How to Be a Substitute Teacher and Snag a Signing Bonus

A teachers helps a student with their work.
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If there’s one job that’s in high demand right now, it’s substitute teaching. All you have to do is open up a tab in your browser and type in “jobs near me” and you’ll start to see ads offering flexible hours and “no experience necessary” to help fill the gaps in your local school system.

And while it’s easy to blame the need for substitute teachers exclusively on the pandemic, this trend also speaks to something deeper: A shortage of teachers that started over 20 years ago.

We dug in to find out just what caused these changes, and how you can cash in on an opportunity to try your hand at teaching. Here’s everything you need to know about how to be a substitute teacher right now.

Why Schools Are Paying More for Subs

According to ZipRecruiter, average hourly pay for substitute teachers ranges from $13.89 to $21.80 depending on the state, or up to $45,345 if doing it full-time. The top-paying states are Nevada, Massachusetts, Alaska, and Washington.

But that’s not the whole picture. As it gets more difficult to keep up with demand, some school districts are increasing wages, adding incentives and relaxing their usual requirements for substitute teachers.

Reports about substitute teacher shortages include stories about school boards hiking pay as they struggle with shortages: up to $240 a day in one district, bonuses up to $500 in another, and $130 per day for those with a teaching license in yet another district. In some districts, schools have even  attempted to recruit parents to fill the gaps.

To fully understand what’s driving the shortage, it’s helpful to go back a few years.

According to a 2016 national survey of college freshmen, only 4.2% of students said they intended to major in education — this compared with 11% in 2000. The downward trend seems to have only gotten worse: In 2019, the Student Research Foundation reported that only 3.6% of high school students intend to be teachers.

Combine this pre-existing shortage of educators with the so-called Great Resignation with thousands of people leaving the workforce, and you have the perfect storm for the education system, and a serious lack of qualified people to help run it.

How to Become a Substitute Teacher

Because of all of the challenges school systems are facing, it’s easier than ever to become a substitute teacher. Whether you want to work full time, part time or even per diem, a lot of schools are willing to take any help they can get.

But there are still a few qualifications to know about before diving headlong into applications.

Requirements for aspiring substitute teachers are set at the state level and by each local school district, says Joseph Fitzgerald, vice president of operations for the Mountain West States division of the substitute staffing provider ESS.

“Many states and school districts allow individuals with a high school diploma or GED to become substitute teachers, while other states add requirements ranging from passing the ParaPro Exam to requiring a Bachelor’s degree,” Fitzgerald says.

While education and experience requirements vary, one thing is for sure: You’ll have to pass a criminal background check and undergo some training before you can step into a classroom.

The Substitute Teacher Application Process

Procedures vary from state to state and from one school district to the next. But here is the typical process.

1. Apply on your local school district or staffing agency’s website

Although you might be applying for a particular substitute teacher position, most substitute teaching roles are filtered through the school district, not just one particular school. The main exception is when you’re applying for a role with a staffing agency like ESS, in which case you would apply on their website, which coordinates with the local school district on your behalf.

2. Complete the substitute teacher onboarding process

Once your initial application has been reviewed, you’ll likely be prompted to undergo a criminal background check, as is required by law for prospective substitute teachers. Once this has been approved, you may also be asked to take an orientation training, as well as provide professional references and proof of your education and certifications.

3. Check in with the ‘substitute portal’

After completing the onboarding process with your local school district, you’ll typically receive access to an online substitute teacher portal, which is where jobs get posted. This is where the process gets interesting, because from here you can start mapping out your new work schedule.

“If you’re a type-A planner, you can log on far in advance and pick up jobs that are posted early,” says long-time certified teacher and education blogger Whitney Rancourt of Mama Manages. “However, there is some benefit to logging in early in the morning on the days you’re available to work.”

By doing some combination of the two, you’ll be able to snag jobs happening in advance (planned teacher absences), as well as take advantage of any last-minute sick days.

How Much Can You Earn as a Substitute Teacher?

Although many schools don’t require extensive teaching experience, higher education degrees or college credit hours, you’ll likely earn more if you have those qualifications.

“I have heard of substitute pay as low as $70 per day and as high as $200 a day,” says Rancourt. “Most districts will pay slightly more than their base rate for certification, bachelor’s degrees, and to retired teachers of that district.” A bigger factor, says Rancourt, is location. Higher cost-of-living areas often pay higher hourly rates.

That being said, school districts everywhere are ramping up their offerings to make more competitive offers in the current market.

“We are seeing school districts respond to substitute staffing shortages with higher pay rates and other incentives,” says Fitzgerald. “If you considered substituting a year or two ago, we encourage you to take another look as many school districts have increased their pay rates.”

Which Substitute Teaching Jobs Pay the Best?

Another factor influencing pay rates is the duration of a substitute-teaching gig.

“Building-based substitutes and long-term substitutes are typically higher-paying roles,” says Fitzgerald. Building-based substitute teachers commit to working each school day at the same school. Long-term substitute teachers have the added duties of lesson planning as well as grading, “and thus school districts compensate for the position more than daily substitutes.”

Some school systems will also pay higher wages for aspiring substitute teachers who have a valid teaching license, are qualified to work with special needs students, or to teach a certain subject or grade level.

Another thing to ask is whether the school pays hourly or daily. If you end up working a longer shift, this could make a big difference in your overall take-home pay.

A final thing to keep in mind when it comes to your earning potential as a substitute teacher: some jobs might even offer benefits, especially if you’re hired through a staffing agency.

“At ESS, we offer all of our substitute staff health, vision, dental and life insurance,” Fitzgerald says. “Most school districts don’t offer benefits to their substitutes, but it’s worth checking because some do.”

Is Substitute Teaching Right for You?

It’s important to consider whether teaching in a classroom is actually a good fit for you — because it’s definitely not the easiest job out there.

“Being a substitute teacher is not easy money,” says Rancourt. “If you’re not physically tired by the end of the day, you’re not doing the job right. Subs should be moving about the classroom for the entire day, interacting with students, actively monitoring, and checking the quality of their work.”

So who exactly is a good fit for this kind of side hustle? Fitzgerald fills us in.

“The best personality types for substitute teaching are people that care about education and want to make a positive impact on the lives of students,” he says. “They must also be able to connect with and lead a group of children or teenagers, so those with strong social skills and assertiveness can especially thrive in substitute teaching.”

How Substitute Teaching Advances Your Career

If that sounds like something that interests you, then you might just want to give substitute teaching a try. Even if it ends up not being your long-term profession, the role may open other doors and career opportunities.

“Substitute teaching can spark career advancement in various areas of education,” says Fitzgerald. “Many of our substitute teachers go on to become school district employees in various capacities, such as teachers, paraprofessionals, or other support positions such as staffing the front office.”

The Bottom Line About Substitute Teaching

Although it may not be for everyone, substitute teaching is worth exploring if you’re passionate about education, want to work with kids, and trying to earn extra money.

And who knows? Substitute teaching might inspire you to explore other roles in education, including online tutoring. It can also be a nice boost for your resume. In either case, that’s a win-win.

Contributor Larissa Runkle frequently writes on finance, real estate, and lifestyle topics for The Penny Hoarder.