Substitute Teacher Job Description

This substitute teacher job description was written by a current substitute teacher.

I am sitting typing this substitute teacher job description during my prep period. I spent the morning covering a third-grade classroom for teacher observations, and now I am sitting in a second-grade classroom waiting to pick the kids up from art class. Today, I’ve had more downtime than usual. Normally, I am busy covering different classrooms and teaching kids.

Substitute teaching allows me the flexibility to work part-time as a substitute teacher while I grow my writing career. I joke with my friends by saying I have two half jobs that turn into full-time jobs some weeks.

Are Substitute Teachers in Demand?

That’s to say that substitute teaching jobs are IN DEMAND right now. Nationwide sub shortages exacerbated by the pandemic have made subbing busier than ever, and I’m told that won’t slow down anytime soon.

One building in one district keeps me busy, but I could easily work full-time going to other buildings and school districts.

Substitute teaching used to be a job choice for retired individuals looking to earn some extra cash. But the demand for subs has turned substitute teaching into a viable option for part-time to full-time work. Long-term subbing positions are especially lucrative as the pay goes up significantly after the first 10-20 days, depending on the district.

What Does a Substitute Teaching Job Involve?

A substitute teacher job description involves serving as a guest teacher in a classroom when the primary classroom teacher is out.

Subs cover sick leave, personal days, teacher development days, emergencies, long-term leaves of absence such as maternity leave, and more recently, COVID-19 teacher quarantines.

Another trend emerging in school districts around the country is permanent subs. A permanent sub works in one building or district subbing where they are needed—a permanent sub covers both short and long-term teacher absences.

Substitute Teacher Job Qualifications

The qualifications to become a substitute teacher vary from state to state. Generally, a bachelor’s or an associate’s degree is required to get a substitute teaching license. You don’t necessarily need a background in education, but it would help.

To get a subbing license, substitute teachers have to submit their credentials to the state education department. Some states break the licensing down into short-term or long-term subbing licenses.

Some standard credentials required include:

  • An associate’s or bachelor’s degree
  • A criminal background check
  • Sometimes states require mandated reporter training.

Some districts interview subs. Some districts start calling you to sub right away without an interview.

Substitute Teacher Job Duties and Responsibilities

Every day is different for substitute teachers, which makes the job both challenging and exciting.

Substitute teaching isn’t just a warm body in the room while the kids have free time anymore. Teachers leave you detailed lesson plans with expectations that actual learning is going on while they are gone.

One of the most challenging aspects to keep track of is the number of transitions students have throughout the day. I would be lost without my smartwatch to set alarms for all transitions, especially at the elementary level. Elementary-aged students transition from activities or mini-lessons about every 20-30 minutes.

Your subbing responsibilities will vary by grade level, but here is a list of some things to expect:

  1. Greet students at the start of the day. Older students will come to you, but you will typically have to get your elementary class from somewhere and bring them to the classroom.
  2. Take attendance and lunch counts.
  3. Teach mini-lessons or give directions for student activities.
  4. Practice classroom management to ensure students are engaged and on task.
  5. Transition students to their next class or activity.
  6. Collect student work. (I have occasionally been left an answer key and asked to grade student work.)
  7. Help students pack up for dismissal and get to where they need to go at the end of the day. Dismissal is important for early elementary students. The end of the day can be confusing for k-2 students trying to figure out where they need to go to get home.

Lockdown procedures, fire drills, inclement weather plans, and other school emergencies

During my first three years as a substitute teacher, I went through many fire drills, a few soft lockdowns, one hard lockdown, and a tornado warning where we hid in the bathroom for almost an hour with students. I’ve also had medical emergencies in my classroom. Just this week, the school put us in a soft lockdown due to a gas leak near the building. I’ve also taken classes to assemblies and subbed for one field trip!

I say all this not to scare you. As a substitute teacher, you will experience many different types of out-of-the-ordinary circumstances. Chances are you will have a supportive and helpful school staff backing you up. Be ready to stay calm and think on your feet.

Most days will be business as usual, but being prepared for the unexpected is always a good idea when working in a school setting.

What Makes a Good Substitute Teacher?

