The Pros and Cons of Substitute Teaching
Is substitute teaching right for you?
In my life, I have had a variety of jobs and one career. I have worked at a smoothie shop, a bagel shop, an OBGYN office, and a car dealership to name a few. I was a substitute teacher for half of a school year before settling in to my career as a full-time elementary school teacher. After teaching for five years, I had my first child and decided to take off. I truly loved teaching, so I figured I could sub part-time so I’d still be able to teach occasionally.
As I got back into subbing, I started to remember some of the parts of the job I liked and some I didn’t like so much. Maybe you have considered substitute teaching. Before researching further, continue reading to learn several pros and cons to substitute teaching. As a disclaimer, some of these pros and cons may be more specific for the location where I currently substitute teach and also more relevant to those who substitute on a day-to-day basis as opposed to subbing in one classroom for a more lengthy assignment. That said, I have done my best to describe the best and worst parts of subbing in general.
Pro: Substitute teachers have an extremely flexible schedule.
I think my favorite part about being a day-to-day substitute teacher, both when I subbed full-time and now as a part-time sub, is the flexibility of my schedule. It is the only job I have ever had where I don’t have to ask my boss for a day off. Instead, I simply don’t accept a job for that day. Asking for days off, even as a lowly bagel worker, has always given me anxiety. What if my boss says no? What if he is mad I asked for a day off? What if I get a bad schedule the following week as a punishment for taking off? As a sub, I never have to worry about it. In my school district, the only requirement is to sub at least four days a month. If I don’t think I am going to make my four-day quota, I can always email the sub office and let them know I cannot sub four days this month. I know there have been teachers whose licenses were put on hold for subbing too little, but I only sub about once a week and have not run into that problem yet.
In addition to not having to ask for a day off, subs have the same schedule as public school teachers, which everyone can agree is a pretty great schedule. Even if you sub every day, you already have every holiday off, you get summer break off, and you work a nice daytime, Monday through Friday schedule. It is the perfect schedule to have if you have school-aged kids.
Con: Subs have fewer days available to them to work.
While having a flexible schedule is definitely a perk of subbing, the downside is that there are many days you cannot work, even if you would like to, resulting in fewer opportunities to make money. Unlike teachers who make a yearly salary and are usually paid throughout the summer, subs are paid hourly or daily, so the only time they make money are the days they are actually working. Sometimes, schools need subs during summer school, but often times those sub jobs go to full-time teachers who are on summer break. Because of this, many substitute teachers decide to find summer jobs.
Con: Substitute teacher pay is not great.
Most of the time, subs get paid by the hour or day. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, substitute teachers make on average about $15.00 per hour, with the median hourly wage being about $13.50 per hour. Pay rates vary based on living expenses in different places. Since there are so many days subs cannot work, the low pay can be a deterrent for those looking to sub as more than a part-time job or supplemental income. The low hourly wage along with the lack of hours available in the summer can make it difficult to get by on a substitute teacher’s salary alone.
Con: Substitutes are not usually offered health insurance.
As stated above, it can be difficult to work full-time as a substitute teacher, especially in the summer months. Even subs who take long term positions and work the same amount of hours as a full-time teacher are usually not offered health insurance or other benefits. There are some exceptions, but for the most part, don’t expect any benefits if you are thinking about becoming a sub.
Pro: Substitute teachers get to encounter a new challenge almost every day.
When I was teaching full-time, I always said that one of my favorite parts of teaching was that I never knew what the day was going to throw at me. As a sub, this is even more true. Much of the time, I never really know what type of classroom I am going to walk into and what types of lessons I am going to be expected to teach the kids. Usually I know some information, like the grade level or subject, but everything else is a mystery most of the time. Because of this, I always make sure I am prepared to start my day off the right way by being prepared for anything, especially missing or incomplete lesson plans.
Subbing always creates opportunities for problem solving and critical thinking. In my experience, nothing is worse than a boring job. This may seem like a con to some, but I think walking into a classroom not knowing what to expect adds to the fun of subbing. Each day is like its own individual mission leaving a sense of accomplishment once it has been completed, hopefully with success.
Con: Subs are at risk of having to teach in a very chaotic environment.
While I enjoy having a variety of tasks, students, and lessons to teach on my day-to-day adventures as a substitute teacher, sometimes I walk into a classroom that is a wreck, both literally and figuratively. Sometimes classrooms are incredibly disorganized. Sometimes teachers leave very little information about their behavior management system, routines, and plans for the day. This is why I always try to get to school a little earlier than suggested just in case I need to try to wade through the chaos to make a clear plan of what I’m going to do that day.
