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Substitute teaching improves lawyering

Special to the News Columns

'Working with multiple lawyers and staff members is not much different from working with elementary school students'

Hayley L. Folmar

Hayley L. Folmar

In the spring of 2020, I juggled to keep my civil defense practice moving, keep my clients happy, continue evaluation of claims, and continue discovery on a variety of issues. I also juggled educating my precocious second grader, getting my imaginative 5-year-old reading, and making sure my baby (seven months to 10 months old during quarantine) would take daily naps and have healthy interactions with her family.

We used virtual school to aid us but needed so much more stimulation than a message board or pre-recorded video. We took daily breaks outside and ate lunch together. I worked my legal practice whenever there was a minute, and after bedtime until 1 a.m. I caught up on my billing on the weekends. I forced outdoor family fitness challenges on Friday evenings, mainly so I had a reason to take the night off from lawyering and separate the week from the weekend. We kept up the schedule into the summer because virtual learning helped fill the days.

For the last week of June, I sent my older two kids to a week of summer day-camp. After clearing their thermometer checks, they excitedly jumped out of the car barely looking over their shoulder, yelling, “Bye Mom, have a great day!” They both ran off to play with their brand-new friends. At that time, I realized that as much as I had “crushed” (survived) teacher-mom life, my kids needed school. They were desperate for interaction with other kids.

One week later, I had a sinus infection. Then I lost my sense of taste and smell. Uh oh. We all quarantined. I slept. I treated my symptoms. I slept. My job took another dip. I slept. It was scary. After four days of no taste, I tried to ignore the panic. Then, I recovered. Sixteen days of quarantine and a negative COVID test. I am one of the lucky ones who only suffered a mild case, for which I am thankful.

Things returned to normal quarantine life. We got back into our regular rotation of virtual learning, outdoor activities, and working late into the night. Then, an acquaintance on Facebook, a teacher in another county, posted something thought-provoking: “Parents who are so insistent on school reopening: What are you going to do when all the teachers are out of school because of COVID exposure? Are you going to volunteer to become a substitute? How are we going to keep kids in school when they go back?”

I thought to myself, why not? What if I became a substitute teacher? I already recovered from the virus and now had the antibodies. If I can help keep kids in the classroom, I can help keep my kids in the environment where they thrive.

The process was simple. I found my local substitute company through the school board’s district website and completed a three-hour Zoom training. I paid $70 for a background check and completed my direct-deposit information. Substitutes (with college degrees) are paid $84/day. They mailed me my badge. I learned the online substitute absence management system.

My kids went back to school in August. As classroom assignments were being released, I informed my kids’ teachers about my substitute qualifications, and that I was available. I planned to dedicate no more than a day and a half each month to substitute teaching. In 2017, when my oldest child was in kindergarten, I volunteered monthly at the school. It gave me the opportunity to meet her classmates and see how she interacted with her teacher. Now, my middle child is in kindergarten during a pandemic. Substitute teachers are the only “extra adults” allowed on campus. My plan to aid the school was also giving me physical access when my parent peers were left with virtual only.

In October, I got a call from my kindergartener’s teacher. “How much time can you give me over the next two weeks? Don’t worry, I don’t have COVID.” Her teenage daughter did, so she was required to stay home for two weeks. This was it. This was why I decided to start substitute teaching. I was being called into the game.

I had a flexible calendar for the first week and was able to split the two-week absence with another substitute. The teacher left me easy-to-follow lesson plans that were simpler than reading a trial order. The other kindergarten teachers were very helpful. About 45 minutes before the kids came in on my first day, I got a call from the front office. “We are assigning a new student to your teacher’s room!” His name was Freddy. I scrambled, calling for custodial help, and grabbing an extra desk and activity books. It was easier than a surprise witness or last-minute exhibit coming up before trial.

I checked in on my lawyer emails during my 30-minute lunch break. I also returned home at 3:30 every day to give my law practice the attention it needed, and I worked well into the night. However, when I was in the classroom, I was fully present. We made Halloween crafts, and read fall-themed stories. I floated around the classroom to tend to questions, and I helped an ESOL student with her English. I learned which students needed more attention and which students were quiet workers. I learned that everyone likes a “great job!” for their good work. I learned which students raced to complete their work so they could play, and I learned which ones used every minute to perfect their craft. The quietest boy in the class told me a silly joke during recess on my last day of our week together. I learned which students have little-to-no support to practice what they are learning at home. I spent this week slowly (and sweetly) investigating the lives of 20 children. Communicating with this group was easier, yet similar, to taking depositions. I had to ask the right question, genuinely listen to answers, and keep my witnesses engaged. It was the highlight of my 2020.

I gave eight days to substitute teaching kindergarten during the fall of 2020. I learned a lot about age-groups, varying ranges of maturity, and operations of a classroom. I helped these kids stay on their educational track, even if I was only in their classroom for a day.

I also learned a lot about myself. Substitute teaching will help improve my voir dire. It has already improved my deposition questioning. This experience has also improved my management. While the legal content is dense, working with multiple lawyers and staff members is not much different from working with elementary school students. It is a reminder that we are all students in the “practice” of law. Everyone wants clear communication and to know what is being asked of him or her. All members on my legal team like a “great job!” for their good work. I can recognize which members of my team race through motion practice so they can play, but I am also lucky to have some that use every minute of billable time perfecting their craft. I have implemented regular small-group discussions on trial strategy so I can work with associates and their staff on our skills. We work through client relationship problems, and work-delegation problems. I also treat my team to lunch or an office snack every so often, and I hope to provide my legal team the support they need so they will take pride in their work. It has brought a whole new meaning to, “all I really need to know I learned in Kindergarten.”

Our public schools are struggling, as are many students throughout the state and country. Substitute teacher numbers are low throughout Florida. Many of those who used to substitute are too high-risk. Many others are stay-at-home parents who are now virtually schooling their children. Consider your COVID-19 risks first; however, if you enjoy working with children, want to improve your communication, or practice new management techniques, I highly recommend becoming a substitute teacher.

Hayley Lewis Folmar is a partner with McConnaughhay, Coonrod, Pope, Weaver & Stern in Jacksonville focusing on a broad spectrum of employer-centered litigation.

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