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.

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 a 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

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