Good Talk: Mr. Furhman

Eye to eye, web to web, and make it firm


Maria Cima, Reporter

What did you do before you were a substitute teacher?

Well, I’ll give a little history background on myself. I started teaching my first five years out of college. I taught high school — I was a health and physical education teacher. Then, I had the opportunity to go to Penn State University to be the assistant conditioning coach for the athletic department, for all 28 sports except football. Then, I had the opportunity at Penn State to become the football strength and conditioning coach, so I did that for 10 years. Then, I had the opportunity to come to the Steelers and be their strength and conditioning coach, and I worked for them for 15 years. Then, there was coaching changing, and I left the Steelers and found myself with nothing to fall back on except my college degree, which was teaching, and I said, “Hey, I can substitute teach.” So, here I am, at North Allegheny School District subbing for 8 years.

Story behind the legendary handshake?

There was a player for the Steelers — he was a quarterback, his name was Mike Tomczak, and his dad was a high school teacher and coach. Mike and I were just talking in my office at the end of one day about self esteem and how important a handshake is to tell whether someone has a high self esteem. He said his dad had three things that he used whenever he taught a handshake to his students, and those three things were 1) web to web, 2) look them eye to eye, and 3) make it firm. The rest is history. When I was with the Steelers, I spoke quite often to youth and high school football players and always wanted to give a message, and this was part of my talk. Part of the message was the handshake and those three points. I came up with the concept of linking it with self esteem, in believing in yourself, and then at the end of my talk, I would always shake every kid’s hand that I talked to. One time, I spoke to a group of 250 kids, and I shook every kids’ hand, and I gave them fine points on their hand shake, like, “Hey, give me eye contact,” or “Hey, make it firm.” It was just one of my talking points for trying to motivate young kids and trying to make them believe in themselves.

What is your favorite age group to sub for?

NASH has probably grown to be my favorite. When I first started to substitute, I did elementary, middle, and both high schools. I don’t know if it was just getting older, but patience and little kids don’t mix well. Though, now I have little grandson who I am relearning to have better patience with. But, I stopped after about two years of doing elementary, and I only did elementary physical education classes — I never did the subject classes in elementary. Then, I only did middle, intermediate, and high school, and then after a couple years, I guess my patience was wearing thin again, so I stopped doing middle school and only did intermediate and high school. To this day, I do fewer days at the intermediate high school, but I like to get down there at least 3-5 times a month so that I get to see the students there. So, when they come up to NASH, they sort of know me and who I am. You know I have my three ups when I start class, sit up, square up, eyes up. It has grown that I like to do NASH, the high school, the best.

What’s the funniest/craziest thing you have ever witnessed in a classroom?

I don’t know if there was a crazy thing that happened, but one time in Spanish class, the teacher had to be out because of an emergency and didn’t have the lesson plans, so I started a competition, which was boys against girls, and they had to write sentences on the board that they had to do for homework, and as the girls were writing the sentences on the board, the boys had to interpret them correctly and vice versa. The students were the judges. It came down to the wire to where it was tied, and it ended up that the girls won, and the boys got upset because they felt that I had cheated them, and it got kind of chaotic, but it was all in good fun.

What’s your least and most favorite thing about subbing?

My least favorite thing about substitute teaching is when I don’t have lesson plans because I hate to give a study hall. If I’m in for a teacher that gives study halls all day, it tends to be a long day, and it seems the students are never working — they talk more, and they get louder and LOUDER, and things get more chaotic, so I would rather have students doing work. My most favorite thing is just being around a great administration, great teachers, and great students. Out of the eight years I’ve been doing this, maybe only two times have I ever had an issue in the classroom because in most instances, 99% of the time, the teachers give great lesson plans, and the students usually respond. One of my favorite things to tell a teacher is that their students were great, and I had no problems.

Has your superior handshake ever gotten you anything in life?

Oh my gosh! Well, I’ll tell you what, it has probably gotten me a few jobs along the way. The reason I try to relay that onto students is because, whenever they go into an interview, before you utter one word, a handshake will tell something about you. It will tell the other you really believe in yourself, whether you have that confidence. I mean, one of the things that I don’t like to see adults do is tell somebody that a younger child is shy. To me, that is like telling somebody that they’re dumb, and psychologists will tell you that if you tell somebody that they are dumb, they will believe that. It’s the same thing with being told you are shy — if you tell somebody that they are shy, then the child will grow up thinking they are shy, and they will feel inferior because of that. Recently, I told my daughter, who has a 21 month old, don’t say that Gio (Giovanni is his name) is shy because if you teach somebody a learning effect, they will learn it, but if you don’t, then they won’t learn. A handshake is just a taught experience, and I think that self confidence and self esteem are things that you will be able to teach kids.

What’s the best advice you have ever been given?

That’s a hard one. The best advice I’ve ever been given has come from people I’ve worked for. I’ve had some great mentors in my life time, and one of the things that one of my mentors taught me is that it is better to actually listen, rather than talk. I think as you listen to someone else talk, you get a better perspective on life.

What school has the best lunches?

Actually, NAI has the best lunch. I’m a foodie — I love to eat, and I love to cook. I love to grow my own vegetables in my garden in the summertime, especially tomatoes. So, being a foodie, first of all, NAI has a full period for lunch. Lunches at NASH will give you indigestion because you have to throw down your food so fast and get to the next class in 30 minutes or less. At NAI, you have a full 40 minutes, so you have time to eat your meal, sit down, have a conversation, and relax. They also have a little better selection, since they have all those food sections.