Monday, August 29, 2022

How to be a substitute teacher or paraprofessional

By Aaron S. Robertson


In this post, I offer advice, insights, general strategies, resources, and draw from my own experiences for those interested in serving as substitute teachers and/or substitute paraprofessionals. Back in mid-February (2022), I left my full-time, direct-hire position of 2.5 years as a special education paraprofessional at a middle/high school in a public school district to venture back into the world of subbing. I work as both a sub teacher and a sub paraprofessional covering the full gamut of K-12.

Throughout this post, for those of you who may not be familiar with all the vocabulary used in education, I have shortened the word paraprofessional to para, or aide. When I use the word permanent in an employment context, I am referring to full-time, direct-hire employees of a school or district.

My intended audience assumes that you, the reader, are interested in working as a substitute educator, but you have no prior experience working in education. For those of you who already have prior experience and full teaching licenses, some of the info presented here may not apply to you.

My credentials

The 2022-2023 school year will mark my fifth school year in K-12 education, after spending my working career in business and industry into 2018. In addition to working as a permanent special education paraprofessional and occasional substitute teacher during these past four years, my experience in K-12 education so far also includes proctoring one practice and one live ACT test; providing both general classroom support and 1:1 assistance during one summer school session and one summer STEM camp session; co-teaching a junior English class; tutoring middle and high school students in a variety of subjects, primarily in the social studies, ELA, and business realms; and chaperoning a prom and several other dances.

The competition for subs is really heating up

The 2021-2022 school year was a rough year across the board in K-12 education. I’ve been chatting with teachers, paras, and even administrators all over, and they’re saying the same thing about this past year.

It’s a strange climate in education right now, that’s for sure, and there are major staffing shortages on both fronts – permanent and substitutes. Many permanent staff are leaving their schools and even the profession altogether, and there simply aren’t enough subs and new grads to fill the voids out there. As a result, subs are treated like gold right now. It’s like we ride into town as heroes, treated like royalty. I kid you not. It’s a nice feeling, but it can be overwhelming at times, too. I’m simply trying to make a living like everyone else, and I genuinely want to be there for the kids. Many school districts are upping their daily pay rates for subs. Some are getting creative in other ways, like offering bonuses after so many shifts/days worked, or even free hot lunch.

After subbing for a while, I don’t know if I ever want to go back to working in a permanent capacity ever again

After spending the last four months or so of the 2021-2022 school year subbing, I really don’t know if I ever want to go back to working in a permanent status. I genuinely find myself on the fence regarding this question. I’ve already turned down a number of unsolicited job offers by school and district leaders. I’m loving the freedom and variety.

As I stated earlier, subs really are treated like gold right now in these strange times for K-12 education. Because of huge staffing shortages on both sides – substitutes and those directly hired by schools/districts – subs really do receive a hero’s welcome and have an upper hand in today’s climate. There’s no shortage of work, variety, and opportunity right now for those willing to serve multiple schools/districts and try out multiple roles. Pay, along with other perks, is really getting competitive between districts and schools. And subs generally don’t have to worry about taking any work – and other baggage – home with them.

Working as a permanent employee can expose the employee to the abuses of office and system politics and agendas. It’s my educated guess, based on what I’ve been hearing in the news, along with the personal conversations I’ve had with many in education, that this is the primary reason why so many are calling it quits. Subs are often shielded from a lot of this by the sheer nature of their employment status. For those who just want to be there for the kids, sharing their gifts and talents without the politics and agendas, subbing is an attractive, while increasingly lucrative, option.

Who is subbing for?

Subbing is ideal for a variety of people and for a variety of reasons, depending on factors like career goals, family and other commitments, your need for scheduling flexibility, and so on. For the most part, you can choose to work as often or as little as you’d like, depending on your needs and goals.

