When I retired from full-time pastoral ministry in 2016, I wondered what I would do to occupy my time. All sorts of thoughts came to mind. I would spend more time on the golf course. I would learn to fly fish. I would spend more time with my woodworking hobby. I would catch up on projects around the house. I would travel. And I certainly would offer my services to other congregations on an occasional basis. There were a lot of things I planned to do with my free time in retirement.
One of the things that I hadn’t anticipated doing was becoming a substitute teacher.
It began like this.
About a year after I had retired, all the things I thought I would do were not filling up my time as much as I had thought. My wife, who was a bus driver for Oxford Community Schools, offered a suggestion that would help fill my time—especially in the winter months—and fill a need in the community. She had heard that there was a shortage of substitute teachers in the Oxford community where we lived. She brought home a brochure one day and suggested I investigate.
After a bit of research, I discovered that substitute teaching might be a good fit for me. I could pick and choose the schools and the assignments and the days. It seemed incredibly flexible. There were opportunities to work with elementary students, middle school students, or high school students. There was some remuneration involved and that would give me a little extra income for golf, fly fishing, woodworking, bike trips, and travel.
So, I went through the online process of applying to be a substitute teacher. After receiving my certification to substitute teach, I took assignments in the various schools in the Oxford School District.
What surprised me was that I enjoyed working with the high school students more than the other age groups.
What surprised me even more was that, in the four years that I have been substitute teaching at Oxford High School, I have discovered many great commission opportunities.
When I first started as a substitute teacher, there were several students from my former congregation, Living Word in Rochester, who attended the local high school where I did most of my subbing. In classes and in the hallways, they knew me as Pastor Kassen and would address me as such. That created a few quizzical looks from other students. But it caught on to the extent that today the majority of students at Oxford High School call me Pastor Kassen instead of Mr. Kassen.
This has created various talking points from “Are you a real pastor?” to “What do you feel about this or that?” to “Would you mind praying for me?”
This has led to a variety of great commission opportunities with students and staff.
“Yes, I am a real pastor.” Students often then ask, “What church are you a pastor at?” To which I respond, “I am now retired. But tell me, where do you go to church?” From this question often comes a conversation about their church and the activities, like youth group or confirmation instruction, that they may be involved in.
When a student asked me in a Spanish class I was covering, “What do you think about homosexuality?” my response was, “I have some personal and private thoughts about homosexuality, but as your substitute teacher I have no opinion about it. Your school encourages you to be accepting of all people whether you agree with their lifestyle choices or not.”
“Can you pray for me (us)?” is sometimes a question I receive before proctoring a test. My response is, “Yes, I can pray for you privately, but not publicly, since this is not a faith-based school. If you have anything beyond this test you would like me to pray for, jot it down, and I will include it in my personal prayers.” Often I will then pray privately for the students taking the test.
I have learned that the public school has an undercurrent of Christian belief. During the 2018 Oxford High School (OHS) Book of the Year campaign sponsored by the school library, the Bible was selected by majority vote of the students as their favorite book.
Not too long ago, I was subbing in one of the World History classes where students were studying world religions and their development. They were comparing the great religions of the world and how they shaped the world as we know it today. One of the tasks assigned to me as the teacher substitute was to share an answer key about the differences between Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Who started each religion? What texts do each rely on? What is their basic understanding of God? What is a synopsis of their core beliefs? It was an opportunity for me to clearly explain the Christian belief that Jesus was the Son of God crucified and risen from the dead as well as the concept of justification by grace through faith compared to the works-based doctrines of other religions. When the teacher whose class I was covering returned from his meeting and entered the classroom in the middle of my presentation and listened for a few moments, I asked if he wanted to take over. His comment was, “Not at all. Continue. You’re doing great!” And I saw him taking notes for his remaining classes.
While care must be taken not to proselytize in the public school, I have had numerous opportunities to witness. Being in a public school instructional setting, there are boundaries that I cannot cross. I cannot teach Christian belief and biblical values in the same way I might in a Bible class or Confirmation class. But I can explain things in an objective, comparative way as when I was subbing in the World History class.
Then there was the Advanced Stagecraft class. There were seven students. Since I wasn’t expected by the teacher or the students to teach them acting skills, we sat around and chatted—after they had finished a practice session of swordplay with swimming pool noodles. One of them asked me about the book I had written1. I asked him how he had heard about it. He told me that he had come across it in the school library, which has a copy. Another student told me he had bought it on Amazon and asked if I would sign his copy.
Since the book was about the hardest questions I’ve been asked as a pastor, his question was: “What is the hardest question you’ve ever been asked?” My response was, “The question of suicide has always been one that people struggle with. Why does a person take his/her own life? What happens to the person in terms of the afterlife? How do friends and family get over the hurt and the loss and the anger that often follows a suicide?” That touched a nerve with several of the students who, unfortunately, have known individuals who have taken their own lives. After answering their various questions, I pointed them to the school library where they could read for themselves what I wrote about suicide and other questions.
November 30, 2021
Then came November 30, 2021 when a student allegedly began shooting a handgun during passing time between classes. Four students died and eight others were injured. Having been trained in ALICE2 protocols—as all school staff and students are throughout the Oxford School District—we immediately entered into the procedures that would keep the most students safe and free from harm. After securing the room with the students under my care, I suggested they use their phones to contact parents to let them know that they were safe … and then to let me know what friends in other parts of the building might be saying. I, of course, texted my wife to let her know that I was safe.
Many were the prayers that I and others were lifting to God during those moments. Many are the prayers that are still being prayed now. And many are the prayers that will need to be prayed in the weeks, months, and years ahead.
What will be my role as Pastor Kassen, the substitute teacher? I do not know. I will follow the Spirit’s direction.
That same evening, I thought back to the Advanced Stage Craft class. The conversation had turned to some of the silliest questions I’ve ever been asked, such as the supposed rock God might create that he himself couldn’t lift and the number of angels that might fit on a fictional pinhead. At the mention of angels, one student shared that she regularly sensed the presence of her guardian angel and how comforting that was to her. What came to mind that night was that her guardian angel—along with many others—was most assuredly present at Oxford High School on November 30, 2021 watching over and protecting more than 1,800 students and teachers.
And I prayed my favorite prayer: “Lord God, You have called Your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go but only that Your hand is leading us and Your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.”
I am enjoying my retirement and my work as a substitute teacher. This Great Commission opportunity is not one I had seen coming my way as I retired from full-time pastoral ministry. But it is one that has helped fill my extra time and fulfill God’s plan for me in ministry.
1 Life’s Most Difficult Questions: The Hardest Questions I’ve Been Asked as a Pastor, by Reverend John Kassen, 50/50 Press, LLC, 2019.
2 A.L.I.C.E stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate. More information is available online.
Photo © Yosi Prihantoro/Unsplash