Want to earn some travel funds without committing to a long term job — or even one you need to do everyday? Try substitute teaching. Here’s how.
Excluding the trust-fund kiddies, most of us long-term travelers have to fund our vagabonding ourselves. Good travelers are always on the lookout for jobs that help make up a flexible and useful travel work set. It’s not always possible to find work that allows you to rapidly build funds on the road, so from time to time we find ourselves in our home countries, following the classic travel mantra of “work in the rich countries, travel in the cheaper ones”. There’s also an added benefit to working in your home country: the ability to visit friends and family while simultaneously preparing for the next stint abroad. It’s therefore very helpful to have a few go-to work options available for when you do find yourself in-patria.
Although travelers are always on the lookout for job options, for some reason, substitute teaching rarely comes up in conversation. It’s a shame, too, for in many ways, subbing is nearly ideal work for vagabonds.
First of all, the schedule follows the spring and fall semesters, making it one of the few readily available “shoulder-season” jobs outside of agriculture, restaurants, retail and office work. Teaching, for some, is a much more interesting way to spend time than flipping burgers or filing papers. Unlike other short-term jobs, you won’t have to worry about working on holidays. If the kids don’t have school, you don’t either. More than one vagabond has traveled thousands of miles to spend the holidays at home, only to find themselves restocking shelves on Christmas morning for minimum wage. If you’re doing short-term subbing (also called “emergency substituting” — acting as a replacement for a sick teacher) you don’t even have to deal with many of the normal teaching hassles. You won’t write any lesson plans or have to worry about how your class performs on standardized tests and whatnot. Your job is essentially to show up, teach the planned material, and keep the kids from hurting themselves. When the school bell rings your day is over and the evening is yours.
On the other hand, the pay isn’t anything to brag about, although it’s usually at least a few bucks over minimum wage. You’ll need some sort of cheap-living strategy to save any real money. Staying with parents or friends is perfect, and in the right climate you could always live in a van or a tent. Most schools serve two cheap hot meals a day and have showers in the gym, so the school system is a strangely good environment to live partially off-grid. It’s probably best to avoid informing your students and colleagues of this strategy, though — few parents will be happy to hear from little Timmy about the homeless person teaching his class.
More Money or More Freedom: The Two Types of Subbing
There are basically two types of substitute teaching: long-term subs and emergency subs. Long-term subs take over another teacher’s classroom for weeks or months at a time. It’s essentially regular teaching work and has a higher pay rate than emergency subbing — but you’re also responsible for lesson plans, report cards and the works. It’s a temporary real teaching gig. You’ll know your start date and have a good idea of the end date. It also pays a higher rate than the other type of subbing.
Emergency subbing is a bit more irregular, but much better suited for travelers. For this job, there is absolutely no advanced planning needed. With emergency subbing, you will typically get a phone call the night before or the morning-of, asking if you are available to work. Although this means you won’t have paying work every day, it is actually a tremendous perk. You can make any plans you want without needing approval from a boss: if they call and you don’t want it, just say no. If you want to take a four-day weekend, you can. If you find a fifty-dollar flight to Guatemala leaving Tuesday, you can hop that plane without injury. No two-week notice, no breaking contracts, no forms to sign. It is best to send the school district an email to take you off the call list — but you can do that when your plane lands.
For both of the jobs, entry is pretty easy if you have citizenship and a bachelor’s degree. An added perk: even if you’re not working every day, you are still officially on contract with the school district for that time period. It’s a decent resume booster for former or aspiring teachers abroad.
How to Get the Gig
Required qualifications vary, but most states in the US keep it simple. If you’re a US citizen with a clean criminal record and a bachelor’s degree, you’re nearly there. You’ll probably need to do some kind of short course to be certified as a sub. These can usually be completed in one or two weekends, occasionally with a few hours of online work. You’ll pay a small fee for the training and registration, and you’re done. After meeting the qualifications, you’ll get put into the system as an available teacher.
Work is typically distributed in one of two ways, and it is essential to know how your district operates. The first style is linear: the school goes through a list of available subs, calling them in order. If the fifth substitute on the list says yes, the next time a sub is needed the calling order begins with the sixth person. Everyone gets called equally in the rotation, which means you’ll start receiving calls quickly.
The other style makes it slightly more challenging to get your foot in the door. Some school districts allow teachers or administrators to select which subs to call and which to ignore. This is beneficial to schools because they can avoid any bad substitutes — but it makes it harder for new subs to find work. If this is how your district operates, spend a few days pounding the pavement. Visit all the schools in the district (there are never more than a few) and get in a little face-time. Show up in business-casual dress, cover letter and resume in hand, and schmooze a little.
The secret is to chat up the secretaries first and then meet the principal. The principal’s favor will be a huge benefit to you, but in the end the school is still a bureaucracy. Like most bureaucracies, the secretaries are the ones who really run the place: they make the phone calls and if they love you everything is golden. In my view it helps to put your international experience on your resume and also the cover letter if it can be done well (i.e., don’t come off as unreliable or a gadabout). Being seen as well-traveled makes you stand out as an interesting person and provides a conversation topic. You’ll be much more memorable during phone-call time — just make sure they remember you as mature and worldly, rather than a foolhardy showoff.
All things considered, substitute teaching can be a useful skill for you vagabond toolkit. Combined with a few other options for work, subbing can help you keep your wheels in motion.