Substitute Teaching: Lessons for Youth Ministry

The new school year is upon us, and most of us want to be involved with the schools in our communities. While some schools in our community are open to the idea of youth pastors being involved at the school, many are not. The latter has been my experience. The high school in our community is “closed.” Religious leaders are not welcome in the school to spend time with students during school hours. In order to be in the school, I had to get a little creative.

Our students spend most of their time, during the school year, in school. If we truly want to meet students where they are, there is no better place than in school.

In order to do this in my community, I went online, purchased my substitute teacher’s license from the Department of Education, did the necessary background checks, and began to substitute teach a few times a month.

Substitute teaching has opened up the following doors for me at the school:

  • I’m on a first name basis with the office staff. We have conversations before and after school. One Wednesday afternoon one of the office staff called me to inform me of a student they heard was going to be coming to our youth group that night and needed to have someone keep an eye on him. She gave some information (nothing confidential) and when he walked through our doors, I wasn’t caught off guard.
  • During a meeting with the principal of the school, he voiced some concerns about my youth pastor role as a conflicting with being an employee of the school. We talked through it, and he ultimately supports me as a substitute teacher.
  • I’ve subbed for many teachers enough times that they now text or email me before they know they will be absent to see if I’ll substitute for them. Developing this kind of trust and rapport with some of the teachers truly is a blessing.
  • I get to see my students in their “natural habitat.” The school is where they spend most of their time. It’s where their worldview and belief system develops, where ideas and beliefs are discussed. I have gained incredible insight into what my students are going through by simply walking through the halls during passing periods and observing the conversations, the interactions of the students, and the variety of student groups. When students are struggling with a class or with a teacher, often times, I can have an informed conversation with them about that class or teacher because I have subbed for them or in their department.
  • I get to eat lunch with my students. Many of them grab their lunch, sometimes a friend or two, and come to the classroom I’m in to eat lunch with me. Talk about easy relationship building times!

These doors that have opened have been great, but something bigger and more meaningful has happened over the course of the five years I’ve been doing this. I used to see substitute teaching as my “in” with the school. It was about what the school could do for me since I wasn’t allowed to come in for lunch. I was focused on what I could get out of my time there, but over the course of time, my mindset has moved beyond “what can the school do for me” to “what can I do for the school?”

This shift in thinking has greatly impacted my role as a substitute teacher and as a youth pastor. I see the school and its students differently.

Substitute teaching has become more than an “in” with the school and a few extra bucks in my pocket, it’s become a field in which I can help tend God’s crop.

Subbing has impacted the way I do ministry. We no longer talk about hypothetical situations that could happen at school. We talk about actual events, social groups, and situations that I’ve been able to witness by being in the school. We’re able to better contextualize what we’re talking about on a given night.

Many youth workers might think there is no way this would work for me because of the time commitment or that my senior pastor wouldn’t allow it. I’m thankful that I serve in a church that understands that ministry doesn’t just happen or that it only happens within the walls of the church; that isn’t the case everywhere. I’m grateful that our executive team is supportive of doing ministry in creative ways.

If you’re thinking of getting involved in your local school in some way, start a conversation with your senior pastor. Get input from other leaders in your church. What would it look like if you took one day a week, or one afternoon a week, to spend time at your local school?

Substitute teaching has made a greater impact on how I do ministry than I could have ever imagined. I would encourage all youth leaders to take that step. If possible, get involved one way or another. It requires sacrificing some office hours and it can be awkward at first. It’s amazing how God can open your eyes to what students are really going through on a day to day basis by simply meeting students where they are.

Side Note: Since our local school is “closed” to religious leaders, when I substitute teach, I take off my youth pastor hat and put on my substitute teacher hat. I don’t advertise my upcoming events nor do I talk about church with students who don’t attend my church, unless they bring it up.

Mike Denny
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