Photo of Eric Pearson at Grand Canyon.

Eric Pearson: Putting his decades of training, experience to work as a substitute teacher

features go-getters Jun 16, 2022

Eric Pearson spent much of his life in Maryland where he did a lot of things, but at a slower pace. For example, it took him 15 years to finish his undergraduate degree, and another 12 to get his master’s degree.

A radar engineer by trade, he also worked as a mechanic and, in his early days, as a lifeguard. His first career was teaching at a prep school where he also coached soccer, swimming, basketball and lacrosse for 15 years during his 20s and 30s.

Eric’s career changed directions when he started working for Westinghouse, which later became Northrop Grumman. While there, he started writing technical support documents in addition to configuring data for the company.

In the early 2000s, Eric developed a leadership training program for Northrop Grumman that enabled him to work with young professionals across the country. At one point, he had hired more than 2,000 engineers over a 10-year period and led them through a leadership development process.

Twice a year, he would meet with up to 100 people who spent six months planning the entire agenda for a super-charged weekend. He gave them a list of basic requirements for what the company needed to be accomplished at the event and set a budget of $25,000 to fund the session. Then participants could plan their own activities to meet whatever pressing needs the group faced. Because each session involved new people, every gathering had a distinct agenda and tone.

“I am a people person who has always been led to help others. It’s more important for me to see other people succeed,” said Eric. “The job was tremendously rewarding and brought a great deal of satisfaction and joy. Creating the system was challenging, but the best part was turning over the reins to younger folks so they could create change and grow the organization to be what they wanted to get out of the experience.”

Eric is not afraid to fail himself because he sees it as an opportunity to learn – something he wanted to instill in young leaders. The program worked. In fact, many of Eric’s students at Northrop Grumman moved on to successful careers at Google, Amazon, Motorola, Honeywell and other major tech firms.

“Coming out of college, many young folks think they know it all. Yet, they are still aspiring to learn more and grow as leaders in non-threatening environments,” he explained.

At some point, people become less inclined to learn new things, which is a trait he strove to avoid himself. Due to his love of golf, Eric also serves as the transportation chairman for a senior Professional Golf Association (PGA) event in North Carolina. It’s much different trying to motivate adult volunteers than it is younger people.

“Older volunteers think they know what should be done and in what way, so it’s harder for them to follow directions,” he explained.

In addition to playing golf whenever he can, Eric also likes to dabble in landscaping and renovating his home. An avid fiction reader, it is not unusual for him to read 10 books on a 10-day vacation.

Short-term job with long-term impact

After retiring in 2018, Eric found renewed purpose as a middle school substitute teacher. It was another opportunity for him to utilize his undergraduate degree in education from Boise State University.

After reading a story in the local newspaper about the desperate need for substitute teachers, he submitted an application and was quickly approved. The paper didn’t exaggerate. Eric said he could fill in as a substitute every day of the week, if he desired.

“I don’t want to spread myself too thin, so I do maintain time for myself,” he explained. “But it’s hard for me to say no when schools call me at 6 a.m. because it often means they are in panic and can’t find anyone else. So either I go in or the kids may wind up spending a day in the library and lose even more contact with the curriculum.”

In January 2021, Eric got a call asking if he could serve as a long-term substitute teaching English literature and journalism for five months. He jumped at the opportunity.

“Substitute teaching is a wonderful experience. Due to COVID, students pretty much lost two years of education and development, and they are hungry for a return to normalcy,” he explained. “When it comes to math, seventh and eighth graders often perform at third and fourth grade levels. So, whenever a school calls about a math class, I’ll go in.

“Because I specialize not only in teaching English, but also STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) classes, I get a call nearly every day to serve as a substitute teacher,” said Eric. “I earn about $100 a day, so I’m not doing it for the money. I do it because the kids need a good role model and someone to maintain discipline in the classroom.”

Some people think it would be very difficult for a 72-year-old man to relate to young people today, but that’s not the case for Eric.

“I’ve been around my kids and grandchildren the whole time, and I taught and coached youngsters at a prep school earlier in my life,” he explained. “Once I establish discipline expectations in the classroom, I don’t have any problems relating to my students. Because I am relatively fit, they think I’m in my 50s – not 72.”

“Kids want discipline and structure, even though they act like they don’t want it,” said Eric. “Starting out, many kids didn’t want to do the work and I was convinced none of them liked me. Now when I pass kids in the hall, whom I taught last year, they greet me by name and give me a high five.

