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Substitute Teachers

While we’ve spent significant time and attention improving teaching and learning in America’s public schools over the past 30 years, there is one part of the education equation that is rarely addressed: The important role that substitute teachers play in America’s public schools.
Published: 06/2020 Last Updated: 06/2020

Substitute teachers serve as educational bridges 

While we’ve spent significant time and attention on improving teaching and learning in America’s public schools over the past 25 years, there is one part of the education equation that is rarely addressed: The important role that substitute teachers play in America’s public schools. 

The National Education Association recognizes that effective substitute teachers make a significant contribution to the school program. They serve as educational bridges when regular classroom teachers are absent. The Association urges school districts to employ highly qualified individuals to fulfill the critical role of substitute teachers. 

What are the qualifications needed to become a substitute teacher? 

The reality is that it depends on where you live. According to the Substitute Teaching Institute: 

  • 27 states (Ala., Ariz., Colo., Del., Hawaii, Ill., Ind., Iowa, Kans., Ky., Mich., Minn., Miss., Mo., Neb., Nev., N.M., N.D., Ohio, Okla., Ore., Pa., R.I., Wash., W. Va., Wis., and Wyo.) and D.C. offer some sort of license, permit, authorization, or certificate for substitute teachers. A few states offer more than a single type of substitute permit, which varies according to the minimum education requirements.  

  • 19 states (Ariz., Calif., Conn., Del., Hawaii, Iowa, Kan., Ky., Minn., Miss., Neb., N.D., Ohio, Ore., Pa., R.I., Wash., W.Va., and Wis.) and D.C. note that a bachelor’s degree is needed—but also offer waivers or ways to get around the requirement. States that do not require a college degree sometimes specify a minimum number of college credits hours. 

  • 6 states (Ala., Colo., N.M., Utah, Vt., and Va.) specifically note that a high school diploma (or its equivalent) is required. 

  • 17 states (Ala., Ariz., Calif., Hawaii, Idaho, Ind., Maine, Mich., Mo., Neb., Nev., N.M., N.D., Pa., Va., W.Va., and Wyo.) plus D.C. mandate that applicants pass a criminal background and/or fingerprint check 

  • 4 states (Hawaii, Va., W.Va., and Wis.) require some minimal training or orientation 

  • Rhode Island requires districts to advertise for certified substitute teachers 

  • Wyoming says those wishing to earn a substitute teacher permit must take a U.S./Wyoming constitution or equivalency test 

  • New Mexico says substitute teachers must be 18 years of age to work in a K-8 environment and 21 years of age for grades 9-12; Virginia says that 18 is the minimum age but that age 21 is preferred. 

What is needed to professionalize substitute teaching? 

Several issues that must be addressed in order to professionalize substitute teaching and make it more appealing to those with at least a college degree. Among them: 

  • Salaries and benefits. In many places, rural districts especially, salaries are low, hovering just above minimum wage. In urban areas, the rates tend to be somewhat higher. Some districts pay substitute teachers based on their qualifications. 

  • Professional training and development. Substitute educators need more opportunities to build their instructional practice and classroom management skills. 

  • Support from principals and others in the school. Substitutes can do a better job when they are considered part of the educational team rather than being isolated or invisible in the school. 

  • Communication between substitutes and administrators as well as with the regular classroom teacher.  

  •  Full, unbiased consideration for contractual employment. 

How can states improve the quality of substitute teaching? 

NEA believes that every state should have policies in place on the employment of substitute teachers. States  should give priority to those holding a teaching credential, although all substitutes should be required to hold a bachelor’s degree.  Districts should be required to provide pre-employment training to all substitute teachers. 

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The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.