Five Reasons Why Every College Student Should Try Substitute Teaching

This spring, the Substantial team had the privilege of supporting 12 UC Berkeley students to become substitute teachers. At the end of the semester, we sat them down and asked them about the experience, and overwhelmingly they said that every college student should be a substitute teacher, here’s why:

1. If you’re thinking about teaching, the best way to know for sure, is to do it.
Being a substitute teacher gives you a chance to practice, reflect and improve, before you step into the classroom as a full-time teacher; this was a huge benefit. The students in on our inaugural cohort came from a variety of majors. All were interested in working with youth or in education, and about two thirds were actively considering getting their teaching credential.

“Being a teacher is a really huge commitment. And I think before I actually get a teaching credential and go into the classroom permanently—for the sake of my own sanity and the sanity of the students—I need to be sure. And subbing is a really good way to do that.”

“I’ve already worked with a lot of low income youth, predominantly black youth, and even from such a young age, I’ve seen their struggles and they’ve confided in me about the things that they face. I wanted to see if maybe later on down the line, if teaching is something I might be interested in, but also a way for me to give back now.”

“I applied to Teach for America, where people sometimes go in half knowing and half not knowing…I wanted to be sure. And after going into classrooms as a sub, I realized I need to teach. But I figured that out in a way that didn’t jeopardize that student population. Everyone who wants to be a teacher should sub first! And don’t sub where you’re comfortable, sub where you’ll be uncomfortable. And in the communities you want to serve.”

2. It’s a tangible opportunity that allows you to launch your professional career, right now.
Most college students need some kind of part time work to support themselves, how cool to have a job that’s a worthy contender on your resume, that also happens to have maximum flexibility and decent pay (compared to similar part time work available). It allows you to tell a much more compelling story in that first full time job interview, whether that’s in teaching or not!

“This is an opportunity to launch my professional career. And it feels so cool to have a permit. To say ‘I’m certified to be in the classroom, I’m not just a tutor!’ I feel like it opens many more doors.”

“Being in the school system opens so many doors. The principal came into my classroom and offered me a job teaching a 5th/6th grade classroom.”

“I both wanted to launch my own career to become a permanent teacher but also to have this opportunity to be in the school site already, and be that cool sub who interacts with students.”

3. It teaches you how to be an innovator on the spot.
The reality of subbing is that you will find yourself in moments when you’re confronted with uncertainty—no lesson plans, missing materials, students having conflicts with each other. Yet this is the reality in most of adulthood, especially at work. We have to learn to handle curve balls. Our students saw this in the most positive light possible, and took this as an amazing hands on learning opportunity.

“I showed up and they weren’t expecting a sub, because they never get one. So I spent the first half of the day, until lunch, talking about college. My experience, what’s going on at UC Berkeley right now, what these students can do to get to college, and answering their questions.”

4. It gives you a very different perspective on your community and the students who live there.
A really big piece of advice from the students, was how much they realized this experience wasn’t about them, it’s about the students. And it’s about being an active and aware member of society.

“Whether or not you want to be a teacher, having this experience will allow you to appreciate teachers and substitutes more.”

“When I applied to this, I was thinking that I wanted to be a sub because I wanted the experience, and I want it for me, and a lot of this process was like ‘me, me, me, me,’ until I got into the classroom and realized, this is not about me. This is about who I’m serving.”

5. It gives you a taste of real adulthood.
For some of our students, this was the first time they’d been the “adult” in the room. For many of them it was the first time they’d seen retirement plan paperwork or completed any financial paperwork for a job. And for all of them, it meant going through a rigorous real world application process, ultimately working with colleagues and supervisors in totally new way.

“This whole experience has helped me ease into the responsibilities of adulthood. To have a job that will lead me to my career is very helpful.”

“The district paperwork was the most difficult part for me! I didn’t know what a W-9 was. I’ve seen paperwork like that, but it’s always been facilitated through my parents.”

“To me this opened my eyes that I just need to be confident applying for the job, and dealing with the paperwork, retirement forms, and all that stuff that’s coming up so quickly.”

“I really liked that the teachers didn’t see me and say, ‘oh you’re a college student, you can’t do this job.’ They validate you. Every period I had someone come check in and ask ‘how’s it going?’ The principal came in during 5th period, and that was my best class. So I was like ‘yes!’”

When we first had the idea to support college students stepping into the classroom as substitute teachers, we saw very tangible benefits: decent pay, flexible schedule, practical experience for the future. We didn’t realize how much more they would get out of the experience: from applying to their first “adult” job, to being a valued member of a school community. We’re now more convinced than ever—every college student needs to try subbing. We’re excited to keep supporting our students and schools to make this happen.

For more on Substantial’s college substitute program read our accompanying blog posts: What We Learned Helping College Students Become Substitute Teachers and The Benefits of College Student Substitute Teachers.