“That’s an important lesson for adults wanting to work with children,” he added. “You may not think you’re getting through to them or having any impact at that the moment. But, later, you discover they really were listening and you’ve influenced the direction of their lives.”

Wasted opportunity

Eric thinks the current climate for substitute teachers is a real problem throughout the country. The situation is made worse because of union rules.

For example, Eric has a master’s degree in engineering and decades of experience in that field. However, he only qualifies as a Level 1 teacher – the same as someone right out of college – just because his master’s degree isn’t in education.

“People within the system have known for years that schools would need people like me who worked in business, but had to retire in order to keep their pensions intact. If they continued working, they’d lose their pensions,” he explained.

“So these fabulous mathematicians, physicists and scientists are no longer working in their field, yet they still have plenty of energy and a desire to put their skills to work as teachers. However, schools don’t pay them much more than minimum wage to work as substitute teachers,” he added. “Many former professionals aren’t going to give up an entire day just to make $100 when they can make that in an hour or two as a private tutor.

“Schools also don’t want older adults who are degreed by life experience. They want them to have a piece of paper certifying they attended a teaching class decades ago,” said Eric. “It’s a real shame.

“Most kids can’t write. They don’t know how to capitalize properly or how to punctuate. They can’t even write in complete sentences,” he explained. “That’s why I do what I do, especially in English classes, because that’s where kids need help the most. If they can’t communicate, write a proper letter or prepare a resume, then they’re not going to get a good job. They are destined for failure.”

Turning life experiences into books

Eric experienced some major challenges in his life. He and his wife of 34 years separated in December 2021, which caused him to start all over again. The couple had four children, but their son, Ryan, was born profoundly disabled in 1990. Doctors said Ryan wouldn’t live past 2 years of age; however, he surprised everyone by living 14 years before passing away in 2004.

Eric wrote about the pain of losing Ryan in his first book. He said it was an effective way to work through the grieving process. Titled “Ryan’s Stories: God’s Perfect Child,” it was written from Ryan’s perspective as though he was telling his own life story, even though he couldn’t communicate when he was alive.

“I self-published it and paid a company to print 1,000 copies, for which I think I sold 100 of them. But, I realized that wasn’t God’s purpose for me to write the book. I wrote it to help others understand what might be going on in the life of a profoundly-disabled child,” he said. “So, I’ve pretty much been giving the books away to parents and others whose lives have been touched by a child like Ryan.

“Writing the book healed me and I know that it may help others who have lost a child,” Eric said. “I want people to know everyone has value in life, and not to be afraid or uncomfortable around people with special needs.”

The second book he published was titled “The People You Meet In First Class: When Chance Meetings Become Life-Changing Conversations.” It was based on Eric’s 40 years of air travel experiences both in coach and first class.

“It includes stories about meeting people and having conversations with them that either changed me or helped to change them,” Eric explained. “By engaging with strangers, I gained insight to their lives and troubles, and was able to share some advice or solutions.”

His latest book, “What’s Cookin’: Feeding the Heart and Mind,” was released in January and follows Eric’s life-long pursuit to learn how to cook starting when he was a Boy Scout and continuing until he was an adult on assignment for three years in California and living in a hotel.

“Rather than go out and drink, party and eat out a lot, I stayed in my little studio apartment at the Residence Inn. I started creating recipes and watching Chop on the Food Channel,” he explained. “When I retired from corporate America, I continued my passion for cooking in a full-service kitchen at my home. However, the book focuses on ways people can make amazing meals with minimal supplies and basic provisions.”

Eric intended the book to be less than 20,000 words printed in black-and-white with only a few pictures and recipes. It wound up being 292 pages with 178 color photos.

“I’m thrilled with what I do and I’m happier, even if I don’t make a lot of money by writing books. I’m just happy to know my books help other people,” he explained. “If I had to live my life over again, I wouldn’t change a thing because if you change one thing, you change everything.”

With more time to pursue his passion, Eric wants to start traveling again. He had accumulated a great deal of hotel and airline frequent traveler points prior to COVID and he’s excited to put them to use. He also wants to try his hand at writing a few children’s books.

“God gave me a certain kind of personality, so I feel called to speak to people and, if necessary, embarrass myself in front of them because my stories might help someone,” he added.

“For many people, retirement means you quit and give up living the rest of your life. I refuse to do that,” said Eric. “For me, retirement is an opportunity to share and give back all I have learned from other people. I’ll take time to enjoy myself along the way, but helping others is what’s giving me joy.”

To connect with Eric, visit www.facebook.com/eric.pearson.7796.

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