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A Brief Introduction

Welcome to the first monthly installment of the SJVWP Blog. During the month of March, six SJVWP Teacher Leaders came together to practice what they preach and to commit to the page some of the lessons they learned while teaching in a year like no other.  Karen Yelton-Curtis offers her musings about how she is preparing for the return of students to the physical classroom while Kristen Norton considers how to adapt a love for online writing technologies upon returning to a face-to-face class. Jaclyn Smith explores how this past year has given her the chance to redefine her pedagogical values to life in her teaching practice while Jesus Renteria takes his readers on a journey through the past year doing a series of now and then comparisons addressing topics such as mental health, social dilemmas, and isolation.  Marci Haas follows that up with her examination of the traumas teachers have faced over the last year and how they can address their own social-emotional health needs even as they are modeling that for their students. And Caitlin Nii closes out this month’s blog posts with a letter that will resonate for anyone who has ever wrestled with all that it truly means to be a teacher.  We hope you enjoy this inaugural edition, and we invite you to join us for our next SJVWP Writes! sessions.

Returning to the Room

If I have learned anything through teaching my 11th-grade classes at a distance, it is valuing the physical classroom: a space for quiet contemplation, affirmation of original thinking, humming conversation, and opportunities for physical movement – all of which help develop a community. In August, I was denied the opportunity to prepare my room at Fresno High for incoming juniors. There would be no table groups, no classroom library within easy reach, no tidy filing systems for students’ assignments. As the months rolled on, I reminisced about colorful displays of unit artifacts on the walls. A digital bulletin board does not have the same cache.

I typically begin the year by treating my classroom as a blank canvas that students will decorate with their thinking. Now that I know some of my juniors will return to campus the week of April 13, I am wondering how to reintroduce the refuge students will rely on to help them transition back to a version of “normal”. They will need silence and socialization as well as movement and time for meditation. They will need comforting words as well as critical appraisals of their work. They will need to use their hands but also require opportunities to hone the digital skills they have acquired.

I know that table groups are still on the back burner – social-distancing requirements will prevent physical proximity that helps one student bond with others. Masks will be mandatory for all and I wonder how they will affect plans to promote oral discussion. In distance learning, students have been reluctant to speak aloud but not necessarily because of shyness. Those who are willing to share verbally are often interrupted by background noises, which range from crying toddlers to the crash-boom-bang of dropped objects to the occasional parent yelling at the person trying to learn through a screen. I hope that students yearn for old-fashioned conversation with peers, even if it is conducted through a cloth barrier and at a six-foot length.

I wonder if students will want to handle objects such as index cards, mini-whiteboards, highlighters, and other resources housed in my room – or if they will prefer the technological tool that has been their portal to school for the past eight months. I wonder if students will want to participate in socially distanced gallery walks or if they will feel less anxious anchored to a table and chair. I wonder if hands will reach for the books on shelves or if students will be reluctant to touch volumes their classmates have perused. I wonder about and ponder just how much of the familiar routine I can reintroduce to those who come to campus two days each week.

I think about preparing for this next phase. Norms must be established for those present and those learning at home. Lesson plans that include social-emotional components will be even more critical to support students. Simultaneous learning will be a juggling act to ensure equity of instruction for all. New tech tools – a wireless headset and a wide-angle web cam – pose logistical challenges. Training – multiple sessions, I envision – is on the horizon. It is another wave of changes in a year when I constantly reinvent what I do again, and again, and again. Sometimes I wonder if I have enough energy to pivot in another direction.

But here is what I know: I am looking forward to driving to school, to toting the rolling briefcase, to walking across the quad and up the stairs to my sunny classroom. Students who elected to attend classes in person have expressed excitement about their return. I have cheerfully unpacked the book bins and sorted the contents by genre. I will distribute notebooks and annotation tools to my classes, courtesy of donorschoose.org and my school principal. I will celebrate seeing my colleagues in person, even if it is from the nose on up. Despite my wonderings, I know we are moving forward, step by cautious step.

As you prepare for the final phase of the school year, what are your hopes, concerns, and questions?

Karen Yelton-Curtis teaches 11th grade English in the International Baccalaureate program at Fresno High School. Since joining the San Joaquin Valley Writing Project in 2005, she has led the Summer Invitational Institute and study groups and presented a range of workshops on the topic of academic writing.

Teaching Writing Online:  Better or Worse?

