Education & Family

Substitute Teacher Stephen Tabeling, 93, Has One Rule for Students: “Don’t Be Like Me.”

In his own words, the former police lieutenant speaks about going from school delinquent to inspirational educator.
—Photography by Gary Landsman

Nonagenarian Stephen Tabeling spent most of his life in policing. Now he gives back to youth as a substitute teacher. Here, in his own words, he speaks about going from school delinquent to inspirational educator.

I get a kick out of the fact that I started out in life as a bad kid, and now I’m trying to help young people stay in school.

I was suspended from two Catholic schools for playing hooky, and here I am at 93 years old, substitute teaching in a Catholic school and telling kids, “Don’t be like me.”

I hated school so much, I often refused to go. My dad threatened to send me to St. Mary’s Industrial School for incorrigible boys—the same place where Babe Ruth lived as a child. After quitting school at 14, I knocked around the streets. Then I met a girl and fell in love. Finally, I was motivated to make something of myself.

I found out I could do things I didn’t think I could do. In 1954, while working as a streetcar driver, I went to City Hall and applied for many jobs, including the Baltimore Police Department. I had never thought about being a policeman. But I went through the police academy, and after about two months on the street I told my wife, “This is what I should have been doing all along.”

I became a lieutenant, working in narcotics and homicide, and retired after 25 years. Of course, I didn’t really retire, because I worked for a time at Johns Hopkins and became chief of police in Salisbury for three years. After a Johns Hopkins medical student was murdered near the hospital, I came back to overhaul their security protocols. I stayed about seven years, then I became director of public safety at Loyola University.

Along the way, I completed my GED, then earned my associate degree in criminal justice, and then a bachelor’s from Loyola in political science in 1973. In 2000, the Baltimore Police Department brought me back to conduct an assessment of the homicide department and teach practical law in the academy. Policing today is definitely challenging; the secret is proper training. In my career I locked up eight policemen. I’m dead against dirty cops.


When I go into the classroom to teach a class, I tell students, “I’m here because I want to be here. I don’t need the money.”


I’ve always had a lot of energy. I got it from my great-grandparents, both of whom lived to be over 100 years old. About six years ago, I was looking for a change from private detective work. I’ve always had something in me that made me want to teach, and I enjoyed teaching in the police academy. My daughter, who is the attorney for the Baltimore County Board of Education, suggested I apply to substitute teach. The kids call me Mr. Steve, and it’s a good feeling to know that I’m helping somebody.

I have four children, 11 grandchildren, and 13 great-grandchildren. I’m concerned about the generation coming up. I’m concerned about the curriculum in schools. You don’t have that teacher-student relationship that I like. Too much classwork takes place on computers. I like to get them to make little presentations to the class, but nowadays the curriculum is not set up in that fashion.

When I go into the classroom to teach a class, I tell students, “I’m here because I want to be here. I don’t need the money.”

I try to instill in the kids that you have to do things to feel good about yourself. That’s why I teach…because I figured I had a message for kids.