Editor’s Note: To celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, Kern Sol News is highlighting notable Hispanic leaders in Kern County who are working to create positive change in their community.
Sergio Espain has become the teacher he needed when he was in high school; one that cares enough to get your name and story right.
At Bakersfield High School Espain teaches; 11th and 12th grade English, English Language Learners Access, Journalism, workforce after school, and for the first time this school year, Chicano Literature. Teaching a wide range of classes gives him the chance to connect with students from every background and be a representation of what they can all accomplish.
He also pulls from the experiences he had growing up to help him in being a fair and understanding teacher. Most of his teachers in high school never tried to pronounce his name right or take the time to get to know who he was. He spoke about growing up blessed and in a middle-class setting however, he wasn’t seen that way.
“I was still held to the same standard as everybody else that looked like me. ‘You’re poor. Oh, you speak English? Oh, I didn’t know that.’ And having those experiences has made me a better teacher in terms of being fair,” said Espain. “Because I have to understand that a lot of these kids come from so many different socioeconomic backgrounds… I also have to understand that sometimes kids may not have had the same parents that I did. They may not have any parents at all.”
Understanding that many of the students that walk into his classroom may look at him as a role model or he may be the only constant adult figure in their lives, it is very important to him that he remains honest in the classroom.
He is still developing these skills every day with his students and recognizes that his experiences with his students have made him a more compassionate teacher.
At the beginning of his teaching career, he would be upset when students fell asleep in his classroom and tell them they needed to wake up. Then he had a student confide in him that they were working two jobs to help their family at home or students who come to him and say both of their parents had COVID.
The multitude of backgrounds in his classes is one reason why having classes that teach the history and literature of different cultures is important. For example, the Chicano literature class allows students to read things they can relate to more and see examples of the impact their culture has left on society.
“The Chicano lit class is important because if you look at American Authors, they’re all white… You have to take a specialized course to get African American literature, you have to take a specialized course now, to get Chicano literature, American Mexican Literature,” said Espain expanding on the importance of the Chicano lit class. “America isn’t just white. We are a melting pot of ethnicities and we need to start treating it that way.”
Espain explained that a lot of his students had a hard time connecting with majority white literature because to them it’s just “some white dude from 600 years ago”.
In Chicano literature they are learning about many authors who are still alive or had a more recent impact like when they will read Cesar Chavez later in the school year. Espain explained that he is also able to connect some of his personal experiences to the class.
He sees that the students can relate to the content that is taught and see people who have been able to overcome many of the challenges that the students have dealt with themselves.
The content they read in class shows that Mexican Americans have a place in American history. One student, David Ibáñez, said his favorite thing so far is learning about how his culture has impacted this country one example he gave was learning about songs that left an impact. He’s also enjoyed learning about different perspectives of how people in Mexico look at America and how Mexicans in America view things.
Ibáñez enjoyed learning about and listening to the song Somos Más Americanos by the band Los Tigres del Norte.
“Us Mexicans, we didn’t invade America as a country. We were already here,” said Ibáñez, discussing the song. “Our ancestors, the Native Americans and the Aztecs were here. It’s the Anglo-Saxons or the English people who came in and invaded us.”
Adding to the comforting atmosphere of the class, Espain also teaches the class bi-lingually which Ibáñez appreciates because he said it’s in a way similar to how a lot of students would speak at home. He stated that he was happy to have the connection of the culture he has at home within the classroom.
“It feels comforting in a way. It feels as if my culture is being involved into the school,” said Ibáñez.
Beyond the content of the class Ibáñez appreciates the way Espain is with his students and said that he feels like he’s on an equal level as Espain and is having a conversation with someone he is learning from.
“The way he talks to us and the way he listens,” said Ibáñez explaining the way Espain is as a teacher. “Like recently with fentanyl… he’s open about it. He’ll give his opinions and it’s just like a whole discussion.”
Ibáñez continued to say that Espain cares about his students and wants change. He stated that Espain is dedicated to protecting the future generation.
A mixture of how Espain explained his mindset with teaching and interacting with students and how Ibáñez described Espain as a teacher points to his leadership skills. Espain adopted many of his leadership skills from his Father. Watching his father throughout his life showed him who he wanted to be a man.
“I watched him in every aspect that I had. He was my superhero. As a matter of fact, I come to class and he’s right here, I talk to him every morning,” said Espain looking at the picture of his father on his desk.
Along with the teaching from his parents, Espain relies heavily on his faith in God to guide him through life.
Outside of work Espain enjoys spending all the time he can with his wife and daughter.
“I don’t care what my family’s doing. We could be sitting on the grass because our air conditioner broke or just chilling together, that is great. I love that, ” said Espain. “That gives me strength and hope. That fills my cup up.”
He said that teaching is like having a cup and everyone comes to him asking to pour goodness into theirs, so he has to make sure he is filling it when he goes home from work. He said that his cup is filled with his wife, kid, faith, writing, and music.
“This fills the cup for the next day. I can give everyone else what they need,” said Espain.
If there is one thing Espain hopes every student takes from him it is that they have to fight against the standards forced on them.
“Your teachers are going to try to put you in a box and you can decide whether you’re going to stay in that box. It’s going to be hard to get out of that box,” said Espain. “Most people give up the fight. But you can not stop fighting for your better tomorrow. It’s coming. It’s there. You just gotta fight for it. You gotta advocate for yourself, and speak up. Don’t stay silent, silence is submission.”