When I think back to the days before the pandemic, I remember my classroom crowded with desks, students, backpacks, snacks, and drinks.  I remember trying to navigate around the cramped space to look over a student’s shoulder at what they were writing or answer a “private”  question, trying to make sure I made it around the whole room, and always coming up short.  I remember standing in front of the class writing on the white board and waiting for the few willing and eager students to politely raise their hands before contributing to a “class discussion”. I remember walking out of class loaded down with piles of papers to grade so everyone could get feedback and know how they were doing.  

A year later, after making the required switch to teaching synchronously online, I marvel at how archaic those practices seem now.  As I began to reflect on those face to face classes so many of us are nostalgic for, I suddenly realized what I had thought were best practices that I had been so sad to lose during the initial transition to online learning, were actually full of limitations that privileged a few students over the many.

Limitations of class discussions during face to face (f2f) learning:   

  • Only one student can speak at time
  • Students don’t like to raise their hands or have other students look at them as they talk
  • Students don’t feel like they have anything important to say after the first person has spoken
  • Students may forget the idea they had while listening to the person speaking
  • Students don’t always speak loud enough for other students or even the teacher to hear them
  • Students listen but don’t transfer what  they hear into their notes to refer to later

Although I had been vaguely aware of these obstacles to effective student participation in class discussions, I had never spent much time thinking of how to make changes to adjust for them.  Until online learning.   

Risks and Rewards of Online Apps for Writing

As I tried out different apps and experimented with different uses of them, I arrived at increasingly more opportunities for students to express themselves in writing during the course of a synchronous class period. When I think about how much writing my students did in my f2f  classes compared to how much they do now, I can’t help but realize how much more practice they are getting in this new virtual world.

This opportunity for growth started by establishing a class culture built around writing as a primary means of communication. I open every class with a chat in which all students are encouraged to participate by myself and by their peers.  The chat continues throughout the session, as I pose thought-provoking questions related to the day’s content and wait for the class to respond with a flurry of responses in the chat. Best of all, when students have spontaneous moments of brilliance during these online conversations, their words are recorded for them and others to refer back to later when they are working on related assignments. 

Another app that I frequently use is jamboards where students can anonymously participate in the building of a class understanding of a certain concept rather than viewing a pre-made PowerPoint covering the ideas I want them to know. Students eagerly participate and take risks in posting ideas because they know they will get feedback, but their identity remains confidential.  As students post their ideas, I organize and curate their posts  to help students see patterns and ensure that correct information is being identified. This process allows me to get a thorough understanding of where the class is and correct their misconceptions. It gives students an active role in constructing the knowledge with their peers that will help them move forward on the next assignment, and a link to the jamboard is always included in assignments so these class notes are available for all students to use.  

The final app I  frequently use is shared Google Docs. This app creates a bridge between our interactive class work and their asynchronous assignments. By having students start their assignments in these shared documents they are able to get past the initial struggles that inevitably accompany challenging writing assignments. I am able to see and provide feedback in real time and guide struggling students to look at how other students are approaching the assignment.  Students then copy and paste the work from the shared Google Docs into their own documents for completion and submission.

Benefits that Address f2f Limits with Student Participation

  • Students all write at the same time so no one is privileged to be “first” and have their ideas dominate
  • All students have equal access to being heard and no one has to raise their hand
  • Students share their ideas as they occur to them rather than having to wait until someone else has finished speaking
  • Students can complete their ideas and then scroll through and read a variety of other ideas without having them influence their own ideas
  • Students who have lots of ideas can post as often as they want without interfering with other students opportunities to contribute or voice different ideas

Benefits that Address f2f Limits with Student Feedback

  • Students can receive immediate feedback on their ideas from the instructor and their peers
  • Students who are too shy to speak in front of others can start to build confidence in their ideas by sharing them in writing and receiving positive feedback from the instructor and their peers
  • Students can reference the written feedback provided myself and their peers in comments rather than having to take in verbal feedback that I used to give during f2f instruction
  • Students can see the feedback I leave for other students which gives them additional opportunities to see what works and what doesn’t
  • Students can view the work of their peers to see how others are responding to the assignment to help them self-correct or confirm they are on the right track


Although it’s true that I am not likely to recognize a single student by their face, as most of them opt to keep their cameras off, I have grown very good at identifying them by their “voice” on the screen.  In a climate where students are reluctant to show their faces or speak, I have established routines and expectations that help students to emerge through their written voice–a goal I have had for years with my face to face students.  With just a sentence or two of writing, I can often tell exactly who wrote it. Which is to say, I have gotten to know them deeply in an academic sense, as writers expressing meaningful ideas to me and their classmates.  

