Several years ago, when I was subbing in Music at Southern Boone Primary School, a first grader approached me and whispered in my ear, “Mr. Naughton, I have loose stools.” 

“Do you need to use the restroom?” I asked, with equal parts of concern and panic in my voice.

“No, I just thought you should know,” the boy said, without even a hint of humor or mischief in his tone.

“I see. Well, thank you for sharing.”

“You’re welcome.”

One of the best things about being a teacher is having the opportunity to develop deeply meaningful relationships with students based on mutual trust and respect. When a child feels comfortable enough to share something as potentially embarrassing as their struggles with loose stools, then you know you’ve made a real connection.

Most substitute teachers work in multiple classrooms, in multiple grade levels, in multiple schools, and sometimes in multiple districts. They may teach thousands of students over the course of a single school year. The nature of such work makes it difficult for them to get to know each of their students on a personal level.

The 2019-2020 academic year is the fourth year in a row in which I have taught at least 100 school days within the walls of SoBoCo Primary. By choosing to sub exclusively at the Primary School, I have been able to forge strong bonds with my students. 

I was inspired to become a teacher back when my daughter was in first grade. Tiana had just become a member of the Naughton family a few weeks before the start of the 2011-2012 school year, and because she had spent the first seven years of her life in a Chinese orphanage, she didn’t know a word of English. Also, because she was labeled as having “special needs”, she had not been allowed to attend school in her home country. Naturally, Bethany and I had serious concerns about sending our newly adopted daughter to school in a strange place with strange people who spoke a strange language.

When we met with Tiana’s teacher prior to the first day of school, all of our worries immediately melted away. A confident, experienced, and compassionate educator named Brandy Clark assured us that Tiana would be in good hands. She was absolutely right.

One day, several weeks later, Tiana was using scissors for a project in class. As Mrs. Clark walked around the room checking her students’ work, she discovered that our daughter had given herself a bit of a haircut. (Goodbye bangs!) Tiana understood English well enough to know that Mrs. Clark was not happy about the misuse of her scissors. 

Tiana was mortified, and she became very upset. Mrs. Clark consoled her by telling her everyone makes mistakes, even teachers. Then she said, “I still love you, sweet girl.”

That was Tiana’s “bolt of lightning” moment. She looked up at Mrs. Clark and asked with an expression of complete shock on her face, “Teachers love students?” Brandy assured her that they do, and from that moment on, Tiana and her teacher had an unbreakable bond.

I started teaching the next year. In the eight years since, I have always tried to follow Brandy’s example of building meaningful relationships with students. When a child trusts and respects their teacher, only then are they truly ready to learn.

When in-person classes ended on March 18th, I had a very anxious-looking second grader approach me in the hallway after school. I could tell by the look on her face that she was worried that it may be the last time we would ever see each other at school. (I secretly harbored that same concern.) We exchanged a big hug, and afterwards I could see tears welling up in her eyes. I told her, “I don’t say this very often at school, but I want you to know that I love you.” She looked at me with what I imagine was the same surprised look that Tiana gave Mrs. Clark all those years ago.

“Yes, teachers love their students,” I assured my young friend.

There are about 150 more second graders I wish I could have said a proper goodbye to as well, but I take comfort in knowing that the relationship I built with those kids over the years is strong enough that they know how I feel about them.

But just to be sure, on behalf of teachers everywhere, I want you kids to know that we love you all, and we can’t wait to see you again.