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Colleen Burkett-Christopher explains what it takes to become a substitute teacher.

First please tell me what you do.

I’m a substitute teacher. I ensure continuity of education in a classroom when the permanent teacher is absent. I do this by following a prepared lesson plan and providing a sense of routine so students aren’t thrown off by their teacher’s absence.

How did you happen into this line of work?

I have been a life-long educator. From my college major, comparative literature, it was a no-brainer to veer toward teaching. I taught a few years in middle school then a few years in the area of adult learning strategies for corporations and the military. Then, I changed careers and became a licensed marriage and family therapist for 15 years. Then, I changed careers again to create and direct a successful tutoring and test prep business for 15 years. The recession was tough on the business so we sadly closed our doors in 2008. The few months between each career change, I substitute taught, first in the San Diego Unified School District and now in the North Coastal Substitute Consortium, which includes five districts.

Talk to me about the particular perks of substitute teaching.

Substitute teaching, though not a very lucrative job, has some great advantages that a full-time teaching job does not. When I come home from a busy teaching day, I have no papers to grade, no lesson plans to prepare, no emails to answer from parents who may or may not like what I’m doing, no committees to sit on, research to conduct, grants to write, or preparation for the next day. I’m not too tired to go to yoga or meet a friend for coffee.

Substitutes keep their own hours and usually work as much as they want. There is more demand for substitutes now than ever before. Teachers aren’t just absent for health reasons; they are also required to go to in-service trainings, sit on committees, and attend off-campus activities.

And what about the challenges?

The practical challenges include deciphering sometimes sketchy lesson plans, finding all the texts and materials needed, teaching from an unfamiliar textbook, managing a classroom full of students who sometimes want to play “Sink the Sub,” navigating a new school, and facing technology that differs from one district to another. Usually the students are the best resources to solve these problems.

Emotional challenges are more disturbing. It is difficult to face a totally new group of people every day. Permanent staff may be too busy to help or even say hello. Subs are seen as temporary so why bother being nice? (Not all teachers but unfortunately too many.) Professional substitute teachers experience an overall lack of respect, which is usually not deserved and needs to be changed.

Financial challenges can also be discouraging: low pay, no benefits and, at the start of the year, subs who have worked for a district for any number of years go back to the base pay.

What are the first steps to becoming a substitute teacher here in San Diego?

The first thing is to figure out where you want to teach. Substitutes tend to teach in a convenient part of town or in a district that pays the most. Obviously, with current gas prices, most are choosing convenience. Then, you have to figure out whether a district is hiring or only hiring in a certain field, such as special education. This can be determined by a call to the district office. The best website for hiring in California is Edjoin.org where open positions are listed by county. This is a free site but they don’t list all substitute positions.

What next?

School Districts in California require substitute teachers to be fully credentialed. However, the following temporary permits are worth exploring: 30-Day substitute teaching permit; emergency substitute teaching permit for prospective teachers; emergency career substitute teaching permit; emergency vocational education 30-Day substitute teaching permit. More information about those can be found at ctc.gov/credentials/creds/substitute.html.

Once you’ve made a decision regarding your preferred districts, and you have the credential in hand or in process, it’s time to apply. District websites usually have online applications or they refer candidates to Edjoin to apply on line.

What is the pay?

The districts I work for pay $90 to $110 per day. I think that is standard in this area. Los Angeles district pays $173 plus, Oceanside $140 plus. I recommend Google searching “substitute pay + district name.”

It seems to me that it takes a special kind of person to be a substitute teacher. What do you think a person should know about himself or herself before starting out on this path?

The successful substitute teacher knows his or her limitations, respects and responds to those limitations and does it in spite of a need to “look good.” It is critical that a substitute be prepared, flexible, and relaxed. A keen sense of humor and the ability to avoid taking anything personally helps. Also, no one walks into this job knowing how to do it. Patience and self love are crucial in terms of allowing oneself room for growth, which we all know comes from making mistakes. Finally, we have to know when to ask for help. One of the hardest things to do for people who are supposed to know how to do it all.

Any particular kind of person who should avoid this work altogether?

An individual with an overly high need to control would have a very painful experience substituting, because it is job where flexibility is vital. Sweating the small stuff can be crippling.

Do you have any additional tips for those interested in substitute teaching as a job option?

Have a support system. My best support comes from people who will first let me vent and then help me laugh.

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