Moe Ismail has been living a double life: teaching elementary school by day and performing stand-up comedy by night.
Now, as he juggles substitute teacher gigs with a growing number of stand-up performances from coast to coast, he enjoys watching it dawn on some students that there's more to "Mr. Ismail" than expected.
After catching him in a recent World Cup-themed ad for a Canadian shawarma chain, for instance, "students are now slowly starting to unravel this image of who I am," he explained.
"In time... they're going to be old enough to come out to some of these comedy shows. What I really like is just seeing that perspective unravel and [students realizing] who this guy really is, who they thought initially was just a teacher."
Perseverance and connecting with others while staying authentic to his roots — as a Muslim Canadian of Egyptian heritage — have helped Ismail build his career as a comedian. This year, he criss-crossed Canada for performances and released his debut comedy album, Homeroom Habibi.
Those traits are what he hopes to impart on his students, too.
'He knows how we feel'
Ismail was just eight or nine years old when he arrived in Canada. He still vividly recalls the overwhelming culture shock of being an immigrant kid who spoke little English when his family first settled in Scarborough, in Toronto's east end.
He mines memories from his childhood — faring poorly as a student, becoming that kid at the back of the class cracking jokes, schoolyard bravado — for comedy routines. They also inform the bonds he forges in the classroom, including regular assignments at the Toronto elementary school he himself attended.
"He actually used to be a student in this school, too, so he knows how we feel sometimes and what things we like," said student Divya Smith, who's in Grade 8.
"[He's] probably the best supply teacher that you'll ever get in any school. He really knows how to connect with students… Even though he can be strict at some points, he always has that funny side to lighten up the class."
Along with Ismail being "up on trends" and having an "amazing" mustache, fellow Grade 8 student Markos Hailemariam says it's pretty cool to have a teacher who is also a comedian.
"He's very sociable as a teacher. Like, he's easy to talk to. He's easy to get to know."
That Ismail knows and talks about topics students care about makes for a better space to learn in, added another classmate, Clayton Prue.
"Most teachers like old-type stuff. He feels young to me, even though he's old... He kind of has a lot of energy and he's a good dude."
For vice-principal Denise Edwards, having a teacher that kids can relate to, who grew up in the neighbourhood and who brings joy and positivity to the classroom, is important for her students. Representation matters, she says.
"He understands them. He knows about social media. He knows what happened in the news, and he knows the TikTok videos and Instagram posts and all of that. He connects that to the learning that they're doing, but also... the community that they live in," she said.
Ismail's career path also shows the community "that there are possibilities," Edwards added.
"'You can look like me and you may think that the media says something different about you, but... all opportunities are possible."
Perseverance amid a winding path
Though he's following in the footsteps of his mother, a former teacher, Ismail's path hasn't been a direct one. After lacklustre grades in high school, it was years before a volunteer stint working alongside students with special education needs sparked a fire in him to hit the books again.
Ismail appealed the initial rejection of his university application (due to his dismal high school transcript). Though he was eventually accepted into postsecondary studies, it came with a catch: he was placed on academic probation from the moment he started. Still, he persevered to graduate with degrees in both sociology and education.
"Most things in life require hard work. They require hearing a lot of noes, getting a lot of doors closed. It's just up to you to kind of pick up, recentre and [go] after the things that you want," he explained.
"That's what I really try to teach these kids … whether you don't make the soccer team or you don't make the cut in [a] club that you're trying to be a part of, that doesn't necessarily mean that it's a 'no' forever. It's just that that particular door might require a little bit more work to open up or perhaps you need to take a different path to get to where you want to be."
Ismail calls his rising comedy career a blessing — a dream he's happy to pursue in parallel with teaching, especially back in Scarborough.
"Giving back your time, giving back your skills to the community — especially the community that you grew up in — it's really like watering these roots that helped grow you into this person that you are."
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Being a performer on the road and connecting with audiences in far-flung locations has its share of challenges, according to Ismail. However, navigating the classroom can be even tougher: delivering the curriculum while also inspiring students — especially those reminiscent of his young, joker self — to enjoy and channel their talents into their learning.
"You want to connect with every student and you want to make sure they understand the potential of what life could bring them," Ismail said, adding that it can be more difficult when a student feels disengaged.
"Sometimes that kind of behaviour — of being disconnected — is just the result of them not believing in themselves. So [I'm] really trying to open that up a little bit and say: 'Hey, you know what? It's not just one narrow path. Life is so big and you can do anything you want to do.'"