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Desus and Mero Substitute in St. Charles Borromeo’s Fifth Grade

Desus and Mero are Bronx-based, New York-loving, often irreverent talk show hosts whose Showtime broadcast often features relaxed interviews with the likes of Hollywood stars, recording artists, and Presidents Obama and Biden. This week, though, their show featured the fifth graders from our own St. Charles Borromeo School in Harlem and their teacher, Dave Robles.

“Featured” isn’t exactly what Desus and Mero called it; on a snowy day when both in-person and at-home learners were all coming to class via Zoom, the guys offered to substitute teach. As you’ll see in the segment linked below, they sent Mr. Robles “to the teachers’ lounge” (although for the record, he stayed on Zoom with the class).

Our admiration for the work of all Partnership teachers is profound—and the joy we get from our students sustains us. So to have American cultural icons like Desus and Mero—from our own schools’ neighborhoods no less—turn a comedy segment into an homage to pandemic students and teachers is just plain awesome.

While late-night talk show hosts might not seem like anyone’s idea of substitute teachers, these two are possibly among the most qualified; Mero actually worked as a teacher’s aide and studied teacher education at New York’s own Hunter College. That’s part of the reason why, perhaps, he and Desus chose to shout-out a teacher in the first place. And while their irreverence is part of what makes Desus and Mero’s show perfect late-night fare, their earnest admiration for Mr. Robles shines through the segment.

Those of us who have the privilege of watching Dave Robles teach know without celebrities telling us that he is an extraordinarily caring, joy-filled educator—and that our hallways are blessedly full of such people. Desus and Mero went out of their way to give the kids a chance to explain that. A few minutes into the segment, they ask students how they feel about Mr. Robles, and a chorus of students echo what Joaquin says: “Mr. Robles is honestly the coolest person I know.” and Bryson added: “He makes the day better when I’m feeling down.”

Not only does Mr. Robles manage to score his fifth graders a guest spot on Showtime; he figures out hilarious everyday rewards for doing well in class, like getting to walk down the middle of the classroom in an action-hero, slow-mo strut away from an explosion:


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He also comes to that classroom with a clear sense of mission that he and Mero talked about when the cameras weren’t rolling. “We talked about how teaching is tough,” Mr. Robles shares, “because sometimes students show up with dad-shaped holes; they are raising siblings; they blame themselves for their parents not being together.” He goes on to share that at St. Charles, “we call that part of what we do cura personalis. It’s not enough to worry that kids can simplify a fraction right now; we really embrace the whole child. That’s what’s great about working here.”

As Mr. Robles practices care for the whole person, he also instills that ethic in students—all while helping them learn to simplify fractions and improve their writing. For example, he awards pens of progressive quality as students improve both as writers and as peer coaches for each other’s writing. Kids get the lowest quality of pen as a page; as their writing improves, they become squires and then knights, ceremonially tapped with pens that are mightier than swords. To ascend to the highest level—paladin—and receive a Cross pen blessed by the school’s pastor—they have to demonstrably help someone else’s writing “level up,” in addition to improving themselves.

“We are coals,” Mr. Robles insists about his classroom. “Together we burn; separately we grow cold.” And as he says in the segment, the key to making it through the challenges of pandemic teaching and learning is to create a classroom culture where students and teachers “recharge each other’s batteries.”

That notion of how to stay charged as a teacher is something Mr. Robles has clearly thought a great deal about. “The beauty of the calling,” of teaching he shares, “is that the calling keeps on calling. We are purpose-driven by this mission that is something beyond all of us; but it’s also a job. If we lean too much into the mission, we lose our minds; if we lean too much in the work, we lose our spirits; we have to pitch our tents in the middle.” As both a craftsman of the classroom, coming up with concrete strategies to care for his students, mind and soul—and as a mission-driven educator, Mr. Robles has his tent pitched right in the place where each of our teachers has the chance to transform our students’ lives.

And that’s even cooler than the coolest guys on cable television.

See the full segment of the show here.