Gaining Teaching Experience for Pre-Service Teachers

By Richard E. Lange and Brian Roach
June 24, 2010

Near the beginning of a teaching certification program, a common concern surfaces: How does an aspiring teacher with no certification gain teaching experience? For in theory, the feasibility of teaching seems imperturbable; but, upon gaining teaching experience, there is an initial disconnect between the theoretical and the practical—a commonality among the theoretical. Only through experience, with an emphasis on the process (of which to repeat) of preparation, implementation, reflection, revision, preparation, and implementation, are theories shaped. However, gaining teaching experience for pre-service teachers can be a confounding process. 

Because most pre-service teachers have no teaching experience, they are unsure where to look. Additionally, they have a notion that they cannot gain teaching experience until they are certified. That notion is false. Teachers need to have a variety of hats (e.g., facilitator, tutor, mentor, coach, etc.). Consequently, teaching experience can come from numerous opportunities.
For the optimum pre-service teaching experience, practice should coincide with theory, and it should occur prior to the student teaching experience.

Most aspiring teachers’ first teaching experience is obtained through their student teaching. Imagine if a pre-service teacher could gain teaching experience prior to student teaching; that teacher would be a step ahead and better prepared. With previous teaching experience, pre-service teachers could use their student teaching to enhance their teaching abilities and tools and broaden their teaching capabilities. In effect, gaining teaching experience prior to student teaching improves a teacher’s quality, resume, and the quantity of references and job possibilities.

Below are some suggestions and spring boards for gaining pre-service teaching experience. Each suggestion includes a brief explanation for clarification and includes link(s) to useful websites for additional inquiry.

Substitute Teaching 

If you have earned a Bachelor’s degree or higher, you are eligible to substitute teach in the state of Illinois even if none of your course work relates to education. One can apply online for a substitute teaching certificate and then register at school districts where you would like to sub. (Requirements may vary from state to state.) In most cases, you will still need to complete quite a lot of paper work and submit to a police background check but this should not take too much time. 

One of the biggest advantages of subbing is to gain valuable experience in a variety of classroom at different grade levels.  It also gives you a chance to place your “foot in the door” and begin to network with other education colleagues to find out about the opening of teaching positions. Treat each day that you substitute teach as professional as possible for in many ways, you are being observed indirectly and others around you are “taking mental notes” about your performance.  This can be helpful if a position opens within that building or district. Never treat it lightly as this could actually harm you if a position does open. You may be seen as a poor candidate for the job if you did not take substitute teaching seriously.  Also, keep a log sheet of  the who, what, where and when: who you taught for, what you taught, where you taught, and when. This will be a great addition for your résumé.
Illinois State Board of Education (e.g., Illinois’ substitute teaching information)
U.S. Department of Education (Search by state)


Anyone can volunteer. It does not require a degree or certificate to help out. Most voluntary experiences are good learning experiences, and all of them look great on a resume. However, before volunteering finds a place on your resume, the experience must first be found. Because there are seemingly infinite opportunities to volunteer, you must decide which opportunity best fits your schedule. In addition, consider your interests, abilities, and which learning experience would be most beneficial (other than on your resume) to further develop your teaching abilities.

Depending on the season and time at which you wish to volunteer, the opportunity will vary. Opportunities can always be found in literacy programs. Chicago’s Open-Booksnonprofit organization is a great example. Open-Books provides various experiences for pre-service teachers, such as writing workshops, reading workshops, one-on-one tutoring, mentoring, and after school programs. Remember: the point of volunteering is to gain teaching experience, so, although it is ideal to find an opportunity in your content area, keep yourself open to other areas.

