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A substitute teacher brings joy and relatability in a tumultuous time


Cisco Fernandez knows how to help grade school students perk up at the end of a school day.


CAROLINA GAITAN: (As Pepa, singing) He floods my brain.

MAURO CASTILLO: (As Felix, singing) Abuela, get the umbrellas.

GAITAN: (As Pepa, singing) Married in a hurricane.

CISCO FERNANDEZ: They all love "Encanto." Like, they love that song, "We Don't Talk About Bruno."


CAROLINA GAITAN AND MAURO CASTILLO: (As Pepa and Felix, singing) We don't talk about Bruno, no, no, no. We don't talk about Bruno.

SIMON: Well, we're not talking about Bruno, but about Cisco Fernandez, a first-time substitute teacher in classrooms around Phoenix, Ariz.

FERNANDEZ: I've always like to give back somehow, and I feel like teaching is me giving back right now.

SIMON: Cisco Fernandez wants to be an actor. He was looking for flexible work options when a friend said schools needed substitute teachers. He began to fill in during the delta wave, right before the omicron surge.

FERNANDEZ: I could definitely see why teachers who were older have reservations about going in. I was in the classroom once where one student got COVID and half the class had to go quarantine, so I was only left with, like, six students and it was a class of 22. And I remember the administrators were - they were freaked out about, you know, the outbreak. But then they also asked me, would you be OK with coming back? And I didn't even hesitate to say, like, yeah, of course I'm coming back because I was like, well, if I don't come back, who's going to be with the kids?


FERNANDEZ: Even though teachers are calling out, they're definitely putting in their part. The majority of them have a lesson plan, and I think that's amazing. You know, I just go based on the list that they give me. But what I do is when I notice - like, let's say, for second grade or third grade - if we have a math worksheet, and then I notice that there's more than three or five students struggling with a problem, I will just make up easy math problems, and we'll go over it one by one. You know, we'll count on our fingers as a class just because I feel like kids need that human interaction.

I've seen vice principals, principals work the front desk, and then I've also seen them go in classes and act as teachers, different staff members just wearing different hats every day to make sure that the students are getting an adult in the room. And I've also heard people say, well, at this point, we're just on survival mode. Kids deserve more than that.


FERNANDEZ: There's been a couple of times where I first started, I'd get a little frustrated at the parents and I thought to myself, well, why aren't the parents super involved? But then I have to step back and realize those are low-income neighborhoods. I grew up in a low-income neighborhood. My mom and dad didn't know English, so of course they weren't going to read with me or do math with me. And on top of that, my parents always did labor jobs. So I realized that a lot of those kids come from the background that I came from. And I don't think that their parents are not helping them, not because they don't want to, but it's because they have to provide for the household.

Every time I go to the schools that I grew up in, I always tell them, hey, I actually went to this school. The schools look a lot nicer now than they did before, and I just let them know like, hey, I was able to - I was able to work here. And if I could do it, you can do it, too. I also speak Spanish, and then I let them know, you know, my mom cleans houses. My dad works at a restaurant. And then kids usually say, oh, my mom does something like that, too, or my dad does something like that, too.

I think because they see me and how I look Mexican American, a lot of them are like, hey, you could be my cousin or my uncle, you know? So it's much more approachable.


FERNANDEZ: I would definitely recommend substitute teaching, but I would only recommend it if you're in it for the right reasons. As a teacher, you have to deal with kids' temper tantrums. And there was one time where a kid threw the hugest temper tantrum, and I honestly didn't know how to de-escalate it. So I had to get two teachers to help me, and I felt so embarrassed? And I was thinking, like, what am I doing? Maybe I should go somewhere else, get a corporate job. But then, you know, when all those thoughts go away, you get those notes from the kids saying how you're the best teacher ever or they had the best day ever. I'm like, I'm where I'm supposed to be right now.


SIMON: Cisco Fernandez of Phoenix sharing his story for our series Outbreak Voices. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.