Winter break for college students is a time for sleeping in and catching up with old friends. For many, it's also a time to earn money to carry them through the spring semester, and some have turned away from malls and restaurants to an employer they know intimately: the school district they just left behind.

By the dozens they come, college students so new they still remember their high school locker combinations. Within days, after reference checks, they are newly minted substitute teachers.

Grateful school districts see them not just as labor but as a pool of potential recruits. In return, the students get decent money and excellent hours for winter work.

"You have to work bad hours to make good money being a waitress," said Katie Stauffer, a Penn State University advertising major who signed up this week to be a substitute in Prince William County. As a sub, she'll have flexibility, free afternoons and evenings, plus $65 a day. Subs with bachelor's degrees are paid $76 a day in Prince William, and subs who work more than 20 consecutive days bring in $92 daily.

Stauffer, 18, wouldn't mind being a substitute at her old high school, Osbourn Park in Manassas, though the county frowns on the practice. Too difficult for recent graduates to maintain order, they say. Still, Stauffer said, "it would be kind of fun to be a co-worker to my teachers."

College students begin coming home in mid-December and generally go back to class in mid-January. That allows them to work for a week or so before their new charges start Christmas vacation, and a couple of weeks after school resumes after New Year's Day.

Elizabeth Blindauer, a freshman at East Carolina University, is substituting because she wants to be a teacher. She is working this week in Woodbridge at Elizabeth Vaughan Elementary School, which she attended.

"The kids are so funny," said Blindauer, already showing a teacher's adeptness at doing several things at once as she wrangled with fifth-graders during an interview. "I come in and the kids say, 'Who's your child?' I say I'm only 18; I don't have a child. I tell them I went here, and they say, 'Oh, you went here a long time ago?' "

Kevin North, director of recruiting for Fairfax County, said the college students are a welcome addition to the substitute pool, which normally starts declining around the holidays. He keeps an eye on them as promising prospects in an era of teacher shortages, expanding enrollments and fierce competition for teachers among area districts.

Fairfax requires at least 60 hours of college credit for its subs, who are paid $86.80 a day. Subs who work more than 11 consecutive days make $114.38 a day. During the school year, the county runs two substitute orientation classes a week, attended by about 60 people each. The winter and spring break months bring a good number of college students, North said.

"We are very anxious to have these young people come in," he said. "For some, it's a springboard to a career interest."

That happened to Crystal Lang, 22, a fifth-year senior at Marymount University who is working as a substitute in Anne Arundel County. Lang was majoring in pre-kindergarten through third-grade education, but after a month-long assignment at Brooklyn Park Middle School with a special education class, she has decided to change her major so she can teach special-needs children.

"I got a lot of warnings," she acknowledged. "People said, 'Watch out for this one, watch out or that one.' . . . I just put all of that aside and didn't deal with any preconceptions." Her colleagues were enormously helpful, she said.

Lang, who had a series of mall jobs during high school, said selling clothes just doesn't have the same meaning. "Clothes aren't going to impact somebody's life like teaching them how to multiply and divide," she said.

In Anne Arundel, substitutes make $55 a day with fewer than 60 college credits, $60 a day with 60 credits or more, and $90 a day with a bachelor's degree or better.

"It certainly beats working in a fast-food restaurant," said David Lombardo, director of human resources for Anne Arundel schools.

For some, it's still just a job, though a fun and challenging one. Stephanie Boothe, a 19-year-old Radford University freshman, is also a substitute at Vaughan Elementary. She wants to work for the Secret Service as an analyst and plans to put in as many hours as she can subbing in the meantime. She was put to work the same day she walked into Vaughan to introduce herself.

"I have a newfound respect for teachers," Boothe said. "When I think about teachers who have been doing this for 30 years, it kind of blows my mind."

That's because some things never change -- like trying to scam your substitute.

After art class, Boothe's keyed-up students set up an immediate clamor. "I'm sick!" one said. "I'm hungry," said another. A small finger reached for a bell on the teacher's desk. A small "ding!" rang out.

"You know you're not allowed to do that," Boothe said.

"Yes we are!" came the reply.

Stephanie Boothe, a Radford University freshman, signals her first-graders to be quiet at Vaughan Elementary. Elizabeth Blindauer, a freshman at East Carolina University, collects math work sheets while substituting at Vaughan, her old elementary school. Stephanie Boothe, a college freshman working at a substitute teacher at Vaughan Elementary School in Woodbridge, holds first-grader Gary McCloud's hand en route to art class.