“You learn something every day”: former teacher Robert Butler substitutes at Whitman, day after day 


By Simone Meyer

When Robert Butler began teaching in the 1970s, he didn’t expect his venture into education to last. Butler had just graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in American diplomatic history. He planned to pursue a law degree, but, wanting first to give back to the educational system, Butler took up a temporary job as a history teacher at Richard Montgomery High School. It wasn’t long before law school plans disappeared.

“I had been accepted to law school already,” Butler said. “But I decided to try teaching, and then fell in love with it and never looked back.”

Butler taught at Richard Montgomery for 15 years before accepting a job at Whitman as an AP United States Government and Politics and AP United States History teacher as well as the men’s tennis and golf coach. He taught at Whitman for 16 years before he stepped down from his posts, when he began to look into an array of possible other career options, including jobs in retail and hospitality. Still, Butler missed developing connections with students. He began working as a substitute teacher for schools across the county, but he always looked back wistfully on his time at Whitman, he said.  

Now, each morning, Butler knots his tie, hops in his car with his wife — math teacher Bonnie Butler — and heads to Whitman. But instead of coming into the same classroom, Butler substitutes for whoever needs him.

Butler loves substitute teaching for the ability it gives him to interact with young people, he said. 

“Whitman students are accepting, sophisticated, energetic, curious, academically inquisitive and courageous and willing to try things that maybe some other students wouldn’t try,” Butler said. “They’re just really good people.” 

Although Butler had previously spent almost 20 years teaching at Whitman, coming back to the school to substitute in 2008 was an adjustment, he said. After his hiatus, Butler’s only two former co-workers he remembered from his days as a teacher were social studies teacher Wendy Eagan and economics teacher Wayne Jacobson. Eagan has always had fond memories of Butler, who worked with her in social studies, she said.

“We both had a lot of close friends in the department who are no longer teaching,” Eagan said. “I think he’s very friendly, outgoing and interested in young people.”

Collaborating with a new generation of teachers means that working at Whitman hasn’t been the same as it used to be, Butler said, but he discovered a distinct joy in substituting. 

“I found that when I went home at the end of the day, I didn’t have meetings to go to and I didn’t have tests and papers to grade,” Butler said. “It was just a good experience for me.” 

However, since Butler began substituting, teachers have increasingly moved assignments from worksheets onto Chromebooks. This change has made it more challenging for Butler to develop connections with his students, he said. 

“Now the teacher puts every assignment on Canvas, and just for the most part tells students there’s an assignment waiting for them,” Butler said. “It makes it a little more difficult to get to know [students].”  

Despite this obstacle, Butler finds ways to catch up with students by checking in to see if they understand the lesson plan, giving advice to upperclassmen regarding college applications and chatting with students about their day-to-day activities. 

Junior Preston Khun had known Butler since his freshman year when Butler substituted for one of Colin O’Brien’s AP United States Government and Politics class periods. Butler’s amiable personality allows him to connect well with all students, Khun said.

“He just bonds with everybody,” Khun said. “I think that’s why people love him so much.”

Although Butler initially never imagined that he would return to Whitman’s hallways after his retirement from being a teacher, he feels grateful every day that he decided to come back to the school, he said. No matter which class Butler oversees or which students he teaches, he said he’s always able to find fulfillment in his work at Whitman, his “home base.” 

“It’s always a challenge, but it’s a fun challenge,” Butler said. “And if you can help somebody, that’s the best thing you can do.”