Seniors Make a SUBstantial Difference in FCPS Schools
Bunni Cooper, or Ms. Bunni as she’s known to students, has had students ask her to serve as a fill-in grandma. She’s also had a group of “feisty” sixth graders ask her to join them at their cafeteria table for regular lunches – and she obliged. Cooper, who worked at the World Bank for 23 years before retiring and becoming an Fairfax County Public Schools substitute, gets hugs in the hallway and warm greetings from students she passes in the hallway on their way to recess.
“I’m not the type to just sit at home and do nothing, so when I retired I looked for a way to pay it forward,” Cooper says. “I’m 76 – but you don’t act it when you’re around kids all day. They taught me a few years back how to do the `dab’ – I’ve learned all sorts of different dance moves in this job. I just have fun with them.”
Cooper, who became an FCPS substitute teacher in 2013, has focused her time almost exclusively at Bull Run Elementary School in Centreville for the past nine years. There is a near-daily need for her assistance, and the ability to concentrate on one school has led to deeper ties with students, families and the school staff itself, Bull Run Principal Jason Pensler says.
“The consistency is mission critical – knowing we have Ms. Bunni – or several other regular substitutes like her who are also retirees, means they know the students, they come right in and start working,” Pensler said. “Our teachers trust this group as well, meaning they leave more in-depth lesson plans because they are confident this group will deliver on the continuity of instruction.”
“Having someone ready and willing to jump in feet first and say we got this, we can take care of this makes a huge, huge difference in the daily operations of a school,” Pensler said.
School districts across the region and the country are experiencing a substitute shortage, and looking for creative ways to encourage qualified applicants to apply. A new FCPS program provides bonuses to substitutes based on the number of days they work – those who work 50 jobs as a substitute receive a $200 bonus, with the program maxing out at $900 in extra pay for those who log 150 subbing jobs this school year.
The school district is also offering bonuses for those who sub on so-called “high volume” days when administrators expect many staff may be out on leave. People who fill in for teachers on those days, which include a number of Fridays throughout the school year, will earn an extra $80 per day, and those who serve as substitute instructional assistants will earn an additional $55.
Bull Run Principal Pensler says an average day at his school will have two or three teachers out – whether due to illness, family emergencies or personal leave. High volume days can mean twice as many teachers are absent, he says, adding he hopes the new financial incentives make those times easier to manage.
A reliable and trustworthy substitute like Ms. Bunni is a great asset to school operations, he adds.
“She has a can-do attitude, there is no fear with Ms. Bunni, yet she is also very welcoming and nurturing,” he says. “Our kids love talking to her, and that type of relationship develops when someone is here day in and day out showing they value the students and are here for them.”
Cooper works in all grades – from Kindergarten to sixth – and can also be found serving as a stand-in librarian, music instructor, or assisting with special education, depending on the day.
“When they come and have a class with Ms. Bunni, I try to be very firm,” Cooper says. “I know that’s necessary to be in control of the classroom, but I also want them to know they are worthy, they are important and if they set their mind to doing something – they can do it.”
Cooper says she was drawn to substituting because she loves kids, which she notes is important for anyone interested in the work.
“I thought well, what can I lose? I’ll try it,” Cooper said. She says other retirees should know that teachers leave you with detailed lesson plans for the day, and school staff are available should they ever need assistance. Substitutes can also choose which grade levels, subjects and schools they would like to assist, and stipulate which days they are available to work.
“Retirees have so much experience they have acquired in their lifetimes that is so good to share with young folks,” Principal Pensler says. “I’d tell all retirees to consider this – please share your knowledge with students, staff and community. I hope more will consider this good work because it is truly needed and truly valued.”
Now nine years after she first became a substitute, Ms. Bunni typically works five days a week and has no plans to stop.
“These kids give me energy and purpose, they give me so much joy,” Cooper said. “I feel like I am helping these students in some way establish the road to their success.”
“And I don’t plan on quitting until the good Lord tells me to quit.”
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