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As a student, there’d be excited whispers in the hallway when we thought we’d have a substitute teacher. “Mrs. Rosen is sick!” my classmate would tell me as I closed my locker. “Looks like we’re doing no work!”

Yet almost every time we walked into our classroom to find a teacher substituting for our own, there’d be a detailed, set plan of what we were going to do. Sometimes, the substitute teacher was more authoritative than the usual teacher. The work often took the whole class period to finish. What was most exciting was when the substitute teacher had to teach part of a lesson. They’d teach in their own style, unfamiliar to us, and give a new perspective on the material.

Although substitute teachers often substitute for short periods of time, they can make a big impact on students’ days and their lessons. If you’re hoping to connect with students and gain valuable classroom experience, here’s how to become one.

What does a substitute teacher do?

At the core, a substitute teacher works in place of a full-time teacher during their absence. They often work on an on-call basis rather than a consistent schedule, substituting on a part-time basis unless a teacher has left for a long-term absence. Yet the responsibilities of a substitute teacher go far beyond standing in for an absent teacher. While a substitute teacher carries out the lesson plan a teacher has left, they also may have to carry out that teacher’s duties throughout their day: lunch or recess duty, bus duty, giving out assignments, collecting homework or staff meetings. If a teacher has not left a lesson plan, a substitute teacher must be able to adapt and lead the class; lesson planning may also fall to a substitute teacher if they’re substituting for a teacher during an extended leave of absence.

Qualities of a substitute teacher

• Adaptable. 

Substitute teachers must be able to adapt to last-minute changes in their responsibilities, lesson plan or even what position they’re covering.

• Authoritative. 

Students often behave differently in front of their teachers than their substitute teachers. It’s important to have control without being threatening.

• Knowledgeable. 

Because substitute teachers often substitute in many different classrooms — with different subjects and students with different skill sets — they’ll need to have knowledge of multiple subject areas to provide assistance. 

• Good at thinking on the spot. 

Substitute teachers may be left with lesson plans, but they might have to be flexible and change things up depending on the instructions and student interest.

• Responsible. 

There’s a lot to keep track of when you’re substituting for a class. Being able to take ownership over your duties and stay on track is extremely important for keeping a classroom moving.  

6 steps to become a substitute teacher.

1. Earn a high school diploma or the equivalent.

Before you look into degrees and certifications, you’ll need a high school diploma. If you haven’t graduated high school, an equivalent, like the GED, works as well.

2. Earn an undergraduate degree.

Can you be a substitute teacher without a degree? Unfortunately, there’s no one answer. While you can be a substitute teacher in some states and districts without a higher education degree, your options are very limited. But you don’t need a degree in education to become a substitute teacher. You’ll simply need one from a college or university; however a degree in an education area can make you a more competitive candidate. If you have a degree in a specific subject — like English, math or biology — you may be assigned to substitute those courses.

3. Research requirements for your state and school district.

The requirements for becoming a substitute teacher vary greatly from state to state and even district to district. Some states want a teaching license. Others want a course or a passing test grade, while some require a certification. For example, Alabama requires a license from the state; in North Dakota, substitutes must hold a current teacher certificate. Before you take a test or sign up for a training course, choose the state and district you want to be a substitute teacher in. If you decide first, you’ll be able to figure out the specific requirements you’ll need to fulfill.

4. Get the teaching certification required in your state and district.

If you need more than a GED or bachelor’s degree for your state and district, you’ll have to obtain a certification. As there are different requirements for each state and district, the certification process looks different in each state and district. Some certifications are based on an application process; others require a test.

5. Apply for substitute teaching positions.

Applying for substitute teaching positions can look like applying for other jobs. You’ll have to submit references and transcripts from high school and college and pass a criminal background check. You’ll often be applying to a pool of teachers rather than a specific position, unless there’s a long-term, specific position that needs to be filled.

6. Stay up to date on education practices and technologies.

Because substitute teaching does not follow a steady schedule, staying up to date when you’re not in the classroom is important. Learning about classroom management and instruction can help you lead when you’re called into work. Internships and training will also make you a more competitive candidate in hiring.

How much money do you make as a substitute teacher?

Most substitute teaching jobs have a daily rate, but this rate varies greatly depending on the area’s cost of living. If this cost of living is higher, the substitute teaching will have a higher daily rate. According to the Substitute Teacher Alliance, the pay rate per date varies from $20 to $190 per day; half-days are half of this rate. The average is $105. Substitute teachers who work for extended periods of time, covering longer periods, may receive a salary comparable to full-time hired teachers. Depending on the state, some substitute teachers can receive benefits. Some states have substitute teacher unions that fight for these benefits, while others do not.

Becoming a substitute teacher is a great way to get teaching experience without becoming a full-time teacher. While the schedule isn’t always steady, it’s a great job if you’re just starting out in the teaching career or want to engage with students in the classroom.

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