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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Monday, March 21, 2005

Teacher seeks to unionize substitutes

By Johnny Brannon
Advertiser Education Writer

John Hoff is a builder, in more ways than one.

John Hoff

He became a substitute teacher on Kaua'i after working there for more than 30 years as a general contractor, constructing homes and developing real estate. Now 65, he's determined to create a union for substitutes and fix a system he finds unjust.

"If there were no abuses, there'd be no need for a union," said Hoff, founder of the Substitute Teachers Professional Alliance. "I'm a Republican, and I'm starting a union. That surprises some people, but if there's an abuse, you get rid of it. An abuse is an abuse."

Organizing hasn't been easy. It took repeated requests — and a $123 fee — to get a list of substitutes from the Department of Education, Hoff said. He then got telephone directories for each island and started looking up numbers.

"It's been a two-year process, and now it's getting to the point where it's paying off," he said. "The organization is coming together."

He's taught in nearly all of Kaua'i's 15 public schools, and said he brings a can-do spirit to the classroom. Sharing personal experiences is a good way to keep students' attention and gain their respect, he said.

"The kids love substitutes because they're something different, something new," Hoff said. "If you can tell stories of your life, they just eat it up. They appreciate it if you treat them fair and if you tell them stories."

Hoff has some good ones. He grew up in the Bay Area and earned a bachelor's degree in American history from San Francisco State University. It was the 1960s, and the city was alive with ideas and unrest.

As a Coast Guard reservist, Hoff helped search San Francisco Bay for three convicts who made a famous escape from the federal prison on Alcatraz Island. The escapees paddled away in an improvised raft and were never heard from again. Some historians suspect they drowned, but Hoff believes they made it.

"The water was so smooth, with hardly any current, and it was hot outside," he said. "They couldn't have picked a better night. The kids love that story."

He later joined the Peace Corps and came to Hawai'i for training, then served in the Philippines. It was a beautiful country with a hard edge, and guns seemed to be everywhere, he said.

Hoff returned to Hawai'i in 1966 and stayed, raising children who attended Kaua'i's public schools. As a substitute, he's taught a variety of subjects, including science, math and auto shop. History is a favorite, but it's a challenge to keep students interested.

He recalled showing a class the film clip taken when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, then leading a discussion about possible motives for the killing.

"They said, 'Mr. Hoff, history's interesting the way you teach it.' That was quite a compliment," he said.

Reach Johnny Brannon at jbrannon@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8084.