Substantial is currently incubating undergraduate substitute teaching programs at campuses across Northern California. Our goal is to create a simple, student-powered model that exists at every college and university to support their local school district with quality substitute teachers, and just maybe some new career teachers.

Interested in bringing this program to your campus? Send us an email college-partnerships@substantialclassrooms.org.

The Benefits of College Student Substitute Teachers

This spring my district, West Contra Costa Unified, partnered with Substantial to recruit college seniors to serve as substitute teachers in our schools. In our district just over a quarter of substitute requests go unfilled, which impacts both our teachers and students. We were willing to try any strategy to get more classes filled. While the initial cohort delivered on that—once hired, the college students have been regularly working—we also learned that there are additional benefits to hiring college students as substitute teachers.

Here are three reasons why hiring college students as substitute teachers makes sense for my district, and why I think you should try it in yours:

1. Reinforce a College Going Culture: As a district, we are constantly thinking about how to get our students exposed to different professions and to the idea that they could go to college. These young adults know what it is like to decide to go to college today—things have changed a lot in the 24 years since I was a college senior—and our students can relate to them. They can answer questions about what it is like to live in a dorm, how they decided what schools to apply to, or how they decided on their major.

2. It’s a Source of New Subs: Not sure about your district, but we are always in need of substitute teachers. This spring we realized that substitute teaching makes a lot of sense for college students. This is a deep well of untapped talent. It’s flexible, meaningful work and helps them explore the profession of teaching. Plus the pay is pretty good relative to the other types of jobs that fit with a college student’s schedule. Many students have either Tues/Thurs or Mon/Wed/Friday off and we have found that these students are working more days that we anticipated.

3. Pipeline! This is a way for us to get to know future teachers—and for them to get to know our schools—before they enter the job market. That’s huge for us! We have a lot of work to do to make substitute teaching a supportive learning experience for these young adults, but we think it’s worth the effort. This year Substantial provided training and an ongoing seminar to help the college students build their skills and make meaning of their experiences.

Imagine if every new teacher had a year of learning how to stand in front of a classroom, manage student behavior by building rapport as quickly as possible, and deliver a lesson (either theirs or someone else’s). Consider the benefits of new teachers having tried out a variety of schools and grade levels to find their perfect match. I hope you will join us in embracing the challenge of making substitute teaching a powerful experience for college students.

For more on Substantial’s college substitute program read the accompanying blog posts: Five Reasons Why Every College Student Should Try Substitute Teaching and What We Learned Helping College Students Become Substitute Teachers

Interested in bringing this program to your district? Send an email to college-partnerships@substantialclassrooms.org.

Cheryl Cotton

Cheryl Cotton

Director of Certificated Human Resources

 

Cheryl is the Director of Certificated Human Resources at West Contra Costa Unified School District. She has been a teacher, principal, and leadership coach focused on equity. She is passionate about building leadership capacity in principals and helping people along their professional journeys. Cheryl holds a BA in Social Welfare from UC Berkeley, a Masters in Education from Mills College, and is currently pursuing a EdD in Educational Leadership from UC Berkeley.

What We Learned Helping College Students Become Substitute Teachers

Did you know that in California college students with 90 units students, who meet a basic skills requirement, qualify for a substitute teacher permit? There was a point when we didn’t either! It’s a little known fact here and in states with this option. As soon as we a learned this, we thought “Amazing! Why aren’t tons of college students subbing? It’s flexible, real world experience with relatively good pay.”

In December 2016, we initiated a program to recruit, train, and support UC Berkeley students to become substitute teachers, it was a truly amazing experience for us, the students and the school district.

Here’s what we learned:

Becoming a substitute teacher is expensive and might be out of reach for many college students.
Ok, I admit, we knew the expensive part already. In California, an aspiring substitute teacher can expect to pay anywhere between $200-$300 to get up and running, depending on their situation. And a CA college student pays an additional $52.50, if they want to work while waiting 50 business days for their permit. We anticipated this challenge and planned to pay for each student’s set-up costs. What we didn’t realize was that many students don’t have that kind of money at their fingertips. Instead of reimbursing students for expenditures after the fact, we needed to cover the costs upfront.

This could be a huge challenge for school districts looking to recruit college students to their sub pool. Here are three suggestions:

  1. Offer to cover costs on layaway, taking small reimbursements from the student’s first few paychecks.
  2. Sponsor all or a portion of college student set-up fees.
  3. Partner with a local foundation, businesses or community organizations to offer scholarships.

It takes a village.
Even though this permit has been available for 10 years, not many students apply, and many people aren’t familiar with the details of the process. Even with extensive online research, we still required assistance from: one very experienced district credential analyst, two County Offices of Education, a former State Superintendent of Education, and the CA Commission on Teacher Credentialing helpdesk (three calls, two emails). Now that we’ve successfully navigated the process once, we’ve learned how to help colleges and school districts make it much easier to facilitate these permits. We’re more than happy to share our directions and toolkits with anyone who’s interested!

