Educator Voices: A Conversation with Justin Estes

RaiseMe Educator Ambassador Justin Estes talks about his lifelong career in education and what he loves about being a school counselor.
From College Station to College Placement – Bryan High’s Lead Counselor, Justin Estes

Justin Estes is the lead counselor at Bryan High School, where he’s worked for the past 15 years. From student-teaching, fresh out of college, to present day, he’s known no other job than educating the teenage hearts and minds of Bryan, TX. Now consider that for a second – Mr. Estes has been walking the halls of Bryan High for as long as half the students there have been walking the earth. That’s pretty remarkable! And in a day and age where a career often spans multiple locations and industries, there are few that have such deep expertise in a field, and knowledge of a place, like Justin.

So how did he come to be a lifelong public school educator, and what makes him certain he’ll start and finish his professional life in the same building? We sat down with Justin to uncover his trajectory into school counseling and the impact he’s had on Bryan High to-date.

Banner Source: Justin Estes

Justin grew up on a farm outside Abilene, TX, so attending Texas A&M in College Station was a big adjustment. A big college town with thousands of people was a far cry from his secondary school days in rural West Texas. Growing up, some of the biggest impressions made on him were through his teachers and, by senior year of college, he knew he too wanted to go into teaching.

“I was inspired and encouraged by the teachers I had had, and also wanted there to be more positive male role models around.”

Justin got a student-teaching position at Bryan High in the town of Bryan, which neighbors College Station. As he puts it, “Bryan is different from the college side of town. For me, one of the things I like most about it is it’s completely different from how I grew up. It’s a lot bigger than what I’m used to. And the best thing is it’s a lot more diverse. When I was younger in school everybody looked like me, talked like me, our families all knew each other and all that. I wasn’t around a whole lot of people who are different than me, so the exposure to diversity has been the greatest part of working here for me.”

The next year he was hired as a full-time English teacher, coaching cross country in his “free” time (put in quotations since free time as an educator is a complete myth). He taught English for four years, but realized his calling was in school counseling. “There came a point in time where I wanted to be able to make more of a difference on the individual level. I like helping students figure out what they want to do and how to get there.”

And for the last 9 years, he’s been both figuratively and literally getting his students to their desired post-grad destinations. There’s one student in particular that Justin thinks about when he needs to draw some inspiration.

“I remember he came to me when he was in the 10th grade, and I was sort of a new counselor. I hadn’t met him yet, but he came down to my office and he said ‘my teacher just told me I’m too smart to be in regular classes, can you help me get into some advanced classes?’ So we had conversations around building rigor into his schedule that was appropriate for him based on recommendations from teachers. And overtime we built more and more advanced classes into his schedule and worked with him on planning for college. He was the first in his family to graduate from high school, and then went on to graduate from college. And that was the closest that I had ever worked with a student through that process. At times, that meant as much as me driving him to his recruiting visits out of town. Once he was admitted to college I was driving him back and forth at the beginning and end of the semesters – he didn’t have other means of transportation.

So when I think about trying to have a student re-envision what they’re capable of, and what it will look like to recognize and achieve their potential, that’s one of the main kids that comes to mind.”

It’s self-evident that driving a student to college demonstrates a commitment to kids that is above and beyond the call of duty. So how do you maintain that level of dedication? And how do you sustain motivation over the course of a near two-decade career? Justin insists that it all comes down to the community. “There’s a core group of us here in the district that have been here for a long time. And we’re committed to this campus, and this community. Even though everything is changing around us and things look really different than they did 10 or 15 years ago, it’s all about the people that I’m doing this with. One of the things that keeps me re-charged is just my support network here.”

Banner Source: Justin Estes

But it’s not just the school community that keeps Justin going. He draws inspiration from the full circle experience of witnessing former students grow up and invest in their hometown. One former student, in fact, is now Justin’s barber.

“He started off real small, got into a nicer place, opened a second location, and is now opening a 3rd barber shop. Even though he wasn’t maybe one of those kids who was taking all the challenging classes and applying for scholarships and doing all these things, he was a good kid, and his family is rooted in his community. So to see him leave for college, learn what he learned, then come back and do what he’s doing here has been super cool. He cuts the Texas A&M football team’s hair, he cuts the football coach’s hair. And he’s also doing a lot in the community. Before school started, he was giving away free haircuts to kids going back to school who couldn’t afford them. So just a simple thing that a lot of people don’t think about but just making sure that those kids were proud of the way they looked and ready to go to the first day of classes. And there’s like a million and one stories like that.

I knew these kids when they were teenagers doing what it is they did. And to see them grown up and doing the things they’re doing and giving back to the community, it’s humbling. You know we’re really proud of them but at the same time it’s like you don’t know how much potential these kids have until they have opportunities to do something with it.”

And while Justin can go on and on about the impact his former students are having on the community, what shines through just as brightly is the role counselors have played in shepherding those student pathways. Justin gets there first thing in the morning, stays late in the evening, and spends a good chunk of his weekends working so that, if a student comes to his door, he can drop everything and be present to hear them out. So much of his job is reliant on the ability to build trust and psychological safety for students – creating a space where all kids can explore their interests and identity, and grow into young people that will contribute with intention to their community. And how lucky are those students, to have someone who’s made it their life’s work to really get to know them as individuals, understand their ambitions, and be their biggest champion, all while navigating an increasingly complex and challenging post-secondary landscape?

Justin’s story is a perfect example of how educators can form the bedrock of our communities. But Justin is the first to humbly wave off recognition and draw the attention upon the group of colleagues that make up his school team. “I work with some people that have been in the school district for literally 50 years. Coach Gregg, for example; she is the PE department chair and she’s been here for 53 years.” All we can say is cheers and thank you to educators like Justin who invest so much in our young people and their futures. Here’s to 35 more years, and giving Coach Gregg a run for her money.

Editor’s Note: RaiseMe has made edits to quotes to provide clarity.

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