The Student Who Challenged My Teaching On Race

Ismael Jimenez inspired his student to think more deeply—and talk more openly—about identity, and she inspired him to become a better, more patient teacher.

A custom illustration featuring Valentina Love Salas and Ismael Jimenez superimposed on the image of a chalkboard.
ermess / Shutterstock / Valentina Love Salas and Ismael Jimenez / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

This is the latest installment in a podcast called What My Students Taught Me. Each episode features a teacher reflecting on a particularly challenging student, whenever possible in counterpoint with the student’s version of the same events. Listen to previous installments here or subscribe on iTunes.

At first, the Philadelphia high-school student Valentina Love Salas was not exactly excited about taking African American history, a required course for graduation. She had heard that the class was depressing. She had also suffered from racist taunts and bullying in the past—painful experiences that made her reluctant to speak her mind in a class focused on issues of race and identity.

Her teacher, Ismael Jimenez, was accustomed to at least some amount of student disinterest or reticence. “A lot of the students you … can kind of see the glaze over their eyes,” he said.

But as the school year continued, and Jimenez incorporated videos, music, and texts that intrigued Valentina, the student found herself growing more and more engaged. “Music really resonates with me, and every chance he got he put a song on or a music video that really explained what he was trying to teach us,” Valentina recalled.

Before the school year ended, however, a classroom blow-up over one student’s incendiary comment would create a schism in the class, including between Valentina and her teacher, testing the strong relationship they had slowly built.


Music used in this episode: “Sylvestor” by Blue Dot Sessions; “Astrisx” by Blue Dot Sessions; “Cirrus” by Blue Dot Sessions; “Denzel Sprak” by Blue Dot Sessions; “Cases to Rest” by Blue Dot Sessions; and “Soothe” by Blue Dot Sessions.

This project was produced in collaboration with the Teacher Project, an education reporting fellowship at Columbia Journalism School dedicated to elevating the voices of students and teachers.