Building a Sub-to-Teacher Pipeline

In the midst of the teacher shortage, West Contra Costa Unified is getting creative about how and where to find teachers who will have success working in our district. Through our data analysis work with Substantial, we learned that one of our most important teacher pipelines is right under our noses—our substitute teacher pool. Last year 20% of new hires came from the sub pool and have since entered or completed credential programs. This year we decided to start actively pursuing this pipeline and finding ways to proactively engage with them. To start, we designed a workshop series to support substitute teachers who were interested in becoming teachers.  

What we did: With help from our friends at Substantial, we developed a three part workshop series for subs. Advertised as a part seminar, part job coaching, the series was designed to educate subs on the options for pursuing a credential, help them understand the district hiring process, and inspire them to take immediate actions to advance their goals. The workshop was held after school from 3:30-5 on three consecutive Thursdays. We posted a workshop description and link to a google sign-up form on the sub system and subs self-registered for the workshop.

What we learned: There were so many unexpected benefits to our first attempt of the Aspiring Teacher Workshop. Here are the most important learnings for me and my team:

  1. It’s a Compelling Pool: The diversity of the group was amazing. We connected to parents, trained chemists, and career transitioning non-traditional candidates who live in our community and already work in our schools. Over half of the workshop participants were parents who had started substitute teaching in their child’s school and realized that they like teaching. A big benefit of doing the workshop (and allowing people to sign up for future workshops if they couldn’t make this one) is that we now have a list of aspiring teachers in our substitute pool.
  2. Subs are Hungry for Professional Community: We made the workshop a three part series, but I think participants would have willingly come back for three more sessions. They developed their own professional learning community right before our eyes, and the connections that were made during that session are lasting. Participants set and accomplished small but meaningful goals connected to advancing on their paths to become teachers—one participant asked a principal at a school where she had been a long-term sub for a letter of recommendation for a credential program, another got her parents to track down her twenty year old overseas high school transcripts to be evaluated. At the end we gave participants the option to find an accountability buddy and were heartened to see participants exchanging email addresses and goals for the next month.
  3. Human Connection Matters: Subs were able to work directly with me and my credential analyst to define their individual path to getting a teaching credential. It was great for my team to connect with candidates outside of our normal office setting and to build meaningful, professional relationships. We usually only interact with substitute teachers when there is a problem, it was so meaningful for us to get to know these substitutes and to think about how to help them along their paths. Not all of them will end up pursuing credentials or be successful in our hiring process, but we are rooting for each one to find their professional success.

I will end by sharing that this was also a meaningful experience for me personally. The workshop helped me to reconnect with why I work in HR in the first place—to develop future teachers and leaders so that our students get the best possible educational experience from each adult they encounter. I was so inspired by the people I met in this workshop and can’t wait to build on it next year.

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.

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

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

Three (Unexpected) Things We’ve Learned from Substitute Data

What questions do you have about substitute teaching in your district? Curious about where subs choose to work? When demand for subs peaks? How frequently subs work? Chances are many of those questions can be answered by digging into the data you are already have available through your substitute management system. 

In the last few months we have been surprised by just how much you can learn through analyzing substitute data and how infrequently districts are digging into this rich data source.

Here are a just three critical insights we have uncovered, we hope they pique your curiosity and get you thinking about what you might learn from your own data:

1. No Monday/Friday Peak: Every district we have sat down with shares the assumption that it is harder to cover teacher absence on Mondays and Fridays, mostly because demand is higher, with more teachers absent. It makes intuitive sense, because who doesn’t like a three day weekend? While it is possible that HR and school offices are working harder on these days, the data we’ve gathered at Substantial suggest that both demand and coverage is fairly consistent through the week, with no big spikes on Mondays or Fridays. If we see slightly lower coverage on a Friday, it’s usually because of supply—not demand—as fewer subs are choosing to work.

2. Different Districts Have Different Pools: In one district, 74% of substitutes are over the age of 50 and most work around one day a week. This seems to back up the anecdotal evidence that retired teachers dominate their pool. In another district, the vast majority of subs are women in their 30’s and 40’s who work at a specific school site. This suggests a pool made largely of parents who have a connection to a specific school. Understanding your substitute pool is critical because the needs and motivations will be different. By knowing your pool, you can develop meaningful support and tackle supply challenges more effectively.

3. Coverage Varies Dramatically: Within a single district substitute coverage rates can vary dramatically among school sites. If districts are looking at data, it’s often in the aggregate, and these nuances can be obscured. For example, in a district with an average of 80% teacher absences covered, one school may be at 99%, and another is languishing at 54%. What’s intriguing is that it isn’t always the schools you expect. We’re learning a lot by focusing on the schools that surprise us and challenge our assumptions about where subs want to go.

From our early analysis, one thing is very clear—understanding the root cause of substitute system challenges is critical to ensure you’re designing strategies that will work for your district and your subs.

What will you learn from your data?


Five Things Schools and Districts Can Do Today to Improve the Substitute Experience

November 18 is the final day of American Education Week, and today we appreciate the contribution of Substitute teachers across the country. In honor of their critical role in schools, here are 5 practical ideas you can implement to improve the substitute teaching experience, starting today:

