The Most Powerful People I Know: My Students

January 15, 2019

Juan Serrano teaches the Seminar in Social Justice at Abramson Sci Academy, a Collegiate Academies School, and is a 2017 New Orleans Excellence in Teaching Award Winner.


I am fortunate to come to work every day, where I am surrounded by the most powerful people I know—my students. They are the future leaders of our city, our country, and our world.

My students have achieved incredible things. I’m proud of students like Jabarri, whose group was tasked with coming up with a plan to end homelessness while he himself was homeless. Or Theresa, who organized a silent protest against human trafficking that engaged 30 students across the school. I’m moved by Damon, who wrote powerfully for the Times Picayune about the voter registration drive his class was a part of. I’m in awe of the $25,000 my class raised in 2017 after a tornado devastated the community around our school. I’m inspired by the 50 students that joined me in heading to Washington D.C. for the March for Our Lives rally, who endured 21 hours on a bus with no heat just so they could have their voices heard on the grandest of stages. They are freedom fighters. One day, it will be my students that walk those halls of power themselves as members of Congress, if they so choose.

My students experience many of society’s injustices firsthand. Some are immigrants. Many live in poverty. Others have significant learning and emotional needs. These young people deserve the same opportunities as anyone else—but students like mine endure systemic disadvantages in America today. Change will not come unprompted. I teach my students the value of social responsibility and civic engagement so they can be the ones to bring about that change. In my classroom, my students speak truth to power. They take leadership roles and stand up for what they believe. They are forming the counter-narrative to what the world thinks a classroom of students of color in New Orleans East can be. We define our legacy. No one else.

My class, Seminar in Social Justice (SSJ), is an applied civics course oriented around justice and equity. We work to decenter the dominant perspectives within ourselves, our classroom, and our broader community; we explore the idea that the primary narrative about a person, a place, or an identity may not be the right or the only one. We do so by investigating critical issues in our communities and by proposing public policy solutions to a panel of judges. Our judges include members of the school board, local district judges, members of city council, the superintendent, and even our mayor herself.

I teach because I believe I can help students revolutionize our society. The inequality that exists in our world didn’t just happen; it was created. I work to promote democracy within my classroom itself, acknowledging that even the roles of teacher and student involve a power dynamic to explore. To address this, I involve students in designing lessons and making the classroom fit their interests and needs. When students speak up and organize their communities, they are engaging in the best of the democratic process, and strengthening the very fabric of our nation itself. As an educator, I am proof for my students that they can be leaders. I am a man of color from New Orleans, and every day, I model the professionalism and passion that my students have within themselves, too.

Their lives are full of possibility. Their futures are wide open and ahead of them. As they harness that, they give a gift to all of us. When they lead, we benefit from their knowledge, their love, their brilliance, and their innovation. I truly believe that my students are going to run this city one day and then, the world. I am proud to help them get there.