Most teachers at CDS – nearly two dozen of whom are graduates of UVA’s Curry School of Education and Human Development – have their master’s degrees, but CDS Executive Director Dave Bruns said Evans’ personality made him a perfect fit.
“He brings a playfulness that is a real part of our philosophy,” Bruns said. “We take play very seriously as a way of learning. There’s a natural curiosity and social and emotional development that comes from that.”
On a recent weekday at the school, Evans’ rapport with the kids was obvious as they raced around the gym, leaping to give Evans high-fives after every lap.
“When we play tag, we ask him to play with us and he always says yes,” said second-grader Madeline Williams.
First- and second-grade teacher Coro Cope said Evans – who just completed his fourth year at CDS – is special.
“Jontel is one of the kindest, big-hearted people that we’ve ever worked with,” Cope said. “The way that kids light up when they see him is pretty remarkable. They feel very seen and very heard by him. I think that just speaks to what a wonderful guy he is overall.”
Evans said the kids inspire him on a daily basis.
“They’re so innocent and don’t know what the real world is like,” he said. “I remember being that age and having dreams and aspirations.
“These kids motivate me to be a better teacher and a better man.”
Evans’ successful new career isn’t a surprise to Bennett, who still remembers the special touch he had as a counselor at his summer basketball camps.
“His work with the kids was wonderful,” Bennett said. “He was a guy who you could just see had a natural ability to communicate.”
Evans believes he’s found his calling.
“Just teaching kids, period, is something that I value a lot,” he said. “Why not shape the youth when they’re younger? I just find that to be very valuable.
“I don’t know how long I’ll be teaching and coaching, but whatever I decide to do after this is going to have something to do with influencing kids because I feel like that’s a gift of mine.”
Along the way, he’d like to share some of the experiences – both good and bad – that have shaped him.
“I’ve realized that there are so many people who think they are dealing with their issues alone, and that’s not the case,” Evans said. “I want to be an advocate for people to express whatever they’re going through and let it be known that they’re not by themselves.
“I want people to understand that you can dig yourself out of the hole and get back on track.”
It had been over six years since Evans laced up his sneakers for the Hoos, but that didn’t diminish his excitement one iota this past April as UVA won its first national championship.
Evans, who stays in regular touch with former teammates – including Mike Scott, Justin Anderson and Malcolm Brogdon – and attends as many UVA basketball practices and games as his schedule permits, still feels like part of the team.
“I heard Ty Jerome say that none of this would be possible if it wasn’t for the guys before us,” said Evans, referring to comments the former UVA guard made during a press conference, “and I was just like, ‘Wow.’ For him to embrace the past like that…it just really meant a lot.”
Evans has experienced similar sentiment in the Charlottesville community.
“When I go out to eat or something on the Corner, people say, ‘Thank you, Jontel. Thank you for starting this,’” he said.
Evans’ fandom during March Madness was well-documented. When UVA played Texas Tech in the championship, Evans was at Brixx Wood Fired Pizza in Barracks Road Shopping Center.
At the final buzzer, Evans exited the restaurant and sprinted up and the down the street, hollering in delight.
“Cars were stopping and were like, ‘Is he OK?’” Evans said. “I was just so happy because I knew where this program was 10 years before the national championship. It was a great feeling. I was so proud of the team, the staff and Coach Bennett. There was nobody more deserving than him. He gave an opportunity to a lot of people like myself to grow outside of basketball into men. He has no idea how he’s shaped my life.”
Evans smiled as he recalled that first-ever meeting at his parents’ house.
“Look at us now,” he said, grinning. “National champs.”