Thinking of Becoming a Substitute Teacher? Read This!


Written by Bronwyn

Have you ever considered becoming a substitute teacher?

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When you hear the term substitute teacher, what comes to mind? Great money? Reduced responsibility? Increased stress? Out-of-the-loop? Glorified babysitter?

There are heaps of misconceptions floating around the community about the roles of our relief teachers.

As a seasoned substitute teacher, I’m here to dispel some of the myths surrounding relief teaching and give you the lowdown on why casual teaching could be a great career step for you.

Defining Substitute Teaching

Substitute teachers are employed by schools on a casual basis to temporarily replace absent teachers. They are trained, registered, professional teachers who deliver the curriculum to students.

We’re so much more than a body in a room or a babysitter. We are real teachers.

Who Are Substitute Teachers?

relief teaching relief teacher resources download planning

Substitute teachers come from diverse backgrounds and bring varied experiences to their work.

New Teachers

Many substitute teachers are at the beginning of their teaching careers. Education graduates enter the realm of substitute teaching:

  • to gain further practical classroom teaching experience
  • to earn income while they apply for classroom teaching positions
  • to enable themselves to travel
  • to work in different settings (varied year levels and different school locations).

Experienced Teachers

Some experienced teachers decide to become substitute teachers because of a change in personal circumstances. I found myself in this category when, after several years of classroom teaching, I had my first child and returned to the workforce on a part-time basis.

Substitute teaching afforded me the flexibility required when parenting a young baby, whilst enabling me to earn an income once my maternity leave had ended.

I loved this experience so much that I ended up relief teaching after having each of my four children, before returning to the classroom when they were around twelve months old.

Veteran Teachers

Experienced teachers approaching retirement also decide to become relief teachers. This allows them to continue to practice teaching whilst:

  • travelling
  • spending time with family (grandchildren and partners)
  • volunteering in the community
  • fulfilling their love of teaching when they no longer feel adequately energized to maintain a full-time role.

What Skills Do Substitute Teachers Possess?

The role of the substitute teacher is very complex and specific, requiring a skill set different to classroom teachers and specialist teachers permanently attached to schools. They are certainly not trying to be given an easy ride.

How to become a relief teacher relief teaching should I

Substitute teachers are able to teach all year levels in their sector. Sometimes, they’ll be booked for a certain grade and then changed at the last minute to another one. Having a solid understanding of the curriculum is essential. Being able to pick up where a teacher left off and seamlessly continue to teach the current class learnings is imperative.

Substitute teachers are responsible for keeping their professional knowledge and pedagogical practice current. They attend professional development courses just like classroom teachers, although often they must pay for these themselves, and complete training on weekends

Effective substitute teachers are highly organised, punctual and reliable. They exhibit flexibility and cope well with working in unfamiliar environments.

Some days, I’d receive a booking call at 8.15am for an 8.45am start. As a parent of young children, I had to be highly organised to accept late bookings. Adaptability and a positive mindset are what assure a relief teacher of repeat bookings.

But going with the flow isn’t the only thing you have to focus on.

Challenges For Substitute Teachers

Student Behavior

Turning up to a classroom full of unfamiliar little faces presents its own challenges.  Particularly if their teacher is on unplanned leave, and it’s a surprise for them to see a different adult opening the classroom door. Students can feel unsettled and their behavior will reflect this.  They may be anxious, unusually rowdy, or just lacking focus in the absence of their regular teacher. You’ll quickly develop a toolkit of behavior management strategies to rely on. My advice?

Get a grip.

It sounds harsh, right? But if I can tell you one thing it’s that you’ve got the first fifteen minutes of a relief day to really set the tone for the rest of the day. Make your expectations explicit and exude confidence. If you’re not feeling confident, fake it ’til you make it. Often all it takes to calm an unsettled class is for them to feel comfortable and pick up on your vibe – make it professional and composed.

These resources are great to have in your bag to establish expectations and reward positive behavior:

No Planning?!

Another challenge facing substitute teachers is when, for whatever reason, the classroom teacher hasn’t left any planning. Teachers will often provide very detailed information about what they’d like taught in their absence, in order to keep their students on track. But sometimes, things crop up and teachers can’t leave plans. Our Substitute Teaching Full Day Plans are perfect to have up your sleeve (or saved on your USB!) for times like this.

Great Money or Danger Money?

Substitute teachers – not as cashed up as people think. via GIPHY

When I was substitute teaching, I felt like I was continually justifying my income to strangers. When I confessed to being a substitute teacher, both teachers and non-teachers would say “Great money, isn’t it?”.

Substitute teachers earn a casual wage, which is reflective of their work conditions. Due to different enterprise bargaining agreements, relief teacher wages vary by state. Substitute teachers are paid an hourly rate for the number of hours worked. There are times of the year when income is sparse (beginning of year) to non-existent (term holidays). Substitute teachers have no entitlement to sick leave, so on the balance of things, their incomes are comparable to classroom teachers.

Author Gabbie Stroud shared an anecdote about a conversation with a friend in her book, Teacher:

‘It’s like they’re paying you danger money…It’s like you walk into a hostage situation every day. And you’re the hostage.’

The Starfish Story and How it Relates to Substitute Teachers

Starfish Story Relief Teaching Student Kids Story Love

At the recent Substitute Teachers Conference held in Australia, educational technologist Chris Betcher, spoke to teachers about how they can have an impact on children’s lives on a day-by-day basis. He used Loren Eiseley’s well-known starfish story to illustrate how, even with limited time, substitute teachers have the opportunity to positively affect their students. Make a difference.


If you do decide to go down the substitute teaching road, I wish you all the very best!

I have such fond memories of my substitute teaching years, and I would encourage any teacher looking for a change, to give it a go!

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