Organizations like Open-Books are common and can be found through Internet search engines, such as Google and Craigslist. Other ways to find volunteering opportunities are to ask around (don’t be shy: you are giving up your free time to lend a hand), libraries, local colleges and universities, and coffee shops (while you’re waiting for your order, check the corkboards). Here are a few links to some additional websites: 

American Library Association’s Literacy Outreach (Specific contact information)
Citizen Schools (Citizens from community get teaching training and experience)
Community Resource Network (Search by keyword and location)
Community Volunteer Center (Search by keyword and location)
Do Something (Search by cause, organization, and location)
Mentoring (e.g., Big Brothers Big Sisters)
Mentoring (e.g., Mentor)
Seasonal Reading Programs (e.g., Chicago Public Library’s 2010 summer program)
Teaching abroad (e.g., World Teach)
Tutoring (e.g., Sylvan Learning)
Tutoring (e.g., Tutor Match)

Saturday and summer enrichment programs 

Many universities offer both summer and Saturday morning enrichment camps for gifted and talented children. These programs provide unique opportunities for students to extend their education in a highly academic setting with other bright children of their same age group. One such program is Northwestern University Center for Talent Development.
Many of these programs employ teachers who have skills and knowledge in a given field that may or may not be offered on a regular basis in the school districts. Although these institutions prefer persons who have a valid teaching certificate, many do not.  These programs also need teaching assistants to help the teachers. Many private schools also offer such programs and sometimes need people to help out with these programs.  If they are private schools, then you will not need a teaching certificate.
Teaching Assistants (Information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics)

Park Districts and Summer Camps

While the title of this category may make you think, “screaming, bratty kids”, today’s park district and camp programs are getting more and more sophisticated and offer topics that are more serious in nature than even just a few years ago.  While there is a need for persons to work at some of the more traditional positions, camps and parks are updating their programs to include activities across a wide range of themes. 

Because of these unique offerings, more and more children have a higher degree of interest and therefore treat the classes (and teachers) with more respect and seriousness.  There is even the possibility that you could design your own course of study for a summer camp that the administrator of the program may not have even thought of and would take you up on your offer to offer something new. If they feel your suggested new course or topic would be of interest, they will most likely place you on the program in hopes that children will register. If there are enough registrations, then you course will most likely take place. So long as enough children sign up for your course, it adds no cost to the overall program.

Other possibilities

Depending on your background, you may have certain knowledge and abilities that can be utilized to help you gain more teaching experience, such as boy/girl scouts. You should consider all the aspects of your background and decide which can be used. Here are two more suggestions:

Coaching: consider your background knowledge and identify your area of specialty. Most coaching positions at the secondary level require some sort of certification (for example, see Illinois’ requirements here), but the certification can be obtained through a relatively brief training program. Also, check local community centers and park districts for voluntary coaching positions. Usually, coaching opportunities through community centers and park districts do not require certification.

American Sport Education Program
Article on coaching youth sports
Coaching (Information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics)   
National Alliance for Youth Sports 
National High School Coaches Association

Religious institutions: Not only do local houses of worship rely heavily on volunteers to help provide instruction for both children and adults, many religious institutions offer more than “Sunday School” classes for its members.  There are programs for all ages ranging from pre-school to senior citizens that have some component of instruction where members are encouraged to pitch-in and help use their skills and talents to offer a variety of classes in different settings. This may also include universities with religious affiliations as well. Of course, expect to go through an interview process, however informal, and ask questions as to what kinds of opportunities might be available.  Don’t rule out checking an institution that you are not a member of. While it may be easy to finding listings of religion institutions in your area, don’t be shy about asking family and friends for recommendations of places they are familiar with.

Research studies: sometimes researchers at a university or college are looking for volunteers to help work with students specifically for the purpose of collecting data for a research study. Researchers get data; you get teaching experience. Check local universities and colleges.

Education Commission of the States (find information on specific research studies)
National Center for Education Statistics (find contact information for specific schools)

Additional useful websites:
National Council of Teachers of English
National Council of Teachers of Mathematics
National Council of Teachers of Science
National Council for the Social Studies
National Education Association  
National Resource Center for Paraprofessionals

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