District hiring processes aren’t designed with a college student in mind.
College students are an ideal resource for filling the shortage of substitute teachers, but their professional experience is limited and their free time is often concentrated on one or two days a week. Many school districts have streamlined hiring and onboarding processes to make it easier and more manageable for district staff, which makes total sense. The flipside is that the inflexible requirements could prevent college students from applying, and those who do, might not be able to attend interviews and onboardings held only once a week (or month! or quarter!).

Having restrictive hiring and onboarding processes can make it much more difficult for candidates who have fixed responsibilities—like college classes to attend. Here are two suggestions:

  1. Adjust the application requirements for college students to add video interviewing or essays to stand in for letters of reference.
  2. Offer a variety of interview and onboarding options including, self-scheduled 1:1, small group, online and virtual.

But most importantly, we confirmed what we had long suspected to be true:
College students are an amazing resource.

Our cohort of students came to us with amazingly positive attitudes and diverse experiences, interests, and majors. They’d worked as tutors, camp counselors, and community volunteers. What school district wouldn’t want to count them among their ranks? In a pinch, without lesson plans, these students stepped up to facilitate conversations about college—everything from how and why to pursue it, to their firsthand experiences, and current events on campus. The best part is that even in the face of system shortcomings, logistical hurdles, and some intense school situations, the students remained extremely grateful for the meaningful experience.

College is an environment rich with inquiry and investigation, learning and exploration (both inside and outside the classroom), and making meaning from endless new experiences; it’s no surprise that college students turn out to be resilient and passionate substitute teachers. Let’s help them get in the classroom!

For more on our college substitute program read our accompanying blog posts: Five Reasons Why Every College Student Should Try Substitute Teaching and The Benefits of College Student Substitute Teachers.


Substantial is currently incubating undergraduate substitute teaching programs at campuses across Northern California. Our goal is to create a simple, student-powered model that exists at every college and university to support their local school district with quality substitute teachers, and just maybe some new career teachers.

Interested in bringing this program to your campus? Send us an email college-partnerships@substantialclassrooms.org.

Bringing a Little Kindness and Innovation to Teacher Absence

Yesterday’s Washington Post included an eye catching headline: one in four teachers miss 10 or more days of school, earning the label “chronically absent.” Although the article was careful to present a balanced view, the comments section quickly devolved into the predictable argument about valuing vs vilifying teachers. Notably missing from the article—and virtually all conversation of teacher absence and its impact on students—is an examination of how to improve the experience students have when their teacher is out. Life happens and teachers will be absent. In fact, when I think about my son’s teachers, I want and hope that they feel supported as they deal with the curveballs life throws at them—from bouts of mental illness (like the teacher interviewed in the article who was struggling with anxiety) to caring for an ailing family member or having a baby.  

Rather than just focusing on reducing absences, what if we also thought about how to create a supportive experience for students when their teacher is out? Substitute teaching has been largely the same for decades. We know that the current design isn’t working well—the statistics around how much teacher absences impact students demonstrates that time spent with substitutes isn’t cutting it. But what is possible? What if we let go of what we assume substitute teaching has to be and redesigned it from the ground up? Could we create something that supported teachers and actually enhanced students’ learning experiences? Asking this question is more generative and invites more creativity than focusing solely on reducing teacher absence. It’s also something every school and district can work on today.

Intrigued? Here are some ideas about how to get started:

  • Confront Your Assumptions: The mental model for what happens when a teacher is absent has been ingrained in each of us since childhood. Our assumptions can limit our creativity and willingness to experiment with new models. I invite you to spend 10 minutes cataloguing your assumptions, such as “substitute teachers are on call employees.” Set a timer and write everything that comes to mind. If you have 10 more minutes, pick one or two of your assumptions to challenge. Ask yourself, what would happen if this assumption weren’t true? What might be possible? Brainstorm your crazy ideas and see what happens.
  • Pilot Something Different on PD Days: Pick an upcoming PD day and pilot a new model for what happens when the teacher is out of the classroom. Invite your teachers to brainstorm different possibilities and pick a few to pilot. Maybe you could do an inside-out field trip where you bring an expert to school for a day. If the first grade teachers are out, could this be a day for first graders to spend more time with their fourth grade buddies? Challenge your assumptions about what’s possible.
  • Create a Design Challenge with Students: Students are great at questioning assumptions and thinking outside the box. Invite them to bring that creativity and think about what should happen when their teacher is absent. Stanford’s K12 Design Lab has great resources for facilitating design challenges with students.  

We’re starting a national conversation to help redesign the substitute teaching experience. Join us!