A year ago, when we first switched to online learning, this was not something I ever expected would come as a result of that immediate and dramatic shift to a virtual relationship with students.  At the time, I felt like teaching on Zoom was a daunting task that I was more than a little unprepared to take on.  However, a year later, with the promise of schools returning to face-to-face instruction, I have found that my students and I have grown dependent on many of these tech tools, and I am wondering how I will be able to integrate these expanded opportunities for writing and sharing of ideas in a face-to-face learning environment. It is a problem I did not expect to face, and one I am still working on solving.  

What are some strategies you have learned to value during online instruction and how might you be able to implement them once we return to face-to-face instruction?

Kristen Norton currently teaches English at Fresno City College after spending more than 15 years in a high school classroom.  She is the Associate Director for Youth Programs with SJVWP and has been reaping the rewards of being involved with the Writing Project for twelve years.

Pedagogy as Values in Action

As I think about how my role as a teacher has changed over the past year, I keep coming back to the recognition that, though I have cut curriculum “down to the bone”, in doing so I’ve revealed my values: the curriculum my students are studying is my values in action. In the Fall of 2020 I moved to a public comprehensive high school after teaching at a local public charter school for five years, and changed grade levels from sophomores to juniors and seniors. The district, school, and curriculum changes allowed me to re-evaluate and re-apply my values, both professional and personal.

Know what’s non-negotiable

Of course, applying my values happens within a system of non-negotiables.

At the District and/or School Level, I needed to know what is required. In my district, it’s a shared cumulative unit assignment within a broader adopted curriculum. Though we are strongly encouraged to use the adopted curriculum, how we “get there” with students is up to us. I take advantage of this professional leeway to ask students in our biweekly survey to rate their understanding of concepts and skills, a feedback method I learned from Candace Cano, a SJVWP Teacher Leader and middle school teacher. This allows me to quickly note both class and individual trends to identify where I need to reteach or reinforce.

In my class, one of my non-negotiables is that students must see themselves in the curriculum and the instruction. This not only means that students read texts by authors that share their culture, heritage, race, or ethnicity, but also that I take a communal stance to teaching and learning: not only sitting in (virtual or physical) groups but also in discussing work (their own as well as professional models), sharing resources, and how they came to a specific conclusion/reasoning. These are ways I attempt to eliminate what I describe as individual students’ “hoarding” of information, where they figure out a response to the prompt but refuse to share with the group. I value working together over one person having the correct answer, and my instruction and assignments both reflect this.

Some questions to consider while thinking about District and/or School level standards:

  • What’s non-negotiable (curriculum/programs, assessments, ways of instructing)?
  • What professional space can I occupy?

I also consider the State Standards, especially the nuances for my particular grade level. In understanding that the difference between grades 9/10 and 11/12 Writing standard 1.b is “values and possible biases”, I can focus instruction on those complexities. We can focus on doing the challenging work together, with mini-lesson small group instruction focused on particular recursive skills needing reinforcement.

Some questions to consider while thinking about State standards:

  • What are the nuances for my particular grade level(s)? 
  • How can I creatively teach these, while staying aligned with other non-negotiables and my values?

I think carefully about my professional standards. What do I think “every junior” should be able to do? They should be able to write a multi-paragraph response to something they’ve read, using their own reasoning to explain a logical response, reflect on themself and their life experiences, and create artifacts of their learning. “Every senior” should be able to engage with the world around them, using writing and creating in other mediums to donate back to the global community. Professional standards might be shared–for example, in the junior year students create a resume, because teachers know it will help them as they apply for jobs and scholarships. 

Some questions to consider while thinking about professional standards:

  • Do I find myself drawn to certain types of assignments? Why might that be? 
  • What do I tend to ‘take’ with me when I move grade levels or subject areas? 
  • What deep reasoning do I have around the “work” I ask students to produce?

How I approach curriculum & instruction–my pedagogy–can also be a non-negotiable element. Pedagogy is sometimes described as solely what happens when teachers are in front of students, but I think about pedagogy as all-encompassing: my stance (mental), attitude (emotional), language used, assignment layout & descriptions, assessment, classroom ‘management’ techniques and, yes, curricular & instructional decisions. To me, pedagogy is values in action, and as I keep reflecting on how to teach my students well, I bring my values more clearly in focus.

