Last year, I heard about the desperate need for emergency substitutes in public schools, so I decided to give it a try. I loved it, and I want to share my experience with others. Here are the highlights: 

It feels great to help out. Serving as an emergency substitute makes a huge difference to teachers and principals. When there are not enough substitutes, principals and staff have to put their regular responsibilities aside to cover, or classrooms get merged into mega-classes. This can work now and then, but when it happens every day, schools break down. We need substitutes to prevent staff burnout and allow schools to function. 

You make a difference to kids, too, just by being a caring adult in the room. It’s stressful for kids when their regular teacher is absent. If you are there waiting for them, with a calm and positive attitude, that goes a long way toward reducing the stress.    

As an emergency substitute, you choose which days you want to work and which jobs you want to accept. You can accept jobs in advance — or at the last minute. There’s always a need to cover for teachers who are out sick or have family emergencies. I accepted just four one-day substitute teaching assignments over three months last year because I had other responsibilities. I enjoyed those four days, and the teachers were grateful.    

You can leave the job behind at the end of the day. Regular teachers have to prepare lesson plans and grade homework. Short-term substitutes can leave the job behind when the bell rings.  

You learn new things. Substitutes can work across subject matters and grades, from elementary to high school. I covered high school math and biology classes, middle school science, and elementary school music. I learned fun new science and math facts. I can’t say that I got any better on the violin.    

The pay is surprisingly good for gig work. This wasn’t my reason for becoming a substitute — but Berkeley Unified School District pays over $200 per day for substitutes.        

What does it take to become a public school substitute teacher? There are shortcuts if you already have a teaching credential or are working on a credential. For the rest of us, you need to have a B.A. and a lot of patience.  

Here’s what’s involved: First, you need to get an emergency substitute permit from the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CTC). This allows you to work up to 30 days in a single classroom (there are other requirements for long-term substitutes).  The website is not user-friendly (a subject for another article), and they have a two-month processing backlog, which is about how long it took me to get my permit. I had to fill in forms, get fingerprinted, and take online “CBEST” tests to show I could read, write and do arithmetic. 

After you get your permit, you need to apply to specific school districts. I applied to the Berkeley Unified School District. After a second round of fingerprinting and about 30 electronic signatures on as many forms, I was accepted onto the roster and received a log-in for the jobs board. After that, it was up to me to decide what assignments to accept.  

There were a lot of hoops to go through to become a substitute — and it was worth it.  As the new school year begins, if you like to spend time with kids, I encourage you to consider joining me. 

Leo Levenson is a Berkeley resident who occasionally works as a substitute teacher for the Berkeley Unified School District.

Leo Levenson is a Berkeley resident who occasionally works as a substitute teacher for Berkeley Unified School District.