Emergency Teacher Certification for Substitutes

female teacher in an elementary classroom with students

Mary was pursuing her master’s degree in education while substituting at a local school district for income. It offered a nice, flexible schedule and it also allowed her to practice with different grade levels. One day, during her lunch period, she was approached and told that the fifth-grade class would need to have the rest of the year covered — and it was only February. This was an emergency!

It was a blessing that Mary had obtained her emergency teaching certification: 44% of public schools were experiencing vacancies,1 and Arizona is no different.

This long-term emergency substitute teacher opening is a fairly new opportunity due to the overwhelming shortage of school workers. Mary is typical of many aspiring educators in that she looks forward to new opportunities to be inside the classroom. In this article, we’ll look at the role of an emergency substitute teacher, how to become one and more.

In This Article:

The Role of an Emergency Substitute Teacher

On Jan. 24, 2022, the Arizona State Board of Education made changes to substitute teacher regulations in Arizona, which came in response to a dire teacher shortage and during a struggle to find substitute teachers.2

In the past, there were term limits (120 days) on how long substitutes could be in the classroom to teach. Now, under these new regulations, substitutes can teach “as long as is necessary” until a contract teacher is hired.2 In Arizona, for example, a superintendent can request the issuance of emergency teaching certificates when a district or charter school is experiencing a shortage of educators for positions that have been advertised statewide but not filled by a certified teacher. States like Arizona request a certificate for an emergency substitute (which can now last two years instead of one) to reduce the red tape for such positions. Applicants for this credential must meet education and background check requirements.3

How To Become an Emergency Substitute Teacher

Becoming an emergency substitute teacher typically involves meeting specific educational requirements and completing necessary certifications or training programs. Although the exact requirements can vary by location and educational institution, the general steps to become an emergency substitute teacher involve obtaining a high school diploma or equivalent, completing any required background checks or fingerprinting, and fulfilling any additional prerequisites set by the school district or state education board.4

Qualifications and requirements of an emergency substitute

To become an emergency substitute for a K–12 school in Arizona, you must:4

  • Have a high school diploma (or official transcripts documenting a bachelor's degree or higher and all applicable coursework).
  • Obtain a valid fingerprint clearance card issued by the Arizona Department of Public Safety.
  • Obtain a verification from the school district superintendent that an emergency employment situation exists (must be completed by the district looking to fill an empty teaching position). 

Individuals cannot apply for this certification directly with the Department of Education; it is the district's responsibility. Once the district has approval from the Arizona Department of Education, the district will issue a written and signed request to the individual seeking the emergency teaching certification. The Arizona Department of Education will issue an emergency certification to the same person a maximum of three times.3

It is important to note that state requirements for emergency substitute teachers may differ from state to state. Be sure to contact your state department of education for qualifications and requirements.

The code also stipulates that the certificate only allows the person to substitute temporarily for the contracted teacher; they cannot be given a contracted position.4 Renewals are allowed as long as the applicants meet the course requirements (such as attending specific training according to the state board requirements). In this next section, we’ll look at some advice from two emergency substitutes and a support project (from the state of Washington) that may be coming to a state near you.

Practical Tips for Emergency Substitutes

Mary is now an emergency substitute, and she is looking for some quick tips. Kate and Lisa, also hired as emergency substitutes, were both thrust into a fifth-grade classroom and have given her some practical tips.

Get organized and learn the curriculum

Kate shares, “I needed to remove clutter and start afresh so I could succeed, which can help the kids succeed too.” Also, because they may be new to the curriculum, it’s vital that they understand the big picture. For Kate and Lisa, this included the available instruction material, assignments, tests and supplemental resources. One tip for learning the curriculum is to identify the company that publishes the textbook and find their digital resources online — they may have plenty of tutorials. Lisa even got a representative on the phone who offered hand-holding assistance regarding supplemental videos.  

Get to know the kids immediately (and the families)

Even if you have already subbed on the campus, it is key to get to know the students at a deeper level to help them thrive. For Lisa, this meant finding the students’ strengths and weaknesses. This also meant she needed to determine whether there were any IEP situations, amended work, or expectations for grading and test-taking. Kate shared, “Classroom management, classroom routines and setting up expectations is a must for a thriving classroom.” For Kate, this meant learning their personalities and various learning styles. This also meant an introduction to the families. Emailing the parents is valuable and likely appreciated so they know who will be working with their child. Often parents want to help and support wherever possible.