I work from a strengths-based stance. Every student comes with a wide range of knowledge, skills, and abilities. It is my responsibility as the teacher to look for what they know about writing and reinforce that, celebrating their full talents, abilities, and languages as we work together to continue to strengthen their literacies. For example, when I give feedback, I use phrases such as, “I see that you have [insert what they have used/done]. This made the reading experience powerful because…”. Coupled with what Carl Rogers called unconditional positive regard, when students need more time on assignments, or don’t understand a concept, I assume they need the help and work to support them. Shame has no place in my classroom: when a student has missed three classes in a row, I send them a quick message (something like: “Hi, I haven’t seen you in a little while! How are you doing? I hope to see you next class period!”). I send a follow-up if they miss again. This has led to connections with students that would not have happened otherwise, and opens the door for students to tell their own story if they choose.  

We think & write every day. Full stop. Students engage in Peter Elbow’s four writing modes: private writing, writing that is read aloud but receives no responses (now we use Padlet or Flipgrid), writing with responses that are non-judgemental, and writing that will be evaluated. We use writing to process, to think through, to wrestle with, to question, to argue. 

Some questions to consider while thinking about pedagogy:

  • Do I find myself drawn to certain ways of doing things? For example, do I tend to assign group or individual work? 
  • What types of group work do I assign? Do I give individual or group grades? 
  • In what areas do my students tend to be “strong”? 
  • What do other teachers comment that my students know well?

How do I figure out what’s non negotiable to me?

You may not fully & consciously realize what’s non-negotiable to you, but your values are your pedagogical DNA: they are evident whether you have articulated them or not.

They might come out in discussions with colleagues (between classes, over Twitter) or in what you emphasize. Do you find yourself having the same types of conversations? If so, what’s the common thematic thread?

Look for patterns in your teaching. Do you spend time talking about social justice issues? Or the gender inequities in stories? Or helping your students tell their counter narratives? If you tend to return to specific texts, what are their themes?

And, of course, ask your students, in surveys or exit tickets (If you could talk with incoming students, what would you say is important to me? What is important for doing well in my class?”). In my first teaching job one of my students told me, “This is more like a social justice class than an English class. You keep talking about how we’re going to change the world”. 

This year of change has helped me crystalize how my values in action determine not only my students’ experience, but my own. By bringing my full self into the classroom, it is a more vibrant learning community for everyone.

What are some of your non-negotiables?

Jackie Smith

The Impending 2021-2022 School Year

The Beginning


When the pandemic started many of us were ready to quarantine and stay home; Safety for our families, friends, students and ourselves was a priority at this point. There were so many unknowns when it came to COVID-19 that staying in the classroom made no sense. I felt the stress of the “ New Normal” and a strange comfort in the acceptance of uncertainty. The positive for me and my colleagues was that teachers felt heard and protected in our district; we couldn’t always say this was the case. Schools were going into Distance Learning while life changed due to mandated quarantining and new rules and regulations. No one had ever expected schools across the nation, the world in fact, to close in the way that they did in March of 2020. I was gobsmacked that this was real life, I was living through history in the making!


Life has been hard for me and everyone in the world. I saw friends, family, colleagues, and students suffer from contracting of COVID-19. We all took precaution to not get sick and yet, many of us still got sick with the virus. For some, it was a flu like illness that lasted a week or days. But for others it lasted months and was more traumatic. We are still living with the after effects of contracting COVID-19. I have tired of being at home, and I have not traveled out of the Central Valley in over a year a half. I have had the blessing of getting vaccinated and so has my partner, as well as many other friends and colleagues. I plan on starting to travel more soon. It is time to try to enjoy traveling again, while adhering to protocols of wearing a mask and social distancing. My district, Hanford Jt. Union High School District had teachers who taught special education and Emerging Bilinguals come back in person, at the end of September, once a week for small cohorts. By November 8,  2020 all teachers in our district were to come back to the classroom teaching Hybrid. Our work schedule is that we have Cohort A, Cohort B, and Cohort C. Cohort A comes to school Monday and Tuesday, while Cohort B stays home online, synchronized learning. Wednesday is distance learning for all students, except for when our ELD Cohorts come that day in person for extra help, but all teachers must be in their school classrooms. Cohort B would come in person Thursday and Friday, while Cohort A is at home. Cohort C is at home, all week long.

