Sub Ways

By Liana Loewus — November 13, 2008 3 min read
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For many, substitute teaching conjures flashbacks of 7th grade mischief or a bumbling Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Kindergarten Cop.” But for those seeking temporary work with a flexible schedule, substitute teaching can be an enticing professional opportunity.

The qualifications for becoming a substitute teacher vary from state to state. In 28 of the 50 states, according to Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, applicants need only a high school diploma or GED before entering the classroom. In California and other states, a bachelor’s degree or higher is required.

It is standard for states to require a criminal background check—and in many states, such as Arizona and Texas, school employees must be fingerprinted and carry an official fingerprint clearance card.

Jennings points out that substitute teaching attracts people from many walks of life. “Some are people who want to go into teaching and try it for awhile, some are retirees,” he says. “It’s a mix of people, sometimes young, sometimes old.” Troy Galow, director of employment relations with the Leander Independent School District in Texas, says the majority of applicants he sees are recent college graduates, which is not surprising considering the district’s proximity to the University of Texas. Parents, retired community members, and career-changers also commonly apply.

Substitute teaching, like most professions, has felt the effects of the recent economic crisis. In the Folsom Cordova Unified School District in California, substitute applications increased by a third this year, according to The Sacramento Bee, likely due to a rise in unemployment in other fields. Galow confirms that in Leander “there has absolutely been a noted increase in the interest in becoming subs. Because of this financial change, application numbers are going up.”

And as more applications roll in the qualifications become stiffer. Blaine L. Sorenson, acting director of the Substitute Teaching Institute at Utah State University, says that substitutes seeking positions are “probably going to run into a lot of competition—there are a lot of people right now looking for temporary work.”

Budget cutbacks have also made it more difficult for substitutes to find jobs. Chicago Public Schools and other districts, Sorenson says, limit the number of applications they will review when faced with a spending freeze. Other districts cease trainings for new substitutes or stop calling in substitutes altogether. Instead, regular teachers fill in for one another during their prep periods or combine classes to make up for teacher absenteeism.

The news, however, is not all bad. Occasionally, budget cuts can lead to an increase in opportunities for substitutes. When permanent positions are eliminated, some districts ask substitute teachers to fill in the holes. “In terms of education spending, 70-75% of the cost is tied into personnel,” said Jennings. “It’s logical that if a district is facing a budget cut . . . the temptation would not be to hire new teachers, but to fill in with current teachers or substitutes.” The districts save by paying substitutes at a day-rate and without benefits.

And reliable substituting opportunities do exist, if you look in the right places. For those still considering the field, Mr. Sorenson suggests looking for positions in large urban districts, where the need is greatest. And Paul Shooter, director of human resources for the Austin Independent School District in Texas, says that larger districts like his continuously have a high demand for subs. “About 560 or 600 teachers are out everyday, so it’s somewhat analogous to staffing a small school district everyday,” he notes. “We like to keep a fresh pool of subs coming all the time. It’s absolutely a good time to apply.”


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