Many students at Berkeley High School see substitute teachers around campus on a daily basis. Substitute teachers are a vital part of ensuring that teachers are able to take days off when they need to, and students are able to continue their learning, even in the absence of a teacher. Yet for such a critical job, substitute teachers in California only make an average of $41,650 per year, according to Business Insider. So what’s it like being a substitute teacher and why do people become substitute teachers?
Timothy Finnigan, a substitute teacher at BHS, was drawn to the profession for different reasons. Fresh out of college after completing his undergraduate studies, Finnigan wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. “Some people hear their vocation as a clarion call, mine was more of a muffled trumpet under a damp blanket,” he said. Wondering what “success” meant or looked like, he attended many seminars and read countless books by people who “made a living out of being great teachers,” which inspired him to become a substitute teacher. He wanted to escape the grind that he saw most of his peers engaged in and enjoyed taking advantage of the flexibility of the position to pursue his passions, ranging from Ayurveda to skiing and sailing.
In fact, many substitutes seem to appreciate the flexibility of the job since they can choose when or where they work. Many can travel and be a substitute at the same time, or simply just take a trip and work when they get back. “I’m going to be traveling in a week from now so if I go away for a week or 10 days I don’t need to tell anybody or make arrangements,” said Stephen Hopkins, who’s been a Berkeley Unified School District substitute for over 10 years. Hopkins first started subbing because he needed to earn extra money to fund his travels, but he found that he enjoys it. He used to work in construction, and said, “Since teaching was a second profession, I not only wasn’t burned out, but every year I liked it more than the year before.”
As a former full-time teacher, Christine Mytko also values the freedom being a substitute teacher gives her. After leaving the school she taught at for 15 years, she liked the idea of being able to slow down and explore other things. She’s also interested in being able to sub at different schools and grade levels to find which students she wants to teach next.
Being a substitute teacher can come with challenges, such as a lack of benefits and no paid time off. It can also be isolating since substitutes move around a lot and work with different people every day, making it hard to feel part of the community. For Finnegan, this was not something he realized until he became a student teacher at BHS and saw the relationships students had with their teachers as well as the friendships between staff members.
While Mytko is yet to sub in BUSD, she predicts it “being a growth curve” for her as she will be working with people she has never met before. Yet from her experience, she knows that “kids mostly want adults to be fair and keep things real”.
This is a sentiment that Hopkins echoes. “There are many students in different places who see substitute day as a day to mess around and cause issues, and that’s never any fun,” said Hopkins. “But then I have a student like today who came up and said ‘I think I’ve known you all my life you subbed for me way back in elementary school’ and here he is, a senior.”