“Mr. Naughton, why aren’t you a ‘real’ teacher?”

Travis Naughton

My young students at Southern Boone Primary School ask me—their substitute teacher—this question almost as often as they ask me to tie their shoes. And I respect them enough to give them an honest answer.

“Because I didn’t try my best when I was in college.”

This is usually met with shocked or incredulous expressions on their otherwise adorable, little faces. “It’s true,” I assure them. “I goofed around too much when I should have been studying, and by the time I realized that I wanted to become a teacher, they wouldn’t let me.”

Apparently, that lesson hit home with a second grader who gave me a thoughtful, hand-written note last week. Addressed to “The One and Only Mr. Naughton,” it reads as follows:

“Dear Mr. Naughton, you are the best sub ever. You are awesome. Yes, this is an opinion piece. I am so happy you failed your teacher degree so you can be a sub.”

When I read the letter, I couldn’t help laughing out loud. Among the many reasons I love teaching young kids is the fact that they are unintentionally hilarious. But after my laughter subsided and I had a moment to reflect on the student’s note, I realized the sublime beauty of the wisdom contained therein.

“I am so happy you failed.”

That’s not something people say to each other very often. When they do, it’s probably not a compliment. But in the case of my eight-year-old student, it actually was. In fact, it was just about the highest compliment any student has ever paid me.

My failure to become a “real” teacher sent me down a long and winding path that eventually led me to SoBoCo Primary School, and ultimately into the second grade classroom of my funny and thoughtful letter-writing friend. Is it really possible for a child so young to appreciate the bright side of failure? Perhaps.

If I hadn’t failed to get my teaching degree twenty-odd years ago, I might have had a radically different life from the one I have now. I had originally planned on becoming a high school history teacher like my father. Perhaps I would have eventually gone on to become a principal like him, too. Perhaps I would have been happy. Perhaps not.

My young student’s fan mail deserves a reply:

“Dear Friend, Thank you for your thoughtful letter. It certainly made me smile.

While I’m not exactly ‘happy’ that I failed to get a teacher degree, I am very happy with the way things have worked out. I absolutely love being a substitute teacher. I enjoy helping young people like you learn on those occasions when your regular teacher can’t be there with you. One thing in particular I hope you learn from me is that although we all fail from time to time, we are all capable of overcoming those disappointments and having a happy life.

People often ask me if I would want to try again to earn my teaching certificate. I must admit that I have considered it. I think it would be a great challenge. But for me it comes down to simple math: If I were to become a ‘real’ teacher, I would work with about 20 students per school year. As a sub, I get to teach over 420 kids per year—including you!

I am so glad I get to be your sub. Thank you again for your kind note, and remember that you are not defined by your failures, but by the ways in which you overcome them.

Your friend,

Mr. Naughton”

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