Substitute Teacher: Education, Salary, and Outlook

Substitute Teacher: Education, Salary, and Outlook
The Editorial Team January 20, 2020

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A substitute teacher’s role is vital to the smooth operation of a school. Substitutes step in, sometimes on very short notice, for teachers who can’t be in the classroom for anything between a single day to several weeks. Substitute teachers have many of the same qualifications as full-time teaching staff, though it’s also a common career track for new educators and future university professors.

Subbing for full-time teachers can be a rewarding and engaging career. The long-term prospects for substitute teachers are relatively stable, and the pay is consistent with other educators. The flexibility and future career options open to fill-in teachers can make this a very promising career option for many new and seasoned educators.

At a glance: Substitute teacher

Substitute teachers fill in for full-time teachers who need a stand-in for their class on days they can’t be there to teach. In the course of a regular school year, they often visit multiple classrooms, teach a variety of different subjects, and get to know students at many more schools in their district than regularly employed teachers.

The job of a substitute teacher

Substitute teachers perform most of the normal duties of regular teachers during the days when they fill in for them. Substitutes are typically called to work on an as-needed basis, so they must have very flexible schedules. Sometimes, substitute teachers only find out if they are working for the day with a phone call on the morning they are needed. Duties of a substitute include:

  • Taking attendance
  • Explaining homework to students
  • Continuing the classroom routine as much as possible
  • Maintaining classroom discipline
  • Following the lesson plan left by the regular teacher
  • Writing a brief report for the regular classroom teacher

Who makes a good substitute teacher?

It takes a lot of flexibility to be a good substitute teacher. The job usually comes with an unpredictable schedule and workload, since most subs have to be ready when a teacher calls out or leaves work early on the spur of the moment, and the classes you teach on Monday are rarely the same ones you’re teaching on Friday, or even on Tuesday. Successful substitute teachers have a broad command of most subjects taught in primary and secondary school, from math to physical education, and are ready to step in to teach whichever class needs a sub with little to no preparation. The ability to travel around a school district is helpful, since many substitutes work at multiple schools, and a strong personality helps to control a classroom full of kids who may become unruly without their regular teacher present.

An in-depth look at substitute teaching

Education requirement for substitute teaching

Educational requirements for substitute teachers vary a lot between public and private schools, and from one state to another. As a rule, substitute teachers at American public schools should have a bachelor’s degree in a teachable subject like math or history. Unlike many teaching careers, substitute teachers can sometimes work without a full teaching certificate, even in states that usually require one for permanent staff. Some education training helps, usually 30 to 90 credits from an accredited program, plus some relevant experience teaching children and teens.

Certification requirements for becoming a substitute teacher

Most states impose lower certification requirements on substitute teachers than they do for full-time teaching staff. As a rule, regular teachers are encouraged to hold a degree in education, while substitutes can generally hold a bachelor’s degree in any teachable subject, plus a substitute teacher’s certificate. To earn this certificate, prospective teachers generally have to pass a proficiency exam testing their math and language skills. What counts as a passing score varies by state, and so the test should be taken in the state where you intend to teach, not where you attended college.

Substitute teachers’ salaries

Substitute teacher salaries vary from state to state, and from public to private schools. According to ZipRecruiter, substitute teachers earn the highest pay in New York, where the median wage is $14.94 an hour, or $31,071 a year. Wages are lowest in North Carolina, where substitute teachers average $10.56 an hour, or $21,962 a year. Payscale estimates the national average wage of a substitute teacher at $11.88 an hour, or $23,760 a year. Adding in non-wage compensation, such as performance bonuses, Glassdoor estimates an average total wage for substitute teachers nationwide of $30,714.

What’s the employment outlook for substitute teachers?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, substitute teachers in the United States can expect to see a 1.5% increase in employment opportunities through 2028. Much of this growth is in step with a general rise in the population of under-18 students, together with a relatively stable outlook for public sector employees, which is the bulk of the teaching profession.

Substitute teachers can work at all levels of education, from kindergarten to college, and jobs are available at both public and private schools.

Challenges and opportunities for substitute teaching

There are a lot of good reasons to get into substitute teaching, along with a handful of drawbacks. The people who do best in the profession are usually those who carefully weigh both the positives and negatives of substitute teaching as a career.

The Positives

  • Substitute teachers get to travel around their district and meet a lot of fellow teachers from other schools. These contacts can be professionally rewarding and help you grow as a teacher.
  • Substitutes meet a new class of kids almost every day, and the broad range of experience this gives helps later on, especially if you have a permanent class of your own.
  • Subs get to flex their academic chops by teaching multiple different subjects, rather than sticking to a single one for a whole school year.
  • Because of the short-term nature of most substitutes’ teaching responsibilities, it’s rare for them to have to manage the demanding needs of difficult students. Instead, the usual procedure is to document any discipline or behavior issues for the regular teacher and staff to take up later on.

The Negatives

  • The uncertainty of a substitute teacher’s workload can put a strain on the people who do it. Short weeks can result in less pay, while rapidly shifting assignments can send a substitute from one site to another on an unpredictable schedule.
  • Every day with a class is the first day, and the personal relationship the classroom’s teacher develops with each child is nearly impossible for most subs, who are generally only filling in for a short time before leaving.
  • Children and teens sometimes fail to respect or follow instructions from substitutes, which makes teaching a lesson challenging.
  • It is rare for substitute teachers to see a whole lesson arc through to the end. Instead, you are often expected to cover a single set of assignments from the lesson plan without having been there at the beginning or end of the chapter.

Substitute teachers’ professional development

Substitute teachers have a lot of room for growth in their careers. Many substitutes work at the job on their way to a permanent teaching position, while others use the flexibility the position affords to expand their training and prepare for a role in school administration. Substitute teachers with one or more specialized subjects, such as honors English or math, may supplement their income as tutors. Others make the move from subbing for junior high school and high school to college, where they can move up the academic ladder as associate professors in their field.

Continuing education

Substitute teachers must be licensed in every state, but each state has its own requirements for keeping a license valid. Some states have several different types of licenses a substitute can work under, and the continuing education requirements for them vary tremendously.

California, for example, recognizes the Emergency 30-Day Substitute Teaching Permit, Emergency Substitute Teaching Permit for Prospective Teachers, and an Emergency Career Substitute Teaching Permit. The first of these, the Emergency 30-Day permit, requires only the transcripts from the college where you earned a bachelor’s degree. The permit for prospective teachers, meanwhile, can be renewed annually and requires documentation of 15 semester hours toward your teaching credential. The Career Substitute permit has no specific requirements for continuing education, but to keep a valid endorsement from a school district, substitute teachers must attend all the same training and skills classes regular teachers in the district do to keep their credentials.

Professional associations for substitute teachers

While you might think of substitute teaching as a casual or temporary phase in the career of an educator, many people make it their primary career focus. To serve this community, several professional organizations offer resources for subs around the country.

In addition to substitute-specific groups, stand-in teachers also typically have the option to join regular teachers’ groups, including local chapters of the teachers’ union.

Best of the web

The internet has plenty of resources for substitute teachers, from career advice sites to informal communities where you can meet other teachers in the field. Professional associations and informational resources often maintain blogs and social media accounts where substitute teachers can keep in touch with the community and learn about issues affecting them nationwide.


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