An Honest Look At My Life & Finances As A Substitute Teacher

It’s 7:15 AM on Monday, and I’m trying to put on mascara while chewing on a piece of toast that’s hanging out of my mouth. Crumbs fall on the bathroom counter. I’ll worry about them later — I’ve got to leave now if I want to make it in time to meet my 3rd grade class by 8:00 AM.

You see, I didn’t know where I was going to be working until 7:08 AM that morning. Actually, I didn’t know I was going to be working at all until I was drinking my morning coffee, when my phone buzzed to alert me of a call out at an elementary school 13 miles away.

This anecdote doesn’t represent every morning, but it does illustrate many of them. I am a substitute teacher, which means no two working days are ever the same. Some days I’m teaching 5th graders how to multiply decimals, and other days I’m watching the same episode of Myth Busters six times for a high school physics class. Some days my commute is within reasonable biking distance, and other days it is a 30-minute drive. Some days I know my schedule for the next two weeks, and other days I don’t know until I’m greeted by an automated 5:30 AM wake-up call informing me of a job vacancy. It’s the exact kind of instability that makes some people cringe, but I’ve managed to find the whole process enjoyable.

Now, allow me to be completely honest about how I got here:

When I moved home last year, I had only two goals: 1. Build up an emergency fund 2. Focus on my writing. All my post-college jobs had been some variation of food service, and my mom insisted it was time for me to work a job with “daytime hours.” She repeatedly tried to push me into teacher credentialing programs, citing the increasing demand for educators, the great benefits, etc. but each time, I politely refused. I am of the belief that only those who truly love to teach should do it full time, and I had minimal interest in working as a teacher. “Well, why don’t you sub first?” she asked. “You might actually change your mind!” I agreed, and decided to take on a substitute teaching position in the local school district.

The process was straightforward — every state has its own requirements for substitute teaching. I live in California, so the basic requirements to work as a public school substitute are to have a Bachelor’s Degree, pass the California Basic Educational Skills Test, and pay the $100 application fee to acquire my substitute credential.

The stereotype that substitute teachers are burnouts who get paid to sit on their asses and “babysit” is false. Now, I will be completely honest, and say some days are much easier than others. For example, If I work at a high school during a testing day, my job is going to be quite simple, albeit very dull. On the other hand, when I work with the younger elementary school grades, 99% of the time I am teaching according to whatever was scheduled that day. If the lesson plan says they’re supposed to learn about photosynthesis for the first time, then yes, I am the one who gets to explain it to them. This is one of the more fun parts of my job, because I get to share these special moments with a new set of students every day.

But let’s get on to the finances. I happen to work for a well-funded public school district in California, so my pay is slightly higher than the national average. In some states, the rate goes as low as $65 per day, and in others, upwards of $200. The average national salary for day-to-day substitute teachers is $30,900, with an average hourly rate of $14.86 (Of course, this number doesn’t consider certain factors, like varying demand, as well as the lack of available jobs during the summer). Currently, I am paid $160 per day every time I work, regardless of grade level or school location. If I work anything less than a full day, say, for a teacher who has mid-day meetings, I am paid $35 per hour.

If I work the maximum amount of days I can each month (assuming there are no three-day-weekends), I bring home $3,300 before taxes. Not too bad. In the county I live in, the average rent for a two-bedroom is $1400 a month. I have lived off less money before, so in theory, with a roommate, it is enough for me to get by. If we take the average nine-month school year, that’s comes out to $29,700 for the whole year.

However, that’s still assuming I work the maximum amount of days possible. While I am fortunate to get steady work now, this wasn’t always the case. My first paycheck for an entire month was only $500, because I was only asked to work four times that month. I am very lucky to have lived at home when this happened, because I am not sure what I would have done if I started this job while on my own. Every single one of my Sundays for the first few months I subbed consisted of me refreshing an online database of scheduled job vacancies, hoping some teacher was scheduled for a multi-day conference. If I didn’t get one on Sunday, I would have to rely on the last-minute call outs to get work. It wasn’t until I built a solid reputation at the schools I worked at, with various teachers I worked for, that I was able to ensure consistent work for myself.

In addition, being paid monthly rather than bi-weekly means I need to budget accordingly, because I never know how many working days will be on my next check. This is especially true during the summer months, when my only options for work are at year-round schools.

When I compare the money to what I made waitressing, it is about equal. But my job is much less labor-intensive, plus I get the bonus of having nights and weekends off for the first time in my life. I also no longer deal with angry people…Okay, that’s a lie, I do. But the angry people I deal with now are usually under age 13, and their concerns are resolved in ways that are much simpler than having to call your manager, and begging them to offer a free meal to someone so you don’t lose tip money.

Substitute teaching isn’t a permanent career for me, but I feel weird calling it a “side hustle” given its regular day-time schedule, and given the fact that this is something I do for more than part-time hours. If you were wondering: no, I still don’t plan on pursuing teaching. But I hope to do everything I can to be there for the full-time teachers who need a day off while I’m here, and make a little bit of money along the way.

Savanna is a freelance writer in Northern California whose hobbies include all things theater and dog-related. She hopes for a world where avocados will be included in the price of her entrée and a 12-step program is widely available to people who obsessively collect air miles. Follow her on Twitter here.

Image via Pexels

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  • Summer

    This is quite similar to how my scheduling works as a freelance English teacher for a language school here in Germany. I only have one regular class (I use the term “class” loosely as it’s one guy) each week, anything else is picked up generally with little notice as substitute work. For me, it is very much a side hustle and I don’t love doing it, so for the most part, unless the timing and location of the class is so convenient that I can’t find any reason to justify not accepting it, I often don’t. I make €13 per 45-minute unit, and while classes are generally a minimum of two units so that comes out to €26 for an hour and a half, I still have to get myself there and back. My regular job consists of working from home, which is convenient and relatively flexible, but I have to consider the time that teaching will take me away from my normal stuff. Sometimes it’s worth it to teach, sometimes it isn’t. This was an interesting read, thanks for sharing!

  • lazuliz

    I always wondered how it worked with substitute teachers. Thanks for sharing!