3 Questions for…Adjunct Professor Jaime Estades
Jaime Estades has been an adjunct professor at CSSW for many years, teaching courses on social policy. He is a founder of the Latino Leadership Institute, which strives to empower greater numbers of Latinx and other underrepresented New Yorkers by increasing their participation in the democratic process. He is also a writer whose play Five Sessions: A War in Therapy chronicles the interactions of an inexperienced white social worker and her challenging first client, a Latino male political activist and janitor. We are pleased to have him as a guest for our “3 Questions for…” series. He talks to CSSW Communications about his nontraditional educational path (which included managing a learning disability), the new course that has been built around his play, and his practical approach to teaching and learning. This interview has been edited and condensed.
#1: What are the formative experiences and influences that led you to get involved with the work you are currently doing?
My mother was a single mother with two hyperactive boys. She had only a high school diploma and wound up selling cosmetics at Sears Roebuck Company for 35 years, where she was forced to wear high heels for eight hours, day after day, standing, without even a chair to rest on. Watching her was a big part of my educational formation. I tend to learn by observing others, not so much from reading or memorizing.
Actually, my formative years had nothing to do with the word “formative.” Some people go through life from A to Z in order. I went from A to H and back to B and then to Z. Nothing has helped me more than the accumulation of the mistakes I made during that chaotic journey.
I never studied for an exam in my life until I was 22. At that time, one of my best friends was murdered just minutes after I left him. That experience changed my life forever. I decided to stop fooling around and start applying myself to my studies. It didn’t help that I had to overcome being dyslexic—something I didn’t realize for many years, until I took a class on educational psychology.
I went to Northeastern University without knowing much English—and ended up working as a janitor for more than a year and a half. It was actually the best job I ever had. After cleaning two Northeastern cafeterias, I didn’t bring the job home at the end of the day, which is very different from now. Now, of course, I have a JD degree and am teaching at Columbia.
So you see, sometimes things don’t happen in order, but what is important is that we recognize the importance of our shortcomings and that we learn to turn our mistakes into lessons. Life will reward you sooner or later. Nothing in life was more educational than failing and having people around me who loved me, supported me, and forgave me.
Incidentally, I never told my daughters this story completely—but life often has surprising twists. My younger daughter, Jazmin, has struggled all her life with dyslexia. She was a senior in high school this past year, and applied to, and was accepted at, only one university. Where was that? Northeastern, where I was a janitor. She starts next month.
#2: Is there some success that stands out in your mind that you’re really proud of?
There are two things I am proud of. One is conquering my dyslexia. Without any professional help, I created my own system based on the experience of seeing incomprehensible words and correcting them through the experience of my mistakes. In developing this system, I unintentionally created a method of learning based on observation (visuals and practice)—one that I think can be applied to every learning situation, including the courses we teach in the academy. It is my belief that students can learn faster by focusing on the kind of practical experiences we have during our first years of life, before we go to school. Once we go to school, we are forced to change the way we learn, and are punished whenever we make mistakes, often by comparison to others. Instead of feeling shame, we should be guided in how to learn immediately from our mistakes, without penalty or judgement.
I am also very proud to have my play, Five Sessions, approved by the curriculum committee at CSSW to be the centerpiece within an Advanced Advocacy class in the fall of 2021. We just finished editing a film version of the play. It is our intention to share this class model and workbook with other universities. My partners and fellow teachers in this endeavor are Ovita Williams and Ericka Echavarria. We have been working on this project for the last two years with support from Columbia’s Provost Office. It’s been gratifying to watch the whole thing come together.
#3: What is the most important lesson you’ve learned doing this work, and what do you know now that you wish you’d known when you started?
A college professor friend of mine offered me the chance to teach a class in sociology at Boricua College. I asked for advice on how to teach my first class and all he did was to give me the class textbook and tell me to go teach. I then went to my father-in-law for some guidance. He was the dean of classical studies at Brown University and later in his life Dean of Students. His advice? Read a book called The Students Are Watching. He said to me, the title says it all. The gist of it is if you are not prepared for class, they will notice. I live every teaching day of my life with that phrase ingrained in my mind. That’s the most important lesson I have learned for my teaching career and would pass on to others.