I know education majors (college students studying to become teachers) who work from time to time as sub paras around their class schedules. Because they don’t yet have their college degrees, they can’t serve as sub teachers, at least here in Wisconsin. But for them, it’s a wonderful opportunity to gain some initial exposure and practical experience working with students in a live school setting.

I know retired teachers that sub. I know education majors that recently graduated, but they haven’t landed a full-time teaching job yet. There are also plenty of folks that are transitioning into education as a second full-time career, and so subbing offers that initial exposure and practical experience that we just discussed. There are many working-age teachers that have left the full-time game for whatever reason, or they’re looking to land somewhere else eventually, so subbing helps them in this capacity.

Subbing is great for moms; for grandparents whose grandkids are in the schools they serve; for recent college grads of any major who haven’t landed anywhere else yet; and certainly, for anyone wanting to work with children and young adults as coaches, mentors, advisors, and so on.

Looking back on it, knowing what I know now, I wish I would have discovered my current path of subbing/working as a permanent special ed para right away after college. I graduated in 2007, right around the beginning of the housing market crash/recession. As a result, the job market wasn’t the best, either, and for a while there after graduating, I found myself stringing together some odd jobs to make ends meet. It would have also been nice to begin working in K-12 education that early to gain some solid resume experience for getting into college-level teaching later down the road, which I’ll get into in more detail shortly.

So you’re interested in working as a substitute teacher and/or paraprofessional. Where to start?

I would recommend that you begin by calling the local schools in your area. Office staff should be able to provide you with some general information and get you headed in the right direction. You’ll need to secure licensing through your state’s department of education. Here in Wisconsin, our state department is called the Department of Public Instruction (DPI). While you’re on the phone with someone at your local school(s), find out if they hire their subs directly, or if they use a staffing service, like Teachers On Call (TOC) or Edustaff. This will be helpful to know for later down the road.

To work as a substitute teacher in Wisconsin, you’ll need at least an associate’s degree, along with a clean background check and the completion of a brief, state-approved substitute teacher training program to secure a three-year short-term substitute teaching license. This license allows you to serve in any K-12 sub teaching role through 45 consecutive days at a time. I recently learned that private schools can waive the 45-day consecutive day maximum. Additionally, this sub teaching license automatically allows you to work as a special education paraprofessional or other aide, with no limit on the number of consecutive days in the same role.

There is a standalone special education aide license issued by the Wisconsin DPI, as well. This license is good for five years and only allows you to work as a special ed para or other aide, so you can’t sub teach with this license. For this license, you’ll need a high school diploma, clean background check, and usually the endorsement of a hiring school district that is agreeing to sign off on the license application to the state certifying there is a need for you.

Looking for hidden gems

These days, substitute services like Teachers On Call (TOC) and Edustaff have made subbing simple and streamlined for both subs and districts/schools. Many districts and private/religious/charter schools contract with these services to ensure a stable, efficient pool of qualified, trained, and dependable substitute teachers, paras, and other aides. Yet, there are many schools and districts that aren’t currently filling their sub needs through one of these services, and that’s why I suggested earlier you may want to begin by reaching out to your area schools directly. Many Catholic, Lutheran, and other religious and private schools, as well as plenty of public school districts and charter schools still hire their subs directly, as opposed to contracting with a service like TOC and Edustaff. This makes these off-the-radar schools and districts hidden gems that you’ll have to seek out yourself.

Endless variety – finding your niche(s) as a substitute

Should I work with elementary students? Middle school? High school? Should I work in special ed or regular ed? If I’m qualified to work as either, should I just work as a sub teacher, or should I take work as a sub para/aide, as well? If I’m working with middle school and/or high school students, what subjects should I fill in for? Should I only work in public schools, the religious/private/charter realm, or both? These are all good, solid questions you may be asking yourself right now, and I’m willing to bet you have more. Let’s dive into a lot of these and hopefully ease your mind.