In addition to being assigned to a troublesome classroom, there is always the possibility that as a sub you will be asked to teach in a different classroom than you were originally assigned or asked to cover a class during you prep for no extra pay. Granted, when you become a sub you are told that you aren’t guaranteed a prep and you may be asked to teach in a different classroom than you thought, but it doesn’t make these unexpected events any better. If you’re lucky, the administration and office staff will show their appreciation for your flexibility in these last minute situations, although sadly, that is not always the case.
Pro: Subs get to work with kids.
Working with kids may not be something everyone is interested in. If you don’t like working with kids, don’t get into teaching, substitute teaching or otherwise. This should be obvious, in my opinion, but I think we have all had teachers and subs who really seem to despise the young people they are working with.
I have always loved working with kids. As a sub, you get to meet new kids every day. Of course, some of them will work your last nerve, but many of them will make you laugh and give you the opportunity to teach them something new, no matter how small that new knowledge may seem. Kids are so unapologetically honest, energetic and enthusiastic about learning. It is a great departure from spending time with adults, most of whom have sadly lost some of their enthusiasm to learn and discover new things.
Con: Substitute teachers have to deal with disrespectful students.
While working with kids is something I love and appreciate about subbing, there is a 95% chance that I am going to encounter a disrespectful student at some point in my day. As a teacher and as a sub, I have met many a challenging student. The difficult thing about subbing is that students who may be polite and respectful to their usual teacher will see there is a sub and decide they are going to act in a very unpleasant way. I think the disrespect and unruly behavior bothers me more personally since I taught full-time, so I was used to my students, even the difficult ones, showing me respect. As a sub, often times the kids know you don’t have a whole lot of power and they will take advantage of that. Young kids will test your boundaries and older kids will flat out ignore you. In my article, "Start Your Day as a Substitute Teacher the Right Way," I outline ways to get the kids to like you and listen to you right off the bat. However, even after having close to ten years of experience teaching a variety of students, there are still kids I cannot get on my side, and days dealing with those students have definitely given me a few grey hairs.
Pro: Substitutes get to visit a variety of schools.
Throughout my life, I have always been an observer. As a sub, I get to check out different classrooms, schools and students all the time. On a purely anthropological level, it is interesting to compare and contrast the way schools are run and the way students behave and interact with one another. By subbing at different schools, I am able to determine what types of schools I want to work for and what types of schools I’d like to send my children to eventually.
Con: Substitute teachers are unappreciated.
If you consider how unappreciated teachers often are in our society, you must imagine that substitute teachers probably aren’t treated any better. Unfortunately, I would say that some of the times in which I have felt the least appreciated were times during which I was substitute teaching. I have been met with rude office managers and teachers who virtually ignored me since they knew I was “just a sub.” After teaching full-time and going back to subbing, I have definitely noticed this lack of respect more than I ever had before. As with any job in which you encounter a variety of people, the way you will be treated is always toss up. I have worked at schools where I was treated like a special guest; however, I have worked at just as many where I was treated more like an intruder despite the fact that I was there to help.
Pro: Substitute teachers often achieve celebrity status after subbing at the same school a few times.
One of my favorite parts of subbing back when I used to sub every day was getting to know the students and the way particular schools were run. Once I found a school or student body I liked, I would try to sub at that school as much as possible. Eventually, I would get to know the kids and some of the teachers. Maybe it’s just me, but there are few things cooler than having several students wave at you, hug you or come say hi. Although subs are often unappreciated, the kids who recognize you make up for it a bit since they are so excited to see you again.
Pro: Subbing is excellent experience for those interested in teaching full-time.
College taught me a few things about teaching. Being a student teacher gave me hands on experience in the classroom. Be that as it may, what prepared me the most to have my own classroom was subbing. When you are a substitute teacher, you are thrown into a sink or swim environment. There are no professors to help you or master teachers to bail you out of any sticky situations.
Day-to-day subbing is a great way to learn new ideas to implement in your future classroom. When I subbed before getting hired full-time, I used to take pictures of several classes I subbed in. The best way to become a great teacher is to emulate great teachers around you. Many ideas I used in my own classroom were those I learned while subbing.
Aside from day-to-day subbing, I also had the opportunity to sub long-term to cover two maternity leaves. One of the classes I subbed for had an excellent teacher with many successful routines. Her classroom ran like a machine. All I had to do was learn the ins and outs. The other class I subbed for was not so organized. Although subbing for that class came with plenty of stressful days, I was able to try new techniques to teach and manage behavior in that classroom. Out of necessity, I had to create some of my own rules and routines while I was there in order to keep the classroom running smoothly. Both experiences taught me so much about how to run a classroom.
Ultimately, the pros and cons of substitute teaching balance out for the most part. Individually, prospective subs need to consider what parts of the job correlate with their personalities, strengths and needs when it comes to making a living. If you are looking for a stress-free job where you make a great income, substitute teaching is not it. On the other hand, if you are looking for a job with new challenges each day, the opportunity to work with kids, and a flexible schedule, maybe substitute teaching is the job for you.