How to become a substitute teacher

Written by Kate Lopaze

Substitute teachers are the pinch hitters of the education world: they step in when needed and help keep the game running smoothly. These educators are key to making sure that the school day continues on even when the regular classroom teacher can’t be there—whether that’s for a sick day or a longer-term absence.

What does a substitute teacher do?

Substitute teachers are educators who are employed by a school or school district as a kind of floater. When a full-time teacher is unavailable for any reason, the substitute teacher can take his or her place in the classroom for a period of time, continuing the lessons and plans set by the full-time teacher. They’re fully trained educators and are typically experienced in the subject for which they’re filling in.

A substitute teacher’s duties may include:

  • Teaching lessons as outlined by the full-time teacher
  • Developing lesson plans for longer-term assignments
  • Managing classroom behavior
  • Monitoring other school activities like the lunch, recess, or bus activity

The workday for a substitute teacher is typically a six- or seven-hour standard school day, though fulfilling the full-time teacher’s duties may call for the substitute to handle after-school or extracurricular activities as well. Substitutes may work during the regular school year or during special sessions like summer school or night school. Like full-time teachers, substitutes might choose to specialize in particular subject areas, particularly at the middle school or high school level.

What skills do substitute teachers need?

Substitute teachers need to be able to step in for full-time teachers with minimal interruption to the classroom, so they need to have essentially the same set of skills—with a bit more flexibility thrown in.

  • Teaching Skills: Whether they’re working with lesson plans set by the full-time teacher or their own plans, substitutes need to be able to teach concepts and skills to students.
  • Organizational Skills: Substitute teachers are responsible for keeping the classroom organized and running efficiently in the full-time teacher’s absence, so it’s crucial to be able to step into a potentially unknown situation, understand what the full-time teacher was working on, and pick up that ball and run with it. Classroom management is essential to the job.
  • Patience: Like with every educator, the substitute teacher will be faced with students of varying abilities, behavior, personality, etc. A strong sense of patience goes a long way in this career path, especially when there are students who have trouble dealing with interruptions in the classroom.
  • Flexibility: By its nature, this job calls for flexibility. Your classroom today might not be your classroom tomorrow—or it might be your classroom for the next six months. If you need a consistent routine and consistent details from day to day, this might not be the best teaching path for you. But if you love the idea of working with different people on different projects from day to day, this flexible attitude can be a major asset.

What do you need to become a substitute teacher?

Each school or district has its own policies about substitute teachers. Some require substitute teachers to be fully certified by the state. Others require a four-year degree, while some require a minimum of a high school degree. It’s important to check with your target school district to see what they require and what you’ll need to have.

How much do substitute teachers get paid?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for substitute teachers is $30,900, or $14.86 per hour. This can vary depending on the teacher’s experience, as well as the type of school.

What’s the outlook for substitute teachers?

The education field is continually growing as local populations grow and create more students. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects that the demand for substitute teachers will grow about as fast as average for all jobs through 2024.

About the author

Kate Lopaze

Kate Lopaze is a writer, editor, and digital publishing professional based in New York City. A graduate of the University of Connecticut and Emerson College with degrees in English and publishing, she is passionate about books, baseball, and pop culture (though not necessarily in that order), and lives in Brooklyn with her dog.