Substitute Teacher Q&A: “If you can’t do something fun at my age, why bother?”
Jefferson County Public Schools
Years with Kelly: One
Growing up, Ralph wanted to be a history teacher, but his father discouraged it. He worked for years in retail as a buyer and store manager, eventually running a company that sold promotional products, or “chotskies,” he says. Still, he always did some form of teaching, whether training or mentoring. Now, at age 75, he’s getting his chance to teach young people in the classroom. He lives with his West Highland terrier, Gabby.
What was it like going back to the classroom?
There was nothing too wild and crazy. I refer to the virus as “cooties” and that always gets a laugh. We do all the things like masks, social distancing, washing hands, and cleaning. I tell them that at my age, I’m more at risk than they are, so they should be careful not to give me cooties. Some of the students are going to school from home, so that cuts down on the number of students in class. Today I’m in a high school kinesiology class, in a huge lab that could accommodate 120 students. I had 30 in class and some more that were remote, so that works well.
I wasn’t nervous to get back. I subscribe to the theory that you’re going to live until you die. When that day comes, it comes. I’m in generally good health, so not I’m not worried.
"Be sure to have a sense of humor. You have to be able to laugh at yourself. Don’t talk down to the kids. And you have to genuinely like people."
Was there anything that surprised you?
I was surprised by how well-behaved the kids are. They all come in with their laptops, sit down, and get to work. They know what they are supposed to do. I think they take the virus seriously, or maybe they are just happy to be at school instead of at home. Kids will be kids, of course, and sometimes I have to jolly them along. I’ll say, “We’re going to do this,” and we can laugh about it, but we’re going to do it.
What’s the best part of being back?
Just the interaction with the students. I live alone with Gabby, my dog, and talk to her a good deal, but I’m not sure she likes my conversation. The kids are interesting to talk to. In the classroom, it’s like playing to a room. If it’s a cold room, you have to warm it up by telling a joke or saying something funny. I don’t mind being self-deprecating. I’m old, and I’ll admit it. If a student asks how old I am, I’ll say “Son, I knew Moses. He was my roommate.” It’s genuinely fun. If you can’t do something fun at my age, why bother?
Do you have any advice for someone thinking about trying substitute teaching?
Be sure to have a sense of humor. You have to be able to laugh at yourself. Don’t talk down to the kids. And you have to genuinely like people. It’s something you do to help out other people, and they notice. Faculty always tell me “thank you” without fail. And it’s fun because the kids recognize me in the hall and they’ll say, “Hey, Mr. Thomas. Why are you here today? Who are you subbing for?”
If you take the normal precautions [for COVID-19], you’ll be all right. It’s great if you’re looking for something to do. I never liked working in the yard, but I like this.
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