10 Tips for getting Substitute Work

I received an email today asking for some advice on getting substitute work in primary schools. It’s a terrible shame there aren’t enough jobs out there for all qualified teachers but this is the reality for a number of years. Even getting substitute work is becoming difficult with the number of unemployed teachers out there competing for days here and there. This article outlines some ways I think might help to get substitute work if you are looking to get some.

Don’t assume your qualification is enough

As I said above, there are very few jobs out there and lots of people with teaching qualifications. Even now with the rule that all teachers must be registered with the Teaching Council, cutting out people who used to work unqualified, there are still lots of people, especially in certain parts of the country, that are willing to step into the classroom, even for a day. Therefore, you need to make a bit of an impression. There are lots of ways of doing this. Some teachers send in their CV and letter with a little business card or personalise their letter in some way. Being imaginative (but not too crazy) might get you in the door.

Be nice

Some people post off a letter offering substitute work and this often works fine. However, many teachers like to drop into the school. They are usually met by a secretary. Never underestimate the influence this may have. It’s very likely that the principal will ask the person who you’ve met about you. Make sure you present yourself well and, if it’s possible, to try and engage in a friendly conversation so the person gets to know you. Remember many small schools don’t have full time secretaries so you’ll need to choose the right time to go in as most teachers don’t have the time to talk to you during the school day.

Now, once you get into the school, you need to be super nice to everyone. Obviously, there’s no need to act desperate or over-familiar but don’t sit in the staffroom twiddling on your phone or in silence. Most staff will be interested in who you are and will welcome the potential of new conversation in the staffroom.

If at all possible, don’t refuse an offer

Schools have lists of substitutes and if they need one, they usually start at the top of this list and work their way down. If as school offers someone a day’s work and they refuse it, they will move to the next person on my list. If they take the work, they are likely to take your place above you in the list. While this might not happen if you’ve already subbed in the school, if you haven’t, you might not get another call. Think of the long term gain.

Image from http://www.mineshbhindi.com/short-term-pleasure-vs-long-term-purpose/
Image from http://www.mineshbhindi.com/short-term-pleasure-vs-long-term-purpose/

Think about the schools you’re subbing in

If you haven’t secured full-time work, long term substitute work is the next best thing. However, remember that you also need to think even more long term than that. For example, let’s say you are offered a maternity leave position in a school that is not expanding and you are offered 2-3 days a week in a school that is growing from year to year. Which school do you go for? If it were me, I’d take the latter. It is more likely to lead more permanent full-time employment. Sometimes, it’s better to take a short term hit for the prospect of longer term work. Also, try and get work in schools that are expanding or in schools that look like they are going to have jobs in the future. Schools take on a huge risk when they give out permanent jobs so if you are already known to them through substitute work, it’s going to be an advantage over another candidate.

Become the “Number One” sub in your area

Remember many schools use the same substitutes over and over again so you may wish to be that person even for the short term. In my school this year, we used the same teacher for substitute work and she eventually got some longer term sub work in the school as a result. She now has full time work in a school based on her experience and the reference I was able to give her. This teacher started off by answering a random phone number one day at 7:30 in the morning for one day’s sub work and within 6 months had secured a full time job.

Image from http://playlists.net/badges
Image from http://playlists.net/badges


If you can, it’s a good idea to offer to volunteer in a school, where you think you might be able to get paid substitute work. I know many SNAs do this so there’s no reason why teachers looking for work shouldn’t do the same. I know of stories of teachers who started off this way and are now in permanent jobs in schools. While some schools will not be eager to take on volunteers, there are some that will be delighted. The best bet is to offer some Learning Support or to help out in a classroom. If you are already in the school when someone calls in sick, it saves hassle for the principal and this means brownie points and a paid day’s work for you.


There are some counties in Ireland where there are very few substitutes and, therefore, it’s easier to get work. I know of a teacher who moved from Cork for a year and lived with her sister and had substitute work almost every day. This experience got her a full time job back home in Cork within a couple of years. Consider offering your services in schools in counties where there are opportunities. Many permanent teachers travel over an hour everyday for work anyway, and while travel costs can be a burden and possibly not worth the financial implications, in the long term, it might be worth the long drive.

Get into lots of schools

While this might contradict one of the previous points, if you can manage to get yourself into a number of schools, you’ll be known in more schools around the area and there’s a higher chance you’ll be recommended by these schools, thus further broadening your net.

Keep in touch

If you’ve subbed in a school and haven’t heard from them in a while or if you had some longer term work and it’s finished, send a quick email to the principal to let them know you’re available. This has happened in my school on a few occasions and I surprised myself by how quickly I dialled that teacher’s number.

New Zealand Rotary Telephone

Don’t get too obsessed with the Dip

Many teachers want to get their probation year out of the way as soon as possible – preferably straight away after teacher training. I did my training in the UK and had to do the Irish exams before I was able to do my dip. I was lucky at the time that there were jobs available and got a year of teaching after college. After that year (and passing the Irish) I did my dip in my second year. I feel I was a much better teacher in my second year and found the dip to be much less stressful. There are so many things that teacher training doesn’t prepare you for and I found that first year got all that stuff out of the way so I could focus on the dip in my second year. Similarly, if you can get lots of subbing in your first years and get used to working in different school environments, your dip year might be easier.

As usual, these ten tips are only my opinion and I’m sure there are people who will disagree with them or have some better ideas. If you have any thoughts, please feel free to comment. We all know there are situations out of our control such as parish pump politics and the who-you-know culture of Ireland. However, I got through it as did thousands of other teachers and opportunities will always be there if you are lucky and make good choices. Of all the tips I’ve given above, I would recommend looking at long term prospects in schools and take those opportunities even if they aren’t as immediately attractive.

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