The short answer to all these questions is, “It’s really up to you.” Don’t be afraid to experiment here. Try working with different age groups and grade levels, subjects, special ed (we’ll discuss special ed more a little later), etc. for a while, and you’ll eventually begin to discover one or more niche areas that you’re passionate about and would like to specialize in.

I know this may sound somewhat vague and hence not very reassuring and comforting, so I’ll share with you my own background in more detail here, and how I came to find my niche areas that I’m very much passionate about. They’re quite diverse, and they all revolve around my unique interests, formal education, past work experiences, talents and skill sets, and even my faith.

To begin, when it comes to age groups/grade levels, I primarily work with middle and high school students. For me, I love the higher-level conversations I can have with these students because of their ages. With my business background, I really enjoy discussing, offering advice on, and researching with students, the college application process, college majors and career tracks, gaining practical and meaningful work experiences, networking opportunities, personal finance subjects, marketing and entrepreneurship, creating resumes and cover letters, and making real-world work and career connections to the subjects they are learning in school.

I also have a working background in journalism, local news reporting, and professional communications. Combined with my love for the social sciences (my bachelor’s degree is in political science with minors in sociology and philosophy, and my Ph.D. dissertation interests are in the political science and leadership realms with a focus on China), and I really enjoy, and feel knowledgeable and comfortable working in, both the ELA and social studies realms, as well. I love helping students craft essays and other writing assignments. I can discuss and help research history, political and economic theories, and so on. I can assist with reading and note-taking strategies.

Although I much prefer the middle and high school settings, lately, I’ve been taking more and more elementary school gigs to broaden my horizons and see what and how kids are learning at this level these days. I’m deeply concerned that elementary students are learning to read the wrong way these days, and this certainly affects them down the line as they grow older.

When it comes to subjects, I serve at all grade levels as both a special ed teacher and special ed para when I’m subbing. At the high school level, specifically, as I already alluded to, I like to fill in for business, English, and social studies teachers. In the elementary realm, I’ll occasionally fill in as a lead regular ed classroom teacher in addition to special ed roles. When it comes to the middle school setting, I’ve primarily stuck to special ed, but I’ll venture out into content-specific areas from time to time. I’ve done math, social studies, foreign languages, and physical education.

Finally, I love serving as a sub in Catholic schools, as well. I rediscovered my Roman Catholic faith back in December 2021 after nearly 20 years in the dark wilderness. That’s another, standalone, epic story/blog post for another time. But in short here, I love contributing to the faith life of Catholic youngsters whenever I can. This has also led me to inquire with my parish about teaching Sunday catechism, which I will soon be doing. As a sub teacher, I’ve taught K-8 faith formation lessons, and I’ve led elementary classrooms to Mass and even a Stations of the Cross prayer session during this past Lenten season.

The point I’m trying to make here with all this background info about myself is that it’s my background that has largely shaped and informed my interests and strengths when it comes to subbing. What is your background? What’s your story? What are your own unique experiences, talents and skillsets, etc. that you can bring to the table to benefit students in ways that are meaningful and impactful for both the students and you? Really reflect on these questions, because the answers to them will help you figure out what you’re truly called to teach.

The special education setting – Easing your fears; a world offering plenty of variety and opportunity for the substitute teacher and/or paraprofessional

How I got into special education is, admittedly, a boring and uninspiring story. Being quite honest here, I didn’t feel some sort of special calling. There was no person, situation, incident, etc. in my life that particularly compelled me to dive into this realm. I merely saw it as an inroad to break into the realm of education. Back in 2018, as I was working on my Ph.D. (I’m still working on that…), I was interested in the idea of teaching college students someday, or at least having that option available to me. I was finding it difficult at the time to get hired at the college level with my master’s degree (in management) but with no formal teaching experience, so I began exploring the K-12 realm to hopefully lay some groundwork and proven experience on my resume. That’s why I mentioned earlier that, looking back on it, knowing what I know now, I wish I would have gotten into K-12 education right away after earning my bachelor’s degree in 2007 to lay that foundation.

