Updated: Mar 11
"Good morning, my name is Mr. Rick, and I will be your substitute teacher today". This was my greeting during my recent stint as an elementary school substitute teacher. I love little kids and I have been trying to write a children's book for years. But my book project has been a struggle because my kids are grown and gone and have been out of the house forever. At this point, it's hard to think about what young kids are like today. So, to get some perspective, I decided to do a little research by "subbing" in local elementary schools. I needed to ground myself in "kid-dom" to see and feel firsthand what it's like in their world today. While I want my book to inspire them to enjoy reading and pique their curiosity; I still want it to be funny and make them laugh. The laughter of a child has the same effect on me as a beautiful sunrise or sunset; it's amazing!
Like I view comedians, I also view children as sort of the sages of our time. They consciously and unconsciously observe and comment with few if any filters. Granted context is missing with children, but they do see truth in its simplest form. Their almost brutal honesty is only tempered by the innocence in which they articulate it. They literally call it like they see it! On my first day in class, one of my young 2nd grade students was staring at me in a way that made me feel like she was looking for weaknesses, then out of nowhere she said, "Mr. Rick, you look like The Rock (I'm sure it was because of my bald head and not my well-toned biceps), but skinnier". I assume there was a compliment in there somewhere, but in hindsight she was just sizing me up for the takedown! To call my experience in the classroom "eye opening" is an understatement. The curiosity in the schools where I worked was so thick, you could almost touch it. That's not to say there weren't times when it seemed like the inmates were running the asylum. There was the rambunctiousness of youth i.e., unable to sit still for a minute and unable to focus for even less. But even this was just a test to see how far and how much they could push boundaries that were unknown to them.
In one class a teacher would use the phrase "peanut butter" to get her students attention. When she would say peanut butter, they would sit down, put their heads on their desks and be eerily quiet. I was amazed when like Pavlov's dog they robotically obeyed the command. I knew then that I had to come up with something to help me when my class was drifting out of control. I came up with what I thought was a good plan, but I was sure it had no chance of working. I wore my mask while teaching and I am now sporting a thick salt and pepper goatee beard, I told the kids when my mask was down and my goatee was showing, that it meant it was time to be quiet and listen or the goatee would get them. After only telling them once, I was floored when it worked! No matter how chaotic the situation was, when I lowered my mask, they all immediately gave me their full attention. I hoped I hadn't scarred them for life by making them afraid of men with goatee beards. But I didn't have to worry about this long because one of my more astute 7-year-olds told me, "Mr. Rick your goatee is not scary, we just know you allow us extra time on the tablets when we behave". Made me wonder who was teaching who!
One of my unexpected takeaways during my research was the commitment and dedication of the Teachers. Hearing about what they do day in and day out is one thing, but to see it firsthand, I gained even more respect for Teachers. From the organized chaos of early morning arrival and the afternoon dismissal to the shear madness of making sure a school full of elementary school kids get breakfast and lunch. It was like watching a flock of geese that were all frantically squawking and flapping their wings , but they were all flying in formation, and going in the same direction. In a previous life, I helped plan military exercises and watching how the Teachers and the support staff flawlessly pull this kabuki dance off "everyday" reminded me of how much detail must go into making the complicated seem easy and routine. I was left thinking; they do all this, and they still actually go to their classrooms and "teach". Teachers and education administrators don't get paid enough for what they do. They are invaluable and their contributions to our communities and society in general is immeasurable. Who doesn't remember their favorite Teacher?! I only hope those who have the calling to Teach continue to answer that call despite the challenges in the profession.
It's been a while since I got up at 5:30am to do anything other than play golf, go on a long hike, or go fishing. But the days flew by, and I often left school exhausted and energized at the same time. The kids were inspiring, they would run, jump, and play like it was the last time they would ever get to do it. They were not burdened with the complexities of life, they just lived. I couldn't wait to get home and tell my wife about my day, and I'm sure I sounded like an excited 8-year-old giving her the details of the adventures of Mr. Rick in the classroom. My research did what good research does, it gave me new insight and a fresh perspective on how our kids learn and a deeper understanding and respect for Teachers. In short, I learned much more than I expected. I don't know when I will get my book done but I do know my life has once again been enriched. Hearing "Mr. Rick can you help me with this" reminded me that when you think you have given all you can give, find a way to give more!