per day. While the amounts vary, the big picture remains constant: you will not get rich as a substitute teacher.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the states employing the greatest number of substitute teachers include:

  • California (99,320)
  • Texas (77,830)
  • New York (36,700)
  • Virginia (27,640)

Substitute teachers in the following states earn the highest average annual income:

  • Maryland ($58,850)
  • Hawaii ($47,020)
  • Oregon ($45,520)
  • Vermont ($42,410)

The ranks of substitute teachers include many retired teachers looking to pick up an extra day’s pay here and there. They can also include newly minted teachers who have just earned their associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree in education.

Skills that substitute teachers need

To be eligible to substitute teach, you first need to get on a school’s registry. To do this, visit the school and present whatever credentials are required of substitute teachers (as previously mentioned, these vary by state and district). You will probably have to undergo a criminal history background check as well as a driver’s license check as part of the hiring process.

You need a flexible schedule to be a substitute teacher. The call to work often comes at the last minute, so you’ll need to be able to drop other responsibilities, or not have any.

Next, you need classroom skills, including the ability to think quickly and feel comfortable in front of a classroom. Of course, you should enjoy working with children. You’ll be trying to make an impression on students and administrators (if you’re interested in a full-time teaching job, as many substitute teachers are), so make sure that you dress to impress. You should be aware that secretaries are usually the ones who call the subs, so a plant or a plate of sweets—or even the classic apple—might go a long way to being remembered positively. To be professional, leave a note for the regular teacher letting him or her know about your experience for the day.

Finally, experts agree: When offered a substitute position, say yes to everything. You never know what subject, age group, or school you’ll enjoy teaching. Take advantage of the flexibility to try out different types of teaching. Following these guidelines will increase your chances of becoming a successful substitute teacher.

Benefits of being a substitute teacher

Working as a substitute teacher is a challenging calling, but there are plenty of benefits, too. They include:

  • Easy to quit: If you find a permanent job at a school or in another field, it’s a smooth transition away from substitute teaching.
  • Plenty of work: Most school districts have a significant need for substitutes throughout the school year. If you need extra income, you can work many days a week when school is in session.
  • Lower expectations: Of course, administrators and parents expect subs to be professional and qualified. But unlike regular teachers, you aren’t expected to have teacher-parent meetings or discuss behavioral issues of students–unless you are the substitute teacher from Key and Peele, in which case: “You done messed up A-A-ron.” When it comes to expectations, substitutes have it relatively easy. You don’t have to create lesson plans. Sometimes the job only requires you monitoring students who are focused on pre-assigned work.
  • Diversity of experience: Substitute teaching is ideal if you’re not entirely sure what or where you’d like to teach. As a substitute, you will likely experience a variety of subjects and age groups.

Finally, working as a substitute teacher can help prepare you for a full-time position, if that is your ultimate goal. Substitutes are eligible to join the National Education Association, which provides plenty of resources for substitutes and regular teachers alike. They share best practices on everything from teaching strategies and classroom management to grant opportunities.

When you’re in the hallways of private or public schools, talk to your fellow teachers to learn more about this career. You’ll likely find that many of the full-time teachers you meet once stood in your basketball-playing, firefighting shoes.

Questions or feedback? Email editor@noodle.com

About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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