How to Be a Substitute Teacher: Prerequisites and Tips

Carolina Jacobs

Feb 27, 2023
how to be a substitute teacher

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Substitute teaching can be an exciting and challenging career with many advantages. It offers far greater freedom and flexibility than a traditional role, allowing you to determine where and how often you want to work. Depending on your position, you might not even have to grade a single paper — merely do your best to educate the children in your classroom. 

However, you must fulfill specific educational requirements to enter this profession. Additionally, the job itself isn’t easy — but it can be a joy with the right techniques. Here’s what you should know about how to be a substitute teacher. 

General Requirements for Substitute Teachers 

Requirements for becoming a substitute teacher vary from state to state. You’ll want to read your statutes and contact your state’s department of education to determine the precise requirements for your location. At a minimum, all states require teachers to have a high school diploma. Many require a bachelor’s degree, while some allow you to get certified once you obtain a specific number of credit hours toward one.

Additionally, you’ll have to undergo a background check. Here, you might run into trouble, depending on your record. Most districts only consider serious criminal offenses such as violent crimes and those against children. 

However, others consider alcohol and drug-related offenses a red flag that can land your application in the dreaded “circular file.” Your best bet is to be honest and explain any negative marks on your history. If you made a mistake in college but later sought treatment and got sober, you stand a better chance than someone who tries to excuse their behavior. 

Most states offer a substitute teaching certificate to anyone who meets the minimum qualifications. You’ll need to send in your application and pay the requisite fee. Some states, such as Colorado, require you to undergo additional testing to earn a special license, but these are the exception rather than the norm. Again, contact your state department of education for details. 

Emergency Certification for Substitute Teachers 

If you have a bachelor’s degree and experience in an unrelated field, you might be able to obtain a teaching certificate via emergency certification. Teacher shortages in many areas have led officials to change the rules. Such policies often benefit students — a pupil interested in accounting may learn from a former tax preparer who’s subbing their math classes. 

Veterans also have an alternative route to certification. The National Troops to Teachers program offers options to discharged or soon-to-be-discharged service members. Participants receive counseling and referral services to districts with needs. 

Teaching at Charter Schools as a Substitute Teacher 

Another avenue you might explore when learning how to be a substitute teacher is teaching at a charter school. Here, too, rules vary from state to state. However, many have fewer requirements. 

For example, 25 states allow individuals to teach at charter schools without certification. If you’re on the fence about whether this profession is right for you, consider substituting at such a school to determine your interest level. College is expensive — ensure you’ll be happy working in this field before you shell out the big bucks or take out student loans to fund an education degree. 

Tips for Success as a Substitute Teacher 

You landed your first substitute teaching assignment. Congratulations! What can you do to ensure your success? Here are five tips. 

1. Prepare

You might not have to write any lesson plans — the general classroom or lead teacher will do that for you. However, you might need to segue into this duty if you take on a long-term assignment spanning several months. 

Either way, you must prepare. Rehearse with a supportive partner — or perhaps your surly teenager — the best ways to manage disruptive students. Go over the lesson plans provided by your lead and ensure you understand the material. Expect your pupils to test your knowledge a bit, so make sure you’re on top of your game. 

2. Collaborate With Colleagues 

Your colleagues are invaluable sources of tips and help. Many of them have been educating students for years. 

It’s okay to seek a mentor during your first few days of substitute teaching. Finding someone who can show you the ropes can put you on the fast track to success. 

3. Master the Technology 

You might be teaching in person or online. Either way, you should know how to use the technology. Few things disengage students faster than having to wait around while you figure out how to run a Zoom meeting or operate a projector. 

Spend a few minutes the day before doing a dress rehearsal. Test your equipment and have a backup plan if teaching from home in case of power failure or internet outages. 

4. Observe Other Classes 

If you go through standard teaching education, you spend at least one semester student teaching. You observe a lead teacher and gradually take over instructional duties during this time. 

You may not have this opportunity as a substitute teacher. However, many of your colleagues will be happy to welcome you into their classrooms, where you can observe and learn from their techniques. 

5. Maintain Close Contact With Your Lead Teacher 

Your lead teacher is your best resource for getting your questions answered. Ensure you have a way to get in touch for emergencies when on a short-term assignment. If you’re a long-term sub, you might want to schedule routine check-ins to ensure you’re following the curriculum and preparing their students for their eventual return. 

Other Ways to Get Your Foot in the Door

Maybe you’re curious about whether you might enjoy substitute teaching but aren’t quite ready to invest the time and money into meeting your state’s requirements. There are other ways to determine if working with the littles — or not-so-littles — is your life’s passion. 

If you have a bachelor’s degree, you can earn extra cash from your couch while helping students as a tutor. Many online tutoring services require a background check but no special certification. You may have to take a test in your area of expertise, but you can work one-on-one with students once you do. 

Another route is babysitting or daycare if you prefer younger children. The former offers unparalleled flexibility — you determine when or where you want to sit. While you won’t get much experience minding a sleeping infant, helping older children with homework can help you identify if you have a flair for education. 

How to Be a Substitute Teacher

Becoming a substitute teacher opens up the path to an exciting career with a ton of flexibility. Each state’s requirements vary, but most aren’t too strict in what they demand before letting you in the classroom. 

Follow the tips above to learn how to be an effective substitute teacher. You can be a part of educating the future. 

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