ARTICLE

What Esteban Taught Me

This teacher had the information she needed to decode a student’s tough behavior…but what if she hadn’t?

For the first time in my 10-year career, I am teaching the child of a friend. I greeted this new experience both with excitement and concern. After all, I don’t want to let my friend down or cause her to question her choice to trust me as her son’s teacher.

Esteban wasn’t scheduled to come to our school. He doesn’t live in the neighborhood. He begged his mother to enroll him in the school where she worked because he knew the staff and campus. He felt at home there. She hesitated, worried that he would rely on her too much. In the end, she enrolled him.

When the principal was scheduling classes, he called Esteban’s mother to see if she would like him to be in the standard sixth-grade elective class or the reading support class I taught. She asked her son which class he wanted. In a moment of reflective honesty, Esteban declared that he should take the reading support class since he doesn’t really like reading and needs to get better. He added something to the effect of, “Besides, Ms. Thomas is teaching it!”

With this deepest compliment in mind, I entered the first day of school enthusiastic about teaching Esteban, the young man I have known at staff parties and gatherings since he was just 3 years old. I figured being his teacher would be easy because I already love him like family, and we have shared memories. But the first day didn’t go as I had hoped. Esteban’s voiced enthusiasm for my class in the safety of his own home appeared much different in the classroom. He put his head on the desk. He seemed withdrawn. He didn’t want to create a colorful nametag or engage in any of the icebreakers I’d planned. 

Had I not known about Esteban’s reasons for coming to our school, had I not known about the conversation he had with his mom about challenging himself to be a better reader, had I not known from my previous interactions with Esteban that he is a helpful, friendly child, I might have assumed many other things about him. I might have assumed that he was “lazy,” “doesn’t want to be here,” “doesn’t want to learn,” “hates school” or “hates teachers.”

Because I know his mother as a dear friend and trusted colleague, I know the quality of parenting that Esteban is getting. In fact, I am certain that the behaviors I saw in the first week of school are masks, attempts to cover up insecurity, fear and maybe even loneliness. (He left his own neighborhood and the friends he had there to come to our school).

Never again will I be able to see a young man with his head on the desk and think, “He doesn’t want to be here.” I’ll think, “He wants so badly to be here! I have to help him see it’s okay to show it.” 

x
Teaching Tolerance collage of images

Welcome to Learning for Justice—Formerly Teaching Tolerance!

Our work has evolved in the last 30 years, from reducing prejudice to tackling systemic injustice. So we’ve chosen a new name that better reflects that evolution: Learning for Justice.

Learn More