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Teenage boys sit together in a classroom.

“All I knew was that when I was at the high school working with those seniors, I felt like I was right where I was supposed to be,” writes Omar Lisojo.

Allison Shelley for EDUimages

I set out to show that men could teach elementary school. Then I changed course.

While subbing at a local high school, I saw another path forward.

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

I have always loved working with kids, and I long ago decided I wanted to be a teacher. Two years ago, when I was accepted into the teacher education program at Montclair State University, I decided to work toward a certification to teach kindergarten to sixth grade.

I wanted to play a role in changing the way elementary education is viewed as an area where only female teachers work. I had reflected on my own experience as a student and realized that I didn’t have many male teachers until high school. I wanted to show young boys that men can teach, too.

Twice a week for five months, I student-taught in a fourth grade classroom. I became “Mr. Lisojo” for the first time, and I couldn’t help but think of how close I was to achieving my childhood dream of becoming a teacher.

Headshot of a smiling man wearing a dark blue long-sleeve t-shirt.

Omar Lisojo

Photo by Tom Grimes, courtesy of Honored

I loved teaching fourth grade because the students are so alive and care about everything.

Ambivalence is rare. I learned quickly that most students that age are still eager to learn. They are independent enough to explore but dependent enough to listen. That memorable class will always have a special place in my heart.

While I was a student teacher, I was also a high school substitute. When I told a friend of mine that I wanted to sub at the high school level, he said, “Are you sure? High schoolers are scary, and they are going to walk all over you because you’re so young.” I responded, “I am 100% sure that I want to at least try it.” What I didn’t know at that moment was that I would develop a strong rapport with the senior class and become a mentor to some students.

I often covered English classes due to my love of English, but I ended up having some seniors in all different classes, from precalculus to AP Biology. As the months went by, I started to realize how much I enjoyed working with high schoolers. I participated in senior class activities and even assisted students with college decisions. I questioned if K-6 was still the route I should take.

I was at war with myself for months on end. All I knew was that when I was at the high school working with those seniors, I felt like I was right where I was supposed to be.

That senior class allowed my teaching philosophy to come to life every time I was in the classroom with them. At its core, my philosophy is that a safe classroom environment — a place where students can discuss their struggles, even with mental health, and where a diverse group of students feels challenged and nurtured — leads to young people reaching their highest potential.

The burdens that students carry during their high school years are often heavy. We are living in a world that invites students to compare themselves to others. Senior year, students expect big things from themselves. I know that students benefit immensely from an education that leaves room for discussions and focuses on the core pieces of being human.

A man in a polo shirt smiles surrounded by seven students in red graduation robes.

Omar Lisojo with members of the class of 2022.

Courtesy of Omar Lisojo

As the school year came to an end, a few students approached me to sign their yearbooks. I was caught completely off guard, but I was beyond honored.

As I attempted to formulate my thoughts, one of the students asked, “Mr. Lisojo, you’re coming to our graduation, right?”

“If you guys want me to be there, I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” I said.

The Morris Hills High School class of 2022 inspired me to make an extremely difficult decision: Now, I plan to teach high school English.

Although I will no longer be working with students at the K-6 level, I know that I have made the best decision for myself. I almost wanted to find a way to teach elementary school and high school. However, I knew that wasn’t possible.

During my time of reflection, I kept going back to how amazing it was to connect with those high school students and help prepare them for a new chapter of their lives. I couldn’t be any more excited to transition from substituting to having my own classroom.

Omar Lisojo is a substitute teacher at Morris Hills High School in Rockaway, New Jersey. He will graduate from Montclair State University in December.