Facebook Twitter
Twenty students assembled in a group in a classroom, with two adult male teachers sitting on desks directly in front of them.

Omar Lisojo (front right) and his former teacher, Andres Diaz (front left), with students.

Tom Grimes, courtesy of Honored

Here’s how I knew I could handle a class of my own

Mr. Diaz’s classroom was a safe space for meaningful conversations. I want that for my students, too.

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

Earlier this school year, I stood in front of a class at the board and wrote out the day’s “Scribbler.” 

As the students began writing, I had to pause and take in what was happening. That day, I was a substitute teacher. But five years ago, I was on the flip side of things, a student sitting at those same desks in that same classroom. 

I had Mr. Diaz for English class in my junior year of high school. Mr. Diaz had a way of getting us as students to reflect on our own lives. At the beginning of each class, he would write a question on the board like, “If we learn from our mistakes, why are we always so afraid to make a mistake?” The questions were created in a way to make us think about our experiences and our core values, desires, and fears. 

A man in a long sleeve shirt smiles at the camera with his hands in his pockets.

Author Omar Lisojo.

Photo by Tom Grimes, courtesy of Honored

After the allotted time expired, we shared what we wrote. The sharing aloud part was optional, but the more students shared, the better the conversation would be. That was a Scribbler.

Mr. Diaz inspired me because not only did he cover what was in the curriculum in a dynamic way, but he also made it a point to have these philosophical, meaningful class discussions. He encouraged my classmates and me to discuss our own lives and defend our choices openly.

It wasn’t until my senior year that I really bonded with Mr. Diaz, though. I decided to stop by his classroom to catch up, and I wound up spending the rest of my senior year lunches in his classroom talking about life. There was nothing that I looked forward to more than these conversations because I knew I would go ahead with my day feeling inspired. 

Today, I see the Scribblers and our lunch conversations as two parts of his teaching style — one anchored in an open-door policy and an understanding that students learn best if they see the classroom as a safe space.

This school year, I have had the honor to be the substitute teacher for Mr. Diaz on a few occasions. I’ve gotten to bond with his students and even come up with my own Scribbler questions. Standing in front of the room, discussing answers with his students, I felt this overwhelming feeling: This is exactly what I’m supposed to be doing. 

The day I wrote a Scribbler on the board, a few of Mr. Diaz’s students told me how they would have loved to have me as an actual teacher. They probably had no idea how much that meant to me, and how excited I am to have my own classes one day soon — and to have the ability to pay it forward by listening over lunch. 

Omar Lisojo is a substitute teacher at Morris Hills High School in Rockaway, New Jersey. The nonprofit Honored recently featured Lisojo and his former teacher, Andres Diaz. Lisojo will graduate from Montclair State University in December.