An Inside Job: The Subversive Ministry of Substitute Teaching

October 1st, 2009

What if someone offered you an opportunity to get deep into your local secondary schools? Not just a monthly lunch or after-school ball game, but from 8 AM to 2:30 PM.? What if they paid you to hang out with the same students with whom you voluntarily spend your time? Then imagine being a substitute teacher.

“Is it good to be alive?” I asked the 22 students just after the bell rang.

The answers were varied, but the responses came quickly—no, yes, school sucks, etc. I pointed to the board.

“My name is Mr. Collison, not Collision. I’ll be your substitute today.”

“Can I call you Mike,” a wise guy asks.

“Only if you know me in my other life,” I retort.

“Are you that guy from that youth group or church or something,” a girl asks.

“Yeah, I work at Orchard Hill, but I love to spend my day off here,” I reply sarcastically (laughter erupts).

“My friend went on one of your trips,” the girl continues.

“Which one? We do lots of trips. Caving? Ministry tour? Work trip? Homeless outreach?”

And with little effort, I have provoked a large-group discussion that any youth worker would be thrilled to guide. I’ve come to believe that substitute teaching is one of the most powerful elements of my youth ministry. Armed with a K-12 music education degree, I began subbing the fall after graduation. My first youth ministry job was part-time, and I subbed 3-5 days a week in order to eat. I didn’t have the luxury of picking the ages, schools, and classes I wanted. Today, I sub a few times a month, only 6-12th grades. I know the teachers and routines well enough to know which classes will put me in contact with specific students.

To sub in Michigan, one must have 90+ credit hours from a four-year school. I enter our local public schools, not as a visitor, but as a fingerprinted temporary employee with a key for the day. There are many great reasons for any youth worker to consider subbing. Here are a few.

I get to see my students and their friends in a school environment.This can be a strange dynamic at first. I enter a separate world far from the youth room. As I pass lockers, I get to observe student friendship groups and cliques in a real-life setting. I overhear uncensored conversations and see couples in action. My kids will often introduce me to their friends. Once my kids know I’m in the building, they often stop by my homeroom occasionally asking for passes.

I stay up on current events and gossip. Through announcements and calendars, I know what’s going on. Often I get free advertising for our ministry as curious kids ask what I do for a living. I gladly explain, highlighting upcoming events and projects. I keep flyers in my backpack for the seriously interested. DISCLAIMER: Don’t proselytize your way out of a job. Let common sense and wisdom guide you. While I don’t initiate direct promotion, I always respond to student inquiries.

I’m free to talk and listen to whatever is on kids’ minds as they work on assignments. As subbing generally requires no prep and minimal teaching, I have time to really talk to kids. These are often rich conversations. I often throw out provocative questions that spark discussion. Whether an agnostic ranting about her mom’s pushy fundamentalism or a star athlete with a ruined knee, these dialogues can be touching and enlightening. I love to throw out good questions and sit back and listen.

Generally, a sub day at the high school is relaxing. They’re days of taking attendance, passing out assignments, and hanging out. Granted, watching the same “educational video” for six straight hours can grow wearisome, but it’s certainly not demanding. Almost all schedules grant you an hour for “prep,” even when you have no responsibilities. I’m often able to catch up on phone calls, lesson planning, and reading.

Usually discipline is relatively easy. Every school is different, but I’ve had good success here. My students love subs. In three years, I’ve only kicked three kids out of class. Kids sense that I’m glad to be there; thus, I have little to prove.

As a sub, I have access to teachers and administrators. It’s easy and natural to shake hands with principals and meet teachers. I love to listen to their observations about the students and modern adolescence.

Hot lunch! Every time I go through the line, pay my $3.25, and try to find a table with friendly faces who will scoot down and make room for a big bald guy, my memory is stirred.

Our local school won’t let youth workers on campus for lunch, so subbing is essential to my penetrating the campus. Through subbing, my empathy for students’ struggles and joys grows stronger. From bathroom to lunchroom and all the halls in between, I am transported to my own days of dating, insecurity, guarded posturing, boredom, excitement, and growing up. I can see more clearly the issues and prayer requests of my students.

My ministry serves a highly homogenous group, so I focus on one primary district. However I do have the freedom to float to other local school districts. The need for subs is so great that if you have the 90+ credit hours from a four-year college and a clear criminal record, you can probably get in. You don’t even have to be an education major. There’s a yearly fee and a substitute teacher orientation that includes fingerprinting, but once you get going, it’s easy to continue. I request the dates I want in advance, so subbing is generally flexible for me.

While I sub to supplement my church income, I know that subbing is a key to my ministry’s effectiveness and would do it for free. Subbing is a truly unique and worthwhile ministry opportunity. I do it on my day off, but God bless you if you can make it happen on church time.


One final story that’s a favorite at youth group. I subbed during the annual state tests. My job was to baby-sit sophomores and freshman, while the juniors took their tests. It was both fun and lame. Asking kids about future goals and dreams can be great material, but this curriculum wasn’t top-end youth ministry stuff. At the end of lunch, I found myself by the food cart talking to Joe and Brad, two students from church, when we were approached.

“Hello, I’m Mrs. Smith, the assistant principal, and you are….” she asked expectantly (there is a general no visitor policy at lunch).

“Mike Collison, I’m in for Mr. Sanchez today,” I explained, shaking her hand.

“Oh, nice to meet you,” she began when the sub scheduler came running up to us and interrupted loudly.

“Mike, you’re supposed to be in class. You don’t have B lunch today. It’s MEAP testing schedule. I sent Ms. Henson to take the class. You’ve got to get up there right away!”

I did my best to conceal my red face from the assistant principal.

“Gotta go.” I said, turning to leave.

Joe and Brad laughed heartily and yelled, “Busted!”

If you haven’t subbed, consider it. It might well change the face of your ministry and your connection with your kids. And remember, whether for moonlighting, ministry, or both, subbing is an inside job and it always pays!


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.