1. Kindness

You have to be kind to kids.

Substitute teaching is challenging because some kids will see it as an opportunity to test boundaries. These kids come from all sorts of backgrounds and home situations. For some students, their teachers and staff at school are the only kind and reliable adults they know. Each day is a new day and every kid, no matter how much they challenge you, deserves a fresh start the next time they see you.

2. Flexibility

I’ve had my schedule changed at the start, middle, and end of my day. Many principals are desperately short-staffed for subs, and being open and flexible when they need you to be will almost certainly get you on the shortlist of top subs to call. It’s handy to have a few time-filler activities up your sleeves for times when your schedule changes and the sub-plans don’t account for those changes.

I keep a “would you rather” ebook saved on my phone for when I need a way to fill the time that is engaging, fun, and creates discussion. I also keep blank coloring pages on my clipboard—all kids, even big kids, like a brain break with coloring.

What Are the Challenges of Substitute Teaching?

1. Classroom Management

When a sub is in the room, suddenly everyone has a tummy ache and wants to go to the nurse. It’s just the nature of the job and kids. Every teacher and classroom will have different routines and procedures, and I promise the students will know the routines and procedures better than you do. I typically find one or two helper kids to ask for help.

2. Managing Transitions

Elementary students transition a lot! Learning how to walk a class of kindergarteners quietly down the hallway requires a Ph.D. in patience. It won’t be great at first, but you’ll get there. Listen to how other teachers keep their students in order in the hallways and copy what they do.

There are fewer transitions in the middle and secondary grade levels, and you usually have a bell schedule to follow at that age.

3. Using Technology

Teachers will ask you to show videos, use the document cameras, and sometimes even submit attendance digitally. Getting used to the technology the building uses for these things is tricky at first. Other teachers are an excellent resource for help. I haven’t yet met a teacher who wasn’t willing to help me navigate a problem.

What Makes Substitute Teaching Interesting?

The daily variability makes substitute teaching very interesting. One day you’re singing and playing with kindergarteners all day, and the next day you could be teaching science at the middle school or high school level. No day is boring for a substitute teacher, especially if you find joy in working with children.

There is no shortage of appreciation for substitute teachers. Administrators and teachers alike will constantly make you feel valued and appreciated because substitute teachers make it possible for teachers to have days off and still trust their students will be cared for and looked after.

Substitute Teacher Job Interview Questions (and how to answer them)

Most districts don’t interview short-term substitute teachers. My school district called me right away to substitute teach the day my paperwork went through. Each state and school district will have different policies.

If they call you for an interview, here are a few questions you can expect:

1. Why do you want to be a substitute teacher?

You can be honest here. Substitute teaching is a flexible position. It’s assumed you won’t be working every day. If you have another part-time job, are in school, or have something else going on, let them know that. Here is your opportunity to share why you’re choosing substitute teaching as a career choice. If you are available for long-term subbing positions, make sure to let the district know that as well.

2. What are your biggest strengths?

Here is where you can showcase your flexibility and adaptability. School buildings are busy places. Almost daily, you’re going to face a situation you don’t know how to address because you’re not in the school building every day. From taking attendance to sending a sick student to the nurse to handling a fire drill, substitute teachers need to think quickly and problem-solve independently. Share examples of your strengths and how those can help you in a classroom setting.

3. How would you handle a negative reaction from a student?

An admin asking this question is looking for somebody who has a passion for connecting with and helping kids. Chances are they’re going to ask you about student learning, classroom management, or behavior management.

As long as you answer from a student-centered approach and a place of compassion for the students, you should do well with these types of questions. Substitute teaching is more challenging because you don’t have the time to build relationships with all of your students. Come prepared with some strategies to keep students engaged in the lessons and ways you can address unwanted behaviors in the classroom.

Final Thoughts on a Job as a Substitute Teacher

Substitute teaching will keep you on your toes, get you working with kids, and provide you with some flexibility in your schedule to go to school, start a business, or raise your own kids. Substitute teaching isn’t always the easiest job. If you want to work in an educational setting, substitute teaching is a great way to get experience in the classroom and build relationships with other educators and administrators.