March 2022: Be a good one

My father-in-law, “Pop,” is fantastic with kids, and approaches each day with boundless energy and a proud set of values. To get a sense of who Pop is, just picture a Disney Channel football coach or Robin William’s characters from Dead Poet’s Society and Patch Adams. But when Pop told us he was going to make his debut as a substitute teacher to keep himself busy and make a little side income, I’ll admit I was a bit nervous.

Teachers are facing significant challenges these days. Young students have been through a lot, and many are struggling to maintain focus and engagement in the classroom. Schools are facing adversity under difficult circumstances and staffing issues. And the subs? Let’s just say, I recall the unfortunate way that my class (including me) would treat our substitute teachers- I apologize to all of my Subs by the way.

To protect Pop’s unbridled optimism from facing inevitable disappointment, our family attempted to set expectations and prepare him for the realities of the battle zone that he was about to enter.

“Are you sure this is how you want to spend your time and energy, Pop?”

“Stick to the curriculum and lesson plan.  Don’t count on changing a student’s life in one day.”  

“Don’t expect these kids to vibe on your halftime speeches and cheesy stories.”

“School policies have changed since you were a student.  Don’t get yourself fired or cancelled.”  

“Whatever you do, Stay away from Middle School.”

In hindsight, it’s looking like our guidance was dead wrong. Good thing he didn’t listen to us.

Pop dove headfirst into the opportunity with passion, creativity, and stubborn positivity. He took liberties with lesson plans, leaned into his halftime speeches, shared life lessons, and told cheesy stories.

At least once a week, our family gets long emoji-loaded text messages about how amazing his day was. He goes on and on about his 2nd grade music class or the activities he led in 5th grade Spanish. He has made new little friends and special memories. And in a very challenging time for anyone in a classroom, this sub and his students are having the times of their lives.

After a few weeks of building confidence with an adorable audience of elementary students, he signed up for a day of 7th grade Math. We thought he this might have been the moment in which he bit off a little more than he could chew.

Pop is the first to admit he knows the x’s and o’s in a football playbook way better than in an algebra textbook. He likely would’ve guessed a “quadrilateral” is an exercise machine at the gym. He’s also been warned that his material typically resonates better with second graders than it does with pre-teens. But he wasn’t concerned.

Pop brought energy to that 7th grade Math class that day the only way he knows how. He applied the lessons to stories and examples from growing up. He asked questions, played games, and encouraged teamwork. He got everyone involved and provided a different spark than what they were used to. To his surprise at the end of the day, the students gathered around his desk and presented him with this signed handwritten note:

We gave Pop some terrible advice (above), and I’m using this forum to modify my initial recommendations. My updated suggestion comes from an Abe Lincoln quote that hung on the wall in my brother/sister-in-law’s kitchen for years: “Whatever you are- be a good one.”

Pop is not a perfect substitute teacher, but he’s committed to delivering a valuable and meaningful experience forwhatever class he gets assigned. Subbing may be a hobby or a side job to him, but in those moments when he’s writing “Mr. B” on the chalkboard, he’s accountable to making an impactful memory for his students. Pop didn’t always dream of being a sub, but since he became one- he’s been damn good.

Kudos to you, Pop. And I hope as we read this story and go back to whatever we are and whoever we want to be- we can be a good one too.

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