Remember substitute teachers? Your teacher was out sick, and without warning a stranger showed up in front of the class. It was pretty easy to tell if they were a good substitute teacher or a bad one. You were happy to get bad substitute teachers, because they didn’t make you work. On the other hand, the “bad” substitute teachers couldn’t control the class very well either, which usually meant the class soon erupted into chaos.

What makes a good substitute teacher? The ability to walk into a classroom cold and still think on your feet. Someone who knows how to engage the class and help them get their work done without coming off as bossy or overbearing. A good substitute teacher understands that while the kids may hoping for a “day off”, at the same time, they need help completing their assignments and keeping on task so as not to fall behind.

This is more challenging that it sounds. In years gone by, authority figures were obeyed without question. Teachers had the paddle hanging in the principal’s office to serve as a backup when unruly students acted up. Nothing was worse than getting sent to the principal’s office! Today, however, corporal punishment is practiced in only a few states, and kids are more assertive, independent and sometimes openly defiant. A teacher who physically restrains an emotionally distraught student may find herself facing a parent’s angry lawsuit if all of the school’s policies and procedures for such situations haven’t been followed to the letter.

But before a substitute teacher even enters the classroom, he or she will have had to jump through a number of hoops. Each state has different requirements for becoming a substitute. Some states require a bachelor’s degree; others require only a high school diploma. Most require health examinations, drug testing, criminal background checks and fingerprinting.

Perhaps the worst challenge facing substitute teachers is economic: low pay, lack of training and no benefits. It’s hard to understand how a nation with so much wealth can place such a low value on those who educate and care for its greatest resource: its children. Most substitute teachers on average probably earn less than the assistant manager at your local fast food place.

Hard work for low pay: this is the lot of substitute teachers, who provide a valuable and much-needed service to our schools. Like teachers, there is a shortage of substitutes. Some states are trying to counteract this shortage by hiring full time substitutes, or by offering bonuses to those who stay longer than a certain period of time.

It’s not an easy job, and even if there’s training, it helps to have background working with children and to feel comfortable working with them. Being a substitute is a good way to learn about teaching, or otherwise working with children, from Pre-K up to high school age. It’s a good way to get exposure and experience if you have the goal of one day becoming a teacher. If you can successfully meet all of the challenges of substitute teaching, it can be a rewarding career or stepping-stone to the venerable profession of teaching.