Put relationships first in building the classroom community

Setting high expectations with classroom management is extremely important. Lisa shared, “If you don’t have classroom management, it’s difficult to promote a fruitful learning environment.” When the relationships are set as a priority, this can lead to easier classroom management. Moreover, Kate added that when building students’ trust, we can inspire them to feel that they are in charge of their own actions and decisions. When they choose to do things that are disrespectful, it hurts the classroom community.

Find and use your resources

Kate and Lisa immediately befriended the fourth-grade teacher to ask about students who may need better support with academics or classroom management. Also, it’s vital to find a good mentor teacher who is easy to approach and happy to help.

Lisa stressed the importance of becoming familiar with the office staff — especially the front desk receptionist, because they will advise about changes in bell schedules, special assemblies, fire drills, half days, etc., that subs might not otherwise be aware of. Additionally, one must not forget the nurse, who can provide advice about what to do when a child is sick or injured. Lisa made sure to work with the principal about the school policies for misbehavior and when to send a student to the front office for poor choices and classroom disruption.

Final advice to a new substitute

Go into the classroom with a positive attitude and confidence, even when you don’t feel it. Students can smell fear and can exploit that. Look for ways to reward positive behavior versus looking for ways to punish. Lisa carries around candy in a jar for fun incentives. Kate reminds any new teacher or sub that you must give yourself and the students grace. Feeling overwhelmed and imperfect is normal, so you can only take it one day at a time. They both suggested the book by Harry Wong, “First Day of School” and said to get some page tabs and highlighters and always keep that book on hand!

A Model for Other States

A group of substitutes in Washington state would informally gather at restaurants discussing and sharing successful tactics for handling misbehaving students. Also, they came up with ideas for when there were no sub plans left — what could they do? Leaders at the Washington Education Association, the state’s teachers’ union, reached out to the group and has now morphed into a program called the Emergency Substitute Teacher Support Project.5 This has helped districts retain substitutes who might otherwise leave the role out of frustration. Moreover, it has given classroom teachers the confidence to be able to take a leave of absence knowing their students will be in good hands. This support project is designed to uplift teacher morale and set a compelling example for other states to follow.

The WEA’s Emergency Substitute Teacher Support Project is funded by a two-year state grant.5 Now it has grown into sub-communities (which are meetings for substitutes) plus “SubAcademy” trainings, where participants can earn professional development hours that can be applied to nontraditional teacher-preparation programs.6 They hope that this model can be expanded into other states.

Meanwhile, the emergency teacher certification process is allowing districts to mitigate the teacher shortage while simultaneously allowing for faster tracks into the classroom.5 For Mary, it has been a Godsend.

Begin Your Educational Career With a Certificate or Degree From GCU

As you embark on your journey into emergency substitute teaching, remember that every day presents an opportunity to positively impact students' lives. Whether you're stepping into a classroom for the first time or returning to the profession, your dedication and flexibility can make a difference. Stay open to learning, adapt to new challenges with resilience, and embrace the rewarding experiences that come with guiding and inspiring the next generation. With your commitment and passion, you'll not only navigate the complexities of substitute teaching but also contribute to the growth of students in classrooms across the country.

Explore how Grand Canyon University can help equip you with the skills and knowledge you need to thrive in the classroom. Visit our College of Education to learn more and take the first step toward your substitute teaching career today. 


1 Teachers of Tomorrow. (2023). What Is an Emergency Teaching Certification? Benefits and Requirements in 2023. Education Insights. Retrieved on March 15, 2024.

2 Martin, B. (2022, Feb. 3). Filling the Gaps: Easing Arizona’s Teacher Shortage With Emergency Substitute Certificates. Arizona State Law Journal. Retrieved on March 15, 2024.

3 Arizona Department of Education. (n.d.). Emergency Teaching Certificate
Certificate Information. Retrieved on March 15, 2024. 

4 Casetext. (2024, March 1). Ariz. Admin. Code § 7-2-614. Retrieved on March 15, 2024. 

5 Washington Education Association. (n.a.). WEA’s Emergency Substitute Teacher Support Project. Retrieved on March 15, 2024.

If seeking licensure or certification, applicants to the program are responsible for contacting their state department of education for licensure requirements and program approval. In addition, fingerprint and background clearance is required.

Approved by the executive assistant for the College of Education on April 1, 2024.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.