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.
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.
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.