Career Shift: How to Become a Substitute Teacher
The part-time job offers decent pay and lots of flexibility
Are you good at thinking on your feet? Would you enjoy working with kids, ranging from pre-kindergarten to high school? Do you have some free weekdays? If you answered “yes” to all three questions, you might want to consider becoming a substitute teacher.
I’ve become one myself, subbing in public and private elementary, middle and high schools. Being a sub helps pay the bills and lets me fill in the gaps between writing assignments with part-time, fill-in teaching jobs three, four or even five days a week. This semester, I’ve been subbing four days a week, on average.
What Subs Earn
The pay’s actually pretty good, too. Substitutes with teaching certification typically earn $100 to $125 a day; those without certification make about $80 a day, according to the National Education Association. Some subs make even more. In New York City, where I live, the per diem pay is $154.97.
(MORE: Tips for Becoming a Teacher)
Substitutes who’ve fulfilled their state requirements and registered with the local department of education can generally expect to get called for assignments two or three days a week. Elementary and middle schools, incidentally, tend to need subs more often than high schools. (Many school systems use automated phone systems that call subs either the night before a vacancy, the day of the opening or several days in advance.)
The Stand-Up Comic Connection
Substitute teaching is a bit like being a stand-up comic with a new audience every day — sometimes quite a few different audiences. You might start your morning overseeing Play-Doh molding with pre-K students, then teach 3 graders how to take notes and finish the afternoon with 5 graders, discussing the “Trail of Tears” during America’s westward expansion.
Just like comedians, your material might be a hit or you may need to change your act on a dime.
Rest assured, you probably won’t be the only 50+ sub in the school. I’ve met quite a few others around my age (I’m 53). Some chose to become substitutes as their semi-retirement jobs. Others, who were laid off from corporate positions, have found that substitute teaching gives them the flexibility to work in school when they want (bringing in much-needed income) and spend the rest of their weekdays interviewing and searching for full-time positions.
Qualifying to Become a Sub
The qualification process to get a substitute-teaching license varies by state, but here are some general guidelines:
You typically must have at least a B.A. degree or 60 semester hours from an accredited college. In some states, however, such as Alabama, Alaska, Georgia, Delaware, Maine and Vermont, you can sub if you have a high-school or GED degree. In New York City, where I sub, you must also be nominated by a school principal and pass a New York State teaching test.
Several states require subs serving 10 to 30 consecutive days or more in one position to have a B.A., teaching certification or both. These “long-term” assignments typically are to replace a teacher recovering from surgery, on maternity leave or to fill a staff vacancy.
The grade levels you’ll be allowed to teach depend on the certification you receive. In my case, I’m certified to teach grades pre-K through 6. Sometimes, however, schools can bend the rules if they’re in a pinch. For instance, last fall, I taught an introduction to journalism course to high-school students for three months.
Sometimes, it’s possible to become a sub without state teaching certification, but the process is more complicated and time-consuming. You may need to undergo an oral evaluation and take an online teaching program, for example.
Finding Sub Jobs
Once you’ve obtained a substitute-teaching license, figure out whether you’d prefer spending time in a classroom with teenagers in middle and high school or younger students. Keep in mind that kids in pre-K through 2 grade require more custodial caregiving; students in grades 3-5 can challenge authority a bit more, but they're also ready for meatier academic subjects. And be sure you have a thick skin before working with older kids — some of them like to give subs a hard time.
After deciding which grades you’d like to teach, it’s a good idea to visit area schools to introduce yourself and get on their sub registry. Take along a copy of your license and a resumé highlighting skills that might be helpful in the classroom.
Then wait for your phone to ring. Schools need daily or long-term substitute teachers throughout the year, so you could be called into action pretty much any time.
Leslie Hunter-Gadsden has written on education for Babble.com and Dance Teacher Magazine, and is actively pursuing writing assignments on a variety of topics.