While working as an elementary school substitute teacher early last year, a student spilled water on the floor during snack time. Of course, neither a napkin nor a paper towel could be found in the classroom.
I called the front desk and asked if the custodian could bring a fresh supply. Minutes later, he appeared and did a bit of a double take.
“Are you the sub today?” the custodian asked politely.
I had only subbed at this school a few times before. While he sees me occasionally when I drop off my son there in the mornings, it’s likely he just did not recognize me.
“Yeah,” I said.
What he did next truly surprised me.
He extended his arm and gave me a hearty handshake. “That’s great,” he said. “I never see a male sub. Thanks so much for being here.”
I was shocked.
I chose substitute teaching to make a positive impact on children, but I had instead affected another adult. It was one of several positive interactions I had that day, but that particular encounter made me realize the power of being present.
My years as a stay-at-home dad opened my eyes to how effective I could be at teaching. I enjoy being around kids because, by nature, I am silly. I enjoy helping them learn and laugh at the same time. So, I started substitute teaching at my twins’ day care center and my son’s elementary school. (Numerous times, I’d dress up to teach science lessons as Dr. Professor with his puppet sidekick, Captain Vernon.) But in a field filled with many wonderful, loving, caring and nurturing female teachers, I have come across very few male teachers.
Supportive presence makes for memorable moments
My subbing gave those kids the opportunity, even if only briefly, to see a man as a schoolteacher. Maybe it even gave some kids something to talk about when they went home. And, as a man of color, I try to be involved positively in the lives of my children as much as possible. I work on a daily basis to break the stereotypes often associated with Black men. My being present in the classroom gives children a chance to take a new view of teaching. Some might even see it as a future career to aspire to.
We as parents, especially fathers, unknowingly wield immense power by just being physically present. Be it in a classroom, at a dance recital or at school drop-offs — places some would say traditionally are the domain of mothers — we can alter the narrative of masculinity and parenting.
The power our presence has on children, ours and others, and the adults who see us in these moments can change preconceived views of fathers. We are more than just breadwinners or disciplinarians or, in some situations, not present at all. While earning a steady income to support your family is valuable, being there in moments big and small, must also be applauded.
I’m not the best candidate to be a soccer coach, for example. Instead, I do my best to cheer on my son and his teammates at their games. In these moments, my son can see and feel my support. At the same time, fellow parents see the way I support him. I am also not a PTA board member, but I attend meetings when I can. I stay involved so I can be aware not only of what is going on in his school, but also and more importantly, to create a good visual for others who see me there. It could have a positive ripple effect for fatherhood long after the meeting has concluded. Our presence holds emotional value for our children, for our spouses, for ourselves and for those in our community who might be watching. And you can’t get those lost moments back.
So give your child a quiet shoulder to cry on after a disappointing baseball loss. Be the only dad sitting on an undersized chair during story time at the library. Push a cart full of groceries at the supermarket while your toddler play in the child seat. While we can’t get back moments we already missed, we can make new ones that we — and our children — won’t ever forget.