  1. Send thank you notes. Yup, your mom was right: thank you notes are important.  Substitutes often feel isolated and under appreciated; let them know they are an important part of your school community. This simple gesture helps build a relationship, making subs more likely to return to your school. Thank yous can come from anyone or everyone: students, teachers, school secretaries, principals.
  1.  Invite subs to school events and in-service trainings.  It’s great if you can pay folks for these things, but even if you can’t, inviting substitutes to school events is an important gesture of inclusion.  If you have an online system or resource for professional development, think about making the platform available to substitutes too.
  1. Standardize the sub folder. Consider walking into a brand new school or classroom every day and having to wade through a different set of instructions. We can acknowledge the reality of a substitute teacher by trying to make this part of their day a little bit easier and a lot more consistent. Building a common folder for use across classrooms in your school, or schools in your district helps subs know that you care about them and their daily experience. We recommend folders live in the front office, so they can be regularly checked, updated and supplemented—by anyone on staff—especially if a teacher has to call out sick.
  1. Solicit feedback, every time. Taking substitute teachers’ experience and advice seriously will help you build a stronger, more welcoming school community.  You can do this by creating a survey for subs that you include in the sub folder, or a link to an online survey they can take when they get home. Whether you use a survey tool or not, make sure you ask subs how their day went and share what you learn.
  1. Finally, encourage subs to do activities that build trust and rapport with students, and remember that these activities take time.  Two things that we often forget to mention to subs before we send them into the classroom are: first, spending time with students can and should be fun; and second, teaching is much harder if you haven’t established trust with students. Give subs permission to get to know students—and for students to get to know the subs. Games, going outside, art, music, and experiential learning activities engage students and set the sub up to succeed.

However you decide to convey your appreciation, take this day to say thanks to substitute teachers. They play a critical role in our schools but often don’t feel included or appreciated.  Without them, it would be more difficult for our nation’s educators to step out of the classroom when they need to care for themselves, care for their families, get married, have children, and, of course, grow professionally.  


Photo Credit: Thank You! By Carol VanHook (CC BY 2.0)

Substitute Teaching: A Missing Piece in the Teacher Shortage Debate


puzzled by John Potter (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

While discussions about the growing teacher shortage have traditionally emphasized the failings of our teacher pipeline, the Learning Policy Institute’s (LPI) recent reports warn that our best chance at averting our current path toward a significant teacher shortage is to focus on teacher retention through improved “mentoring, induction, working conditions, and career development.” Defining the problem in this way has significant implications for how we might go about avoiding the crisis, and one significant, generally neglected, piece of the puzzle is substitute teachers.

Think about it. Want mentor teachers to guide novices through ongoing coaching and induction programs? You better ask the resource teacher to cover the classroom or find a sub. Interested in following professional development best practices and have your staff visit master teachers in action? Ask the school admin if she can stitch together coverage with teacher prep periods or call in a sub. Your star physics teacher got a grant to attend a conference and bring those best practices back to the school? Dial up a sub. Your third grade teacher wants to maintain some sort of balance and quality of life and go to her brother’s wedding in Alaska? Better log into the substitute management system. These factors critical to improving teacher retention—effective mentoring, induction, professional development, and great work conditions all share a common denominator—the need for a quality substitute teacher.

The US spends $4B a year on subs, and students spend as much as 10% of their total learning time with subs. Subs play a critical role in many of the reforms mentioned as “must haves” in our education system and have a dramatic impact on school climate, yet their role is rarely mentioned. The difference between having someone covering in the classroom who is prepared and supported, who ensures that students feel safe and that learning can continue, and having someone in the classroom who is unequipped to do these things, is the difference between a functioning learning environment and a dysfunctional one. An environment in which professional development is possible, and one in which it’s not. The difference between a place where teachers are able to take care of themselves—being absent when they are sick or have personal matters to attend to—and an environment that accelerates burnout by sending the unspoken message that being absent is tantamount to putting one’s students in harm’s way.

In fact, most districts see substitute teaching as an inevitable and unfixable challenge. Many teachers find subs so disruptive to their classes that they would rather come to school sick than have to deal with the fallout. Most students deem the day “a wash” when they see an unfamiliar sub enter the classroom. And parents complain when their beloved teachers go on maternity leave, entrusting their students to a sub for the next three months.

But what if we dared to dream about this critical resource? What if we actually used that 10% of learning time and money spent with substitute teachers to not only cover classrooms, but to make the whole “school-level human capital machine” work?

Many school districts are pursuing strategies that acknowledge the critical role substitutes play:

  • San Diego Unified School District recruits artists with teaching credentials to provide visual and performing arts instruction while teachers attend district professional development.
  • Oakland Unified School District provides twice annual training for substitute teachers, enhancing content delivery and classroom management skills.
  • Sunnyvale School District in California’s Silicon Valley created consistent, district-wide substitute folders, so that no matter the school, grade level, or teacher, a substitute can expect the same guidance and instructions every day, in every placement, which helps them provide more seamless, regular instruction for students.
  • Central Falls School District in Rhode Island hired a pool of 15 substitute teachers to serve for the full 180-day school year, assigning them each a school building to they can learn the mission and vision of the school and build relationships with faculty and students. They are offered a week of training, mentorship from experienced teachers, and an incentive—a higher salary or health benefits.

What if more districts across the country had access to these kinds of examples or “bright spots,” along with the tools, plans, and support to execute them?

At Substantial, we are working with schools and districts to redesign how they recruit, train, and support substitute teachers, so substitutes are fully leveraged as the assets that they truly are. We are capturing “bright spots”—examples of effective and creative strategies in classrooms, schools, district offices—to inspire others, highlight best practices and build on the great work already happening in schools and districts across the country. We believe substitute teachers are not only critical to students’ lives but teachers’ as well. Maintaining teachers’ happiness and supporting them to develop professionally will help keep them in classrooms for years to come.

How else can substitute teachers help solve some of education’s biggest challenges? We want to hear from you:

[contact-form to=’’ subject=’Feedback on Teacher Shortage Blog’][contact-field label=’Name’ type=’name’ required=’1’/][contact-field label=’Email’ type=’email’ required=’1’/][contact-field label=’Role’ type=’text’/][contact-field label=’Organization/School/District’ type=’text’/][contact-field label=’Comment’ type=’textarea’ required=’1’/][/contact-form]