Teacher Appreciation Day was on Tuesday. But this entire week is dedicated to the men and women that inspire us to learn both in and out of the classroom.
As a result of the COVID-19 crisis, schools are closed but they haven’t stopped teaching. Whether online, over the phone, or through video conferencing, our teachers have carried on. And for that we are grateful.
You might know one teacher from our LAFC family by a different name. Maybe he’s “The Scarf” to you or simply JR.
JR Lebert has been Black & Gold since Day 1. A full-season member and co-host of the Defenders of the Banc podcast, you’ve probably hung out under his tent prematch on Christmas Tree Lane or celebrated a Carlos Vela goal together with a “shoey” in the Banc. By day, JR is a grade school teacher in Culver City. Like so many teachers, he hasn’t let the current situation stop him from teaching. He’s continued helping students by taking his classes online.
And after one such online school day, we chatted via Skype about being a teacher at this time and his involvement with the Black & Gold. Our Q&A is below and has been edited and condensed:
How did you get involved in teaching?
JR: I started just before my 20th birthday, actually. I got a job a school, my alma mater. I went there from first to eighth grade.
Midway through my college experience, the PE teacher and athletic director position opened up at this small private school in West LA. And you know, I thought college is expensive and I can get this full-time job and I can kind of get started and stuff. So, I started teaching before my 20th birthday.
I left there after two years and went strictly with the summer camp that I run. I was working there year-round but looking to get back into school. And a couple of years went by, and this one guy that was always at the recreation center hit me up. His wife had gotten pregnant and they needed a substitute teacher at the school she’s at. He said, “I know you can teach, I know you want to teach. Do you want to come check it out for a couple of months?” So, I did. I was there from March until the end of the year and absolutely loved it. And luckily, they loved me.
So, they hired me almost 11 years ago now. This is my 10th full-year at the school that I’m at. I’ve taught math and Latin for most of the time I’ve been here. I knew from third grade that I was going to be a teacher. I had an incredible third and sixth-grade teacher. Luckily enough, I still keep in touch with her family. Her grandkids still come to my summer camp. And I knew from basically her and then the other great teachers that I had all along the way that that was something I wanted to do.
How has this time been challenging for teachers?
JR: We went from leaving school on a Thursday, knowing that we were probably shutting down to start distance education. Something of which, our school doesn’t use any of. It’s not like we have an online component to a lot of what we do. There’s a lot of technological components, which is great. Our school has a lot of cool stuff. But integrating any of that into the home or into an online component, none of us did any of that. Middle school or lower school doesn’t matter. So, from Thursday, it was kind of expected that by that next Wednesday with some form of online version of what we did on campus.
Luckily for us, that came about a week and a half before spring break. We kind of got through those 10 days. We did as much as we could as teachers. Some of our teachers were technologically uneducated about how to use and implement any of these things. But they were just happy to get on and talk with their students.
What have been some of the challenges?
We’re online. We’re not physically in class. I build in a lot of time in class where these students do so much collaborative learning. Like in my Latin classes, I don’t ever assign them translations for homework. We do all of our translations in class. And it’s not one of those assignments where it’s “don’t look at your friend’s paper, don’t talk.” No, I want them to be collaborative. They’re sitting next to the person to their right going, “Ok, but wait. You translated it this way. Why did you do it this way but not that way?” And all of a sudden, they're having this incredible organic conversation with each other.
And so, we don’t have that anymore. We don’t have the organic, social learning that comes with sitting next to your friends in class. And that comfort and that feeling that I’m in school but I’m in a comfortable place.
For so many of these kids, not necessarily at my school, but for so many of these kids home isn’t necessarily a sanctuary. Home is necessarily and area of comfort. Home is where they have to go back to at the end of the day. There’s a reason why hundreds of thousands of kids every week get meals from schools. There’s a reason these kids stay in free afterschool programming. It’s because that’s the most stable environment for them. That’s the toughest part. I don’t feel like as many people realize a lot of these kids aren’t in their safest place or happiest place when they are away from school.
I asked about the challenges first but now I’m going to flip it. What’s been some of the good that’s come of this? What’s made you feel proud to be a teacher right now?
JR: Knowing that your kids look forward to the class, either way right now. Knowing that they look forward to it because it’s the one constant that they’re used to right now. Knowing that they rely on you for the act of just being there. In this setting, it’s much easier to see that and for that to be a palpable thing than say Day 143 of your school year every year that happens to fall on a Thursday after you’ve given a test that didn’t go so well the day before. And you come in and you’re like, “Alright, 25 days left of school.”
But now, you feel more appreciated based on how the kids are showing up and what they’re trying to do every single day. And the other thing that I really enjoy so far. The biggest kind of moment of “Oh, that’s cool.” I start my class every day at 9 am. And my students asked me about two weeks ago or so, “Hey, we don’t really have homeroom anymore. We just get there for math, science, Latin and stuff. Would you mind if you started your meeting at 8:45 am or so and we just hang out and talk with you?” They want to be social. They want to hang out and just be with their friends. So now, they have these 15 minutes in the morning where they log on and just hang out. And you just feel like it’s just a little bit more normal for them now.
How has your love of LAFC and teaching come full circle?
JR: What I’ve realized about LAFC is there are so many doors available to bring kids and people to the Club. So, it started actually in the winter of 2017, before we had ever played a game. I was still running the soccer leagues that I’ve done, it’s been 20 to 21 years that I’ve run leagues for the city of Los Angeles. And we do a winter league, it’s eight teams of 5 and 6-year-olds. It’s super cute. It’s the best thing ever. I thought, you know what, I know LAFC isn’t getting started until March but I’m going to order black, and I couldn’t get gold at the time, but I got these yellow jerseys. One of the teams in my league that year was LAFC because we do all the teams named after clubs. So, we had LAFC. And I took all these pictures and I sent them to Rich and said I beat you by a couple of months. We were on the field as LAFC. And one of the kids that played that season, still plays even, I gave the family tickets. The family went and they found my ticket rep and now they have season tickets.
At the school I teach at, I wear my LAFC gear all the time. My yearbook photo is me in my LAFC jersey. And I have all these families that come to me and ask if it’s really worth it to buy tickets. And I tell them to just come to this experience for two hours and tell me this is something that’s not different for you. Tell me this isn’t something you want to take you kids to every single time that you can. All of a sudden, I’ve got six or seven families that are season-ticket members. It’s become an experience with my students. It’s a way for me to invest in who the kids are because they can invest in who I am.
And through the LAFC Foundation, it’s been kind of a whole different thing. What I’ve always told Alina [Beruff, LAFC Foundation Director] is if there is anything I can do at all, for any kid, anywhere, anytime, through the Foundation, I want to. The Foundation does so many great things with opening the fields all around the city and the refurbishments. It’s such a meaningful thing to see these kids take to the Foundation as the touching off point for LAFC.
Working with the LAFC Foundation, the goal was to bring them to my soccer camp this summer to talk to the kids, have the falcon fly, and all that stuff. That’s obviously not going to happen this summer. It is what it is. But to continue to find more ways that I can connect that bridge, or just be a part of that bridge, had I thought when I put my money down for tickets in 2015-16 that would be as much of a part of what I care about doing as anything wearing LAFC gear, that means the world to me.