Long story short, I investigated several possible pathways beginning in 2018 to earning full teaching certification in subjects I enjoyed and had some sort of background in, but they all required me to either go back to school taking undergrad courses, participating in a night school -type program, and/or going through the traditional, unpaid, student teaching route for a semester. None of this was practical or appealing to me, so I decided to pursue work as a permanent special ed para and occasional sub teacher. I would need a high school diploma for the former (check), and at least an associate’s degree for the latter here in Wisconsin (check), along with passing a background check (check), so this became my path.

Even though I didn’t feel some sort of special calling; even though there was no person, situation, incident, etc. in my life that particularly compelled me to dive into this realm, I’m so very thankful that this did indeed become my path. It’s been truly rewarding on many levels, and I hope you’ll discover the same for you. Getting in the door as a permanent special ed para also led to opportunities for me that I actively sought out in the regular ed environment, as well, like administering tests, tutoring, chaperoning, leading small group discussions and lessons, co-teaching, and so on.

Here’s the general gist about working in special education, either as a sub teacher or sub para: If you have fears, like whether you’re qualified, ready to take on the challenges, afraid of possible physical and other behavioral outbursts, push them out of your mind.

I’ve found when filling in as a substitute para that the permanent staff will almost always change their own schedules for the day to prevent you from working with the most challenging cases. This includes behavioral outbursts, toileting, lifting, etc. Permanent staff usually doesn’t expect you to have to work with these types of cases. They’re grateful you’re there to help, and they want you to return! And often, it’s in the best interests of the students, as well. They may be more prone to acting out and taking advantage of you because they know you don’t usually work with them, and/or it may be aggravating to them that their usual routine has been interrupted.

Similarly, I’ve found when filling in as a sub teacher in special ed, the permanent paras and other staff will often take care of everything for you. Trust them. Let them lead. They know and understand each student inside and out because they work with them every day.

Now, as a former permanent special ed para myself, I come into each special ed substitute gig, whether teaching or working as a para, mentally prepared and open for anything. I’ve done plenty of toileting, lifting, feeding, and so on in my time. I’m well-versed in Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) and Behavior Intervention Plans (BIPs). I’m familiar and comfortable working with most assistive technologies, etc. So, I tell the permanent staff right away at the beginning of the day, “I’m one of you. I’m here to help in whatever way I can. I’m here to work.” But that’s me. That’s my comfort level. That’s my experience. Even though I offer that invite at the beginning of the day, though, permanent staff will still often decline it for the reasons just mentioned – the most challenging students may simply try to take advantage of the fact that I’m new, and/or it could genuinely aggravate them that they’re working with an unfamiliar face who is interrupting their routine.

As both a sub teacher and sub para in special ed, I’ve enjoyed so much variety and so many meaningful and impactful moments, with both students and staff. On a longer-term assignment I was on, working as a sub para at a high school, I had the opportunity to help a student make a how-to video in his automotive repair class, in which he performed several basic maintenance checks on a vehicle. In this same longer-term role, I worked 1:1 supporting a student in a personal finance class, which was a lot of fun for me, given my business background. I’ve assisted students in math, English, social studies, gym, music, and science classes. I’ve led small group reading lesson sessions. I've done skills testing. I helped a high school student develop a marketing plan for a food truck business he created for his marketing class. Again, a lot of fun for me. Working in special ed offers a lot of variety and opportunity, along with being intrinsically rewarding by its very nature. I’m about to begin the 2022-2023 school year in a long-term sub teaching role in special ed at the elementary level, and I’m really looking forward to it.

Different strategies you can use for subbing

There are several strategies you can employ for managing your work and overall experience as a substitute.

To book gigs in advance, or take it day-by-day?

I struggle with this one, often going back and forth debating in my mind. There are benefits and drawbacks to both. However, I usually fall on the side of booking in advance. I work in multiple school districts, and I need to work consistently for financial reasons. It’s comforting to know, then, that my calendar is booked solid far in advance. The downside to this, though, is that, by having gigs booked in advance, the booking system will not allow me to see what other opportunities might be available on any given day. Perhaps a higher-paying gig, and/or one closer to home, and/or a school I already know and like is available, but I won’t know this if I’m already booked in advance. This is where taking the day-by-day approach has its perks. The downside to taking one day at a time, however, is that you may not have an available gig to go to on any given day. If you need to work for the income, this can deliver a blow to your finances. You’ll also need to be up by 5:30am-6am every day to start checking the system and your phone. Only you can decide on the strategy that makes the most sense to you.

Many districts, or narrow it down to one or two?

This is another decision that only you can make, based on what you feel is best for you. Casting a wider net ensures that there is virtually no shortage of available work opportunities. On the other hand, if you’ve discovered a couple schools/districts that you really enjoy, then you may miss out on seeing gigs at those schools/in those districts. Narrowing the scope (the number of districts you’re open to) can help with this, but on the other hand, the pickings may become slim and dry spells (streaks with no available work) may occur.

When I started subbing again back in mid-February, I began with a wide net approach. I was opened to working in five or six districts. I soon began to realize, however, that I had discovered my “favorites” when it came to schools and districts, so I decided to cut that number in half by the end of April. I realized that there were schools and districts I wasn’t visiting at all. No offense to them. I just found some favorites I really enjoy working at. We’re creatures of habit, and it’s easy to stick to something that you already know is working for you and that you enjoy. I’m sure you will discover your own, too.

Finding your favorites and narrowing your focus also helps with building rapport and establishing networking connections if your goal is to eventually get hired directly by a school/district you enjoy. If you want to remain a sub, rather than getting hired by a school/district directly, then this relationship-building and familiarity with the school/district in question can help you secure preferred sub status – this is where teachers, paraprofessionals, and the school office may reach out to you first because they’ve gotten to know and trust you! I’ve been very blessed to find this happening more and more for me. I receive a lot of inquiries about my availability directly from teachers, paras, and school offices now.

Conclusion and helpful resources

These are indeed unusual times for K-12 education across the country right now. It’s a strange climate. There are major staffing shortages in both schools and among the substitute ranks, and so working subs currently have quite an advantage. This is a high-in-demand field to be in right now, one in which pay and other incentives among districts and schools are really starting to get competitive.

If you’re interested in learning more about subbing, start by contacting schools in your area to see what their hiring process is and to get some general direction on next steps, like the state licensing process. Look into whatever substitute staffing services, if any, service the schools in your area, like TOC and Edustaff. They can help you begin looking into the state licensing process and give you general direction on where to go next, as well. While you’re beginning to investigate all of this, begin reflecting on these key questions in mind that we raised earlier:

What is your background? What’s your story? What are your own unique experiences, talents and skillsets, etc. that you can bring to the table to benefit students in ways that are meaningful and impactful for both the students and you?

As for training and other learning opportunities, there are plenty of wonderful resources out there that can help you build new or strengthen existing skills. You can buy affordable courses on a variety of K-12 education subjects, including special education topics, on I love Udemy, and you can read my review of this awesome learning platform here. I fulfilled my substitute teacher training course requirement as part of my state license application through You can come across many different resources with a few simple YouTube and/or Google searches, like this article on, “Ideas for Substitute Teachers With No Lesson Plans,” or this piece on, “50 Tips, Tricks, and Ideas for Substitute Teachers.” The substitute staffing agencies, if you end up working for them, offer a rich variety of both required and voluntary training videos, webinars, in-person workshops, and so on. But perhaps the best advice I can leave you with here when it comes to training, is that you simply need to dive in. Learn by doing. Ask questions, try out different grade levels, try out both reg ed and special ed, etc. Best of luck to you and thank you for wanting to serve our children, families, communities, and country in this very special way!

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