Mental Health Concerns


Social emotional education made a huge appearance at the beginning of school shutdowns. Teachers, administrators, parents and the general public began worrying about how students would deal with mental health issues that a pandemic brings. Soon teachers were creating lesson plans that would address how to deal with depression, anxiety, agoraphobia, suicides etc. Some educators had attempted S.E.L. re-pandemic with mixed success. Now many saw how essential it was to focus on how to get our students’ mental health, as well as our own, in a better place. Some students responded to it well, while other students felt bombarded by it. It was a challenging time for teachers. We wanted to support our students’ mental well being,  but some students were not wanting S.E.L. They felt like that was all they were being exposed to when they already felt overwhelmed living this new reality. Always talking about their emotions made some students feel weird. I found myself pushing my students to feel their feelings and that did not work for all students. I had to find a balance in how I taught S.E.L. and I also had to be conscious of what students needed it more than others. I constantly communicated with my students and I always let them know I was open to talking to them if they needed it, while I referred more severe needs to the school social worker or psychologist. 


Social Emotional Learning is not going anywhere, any time soon. Students are still being impacted by the pandemic and getting back to a social normal is going to take time and care. I’m glad that so many of us tried our best to connect with our students not only academically but also socially to make sure that their mental health was a priority. I know I did my best to be there for students and I will continue to be there for them in the months to come. Mental health has always been important to me and now it makes sense to continue to put mental health at the forefront of my lesson plans and my teacher pedagogy. 

                                                Living Through Social Dilemmas 


Many stayed home at all cost, ordering groceries and other essential items through apps. Some chose to go out to the world and complete shopping for basic necessities. The anxiety that was in the air of stores felt like a wall of bricks that was waiting to fall on everyone. I started wearing a mask right away when outside, but I still saw many who were not. Suddenly many of us saw the beginning of a silent war of pro-maskers and anti-maskers. The world turned upside down since so many were questioning science and common sense logic. It was infuriating and made me question my friendships and loyalties to many people in my life.  


Anxieties about the pandemic are lowering and I can finally see a light at the end of the tunnel. How far it is to the end of that tunnel, I am not fully sure yet. There are still anti-maskers and individuals who feel it is their right to go anywhere, any time, without needing to adhere to COVID protocols. But it feels like I see less and less of this in general as restrictions are being lifted from business and restaurants. Those of us who were constantly at war with individuals who question science are slowly learning to let people live in their own choices and mindsets. 

Embracing Isolation


Many now found themselves at home for a longer time than they had ever expected. Rumors were that this virus would be gone in a month or so, but no one was certain. Suddenly everyone was posting on social media about things to do at home to endure this time of uncertainty. Home improvement projects, growing plants, reading books, catching up on shows, learning a new skill, creating a home gym to stay fit, were some of the several tasks that millions chose to attempt. For some of us, we felt pressure to do many different projects because it felt like we had so much time on our hands. Maybe this really would be the moment to change our lives and learn a new language, publish a book, or become an online celebrity?!


Society at large is ready to move away from isolation. Many are going to restaurants and other outdoor events because they have been in quarantine and isolation for a whole year. I understand people wanting to be social, but I am frustrated that many are not being more careful when they are out in public. Some have been attending bars and clubs for the last month or longer, not being mindful that the pandemic is not completely over. I don’t feel that it is time to get complacent because many are being vaccinated. I would like to enjoy my summer and with so many being too careless about following COVID protocols, I am afraid that my summer may still not be “normal.

Student Participation


Students’ lack of participation in class and not completing work became a huge issue. Getting students to show up to their classes online became a constant battle. Even if they showed up, students didn’t always participate or do any work, leaving teachers feeling alone and frustrated. Teachers found themselves staring at their computer screens, hoping that students were listening and learning. Teachers across the globe had participated in online training and workshops on how to engage our students remotely. Yet students were not participating and many students performed poorly, drastically falling behind academically. 


The problem of student apathy is still an issue. At the high school I work at counselors are having hundreds of SSTs to re-engage students. After school tutoring for students is being provided. Summer school will be large and the expectation is that more students will attend this summer than in previous summers. Students who chose to be on Cohort C, are being encouraged to attend school in person. After Spring Break my district will combine Cohort A and B, so students will be coming to in-person classes four or five times a week! Struggling students who are failing more than one class are the ones being targeted. Only time will tell if all these strategies are going to help students who have struggled to pass their classes all year long. Thus teachers continue to fight the good fight, hoping for a future that will soon find us living a “New Normal” that we can thrive in as the impending 2021-2022 school year gets nearer. 

Jesus Renteria currently teaches ELD at Hanford West High School and serves as the English Intervention PLC Lead. He has been involved with the SJVWP since 2017 and currently serves as the Associate Director for Work With Emergent Bilingual Students.

Are You Feeling Safe?

During the past year the school’s focus has changed from the seen physical forces (weather, intruders, etc) to the unseen, silent danger of COVID 19.

Schools have prepared for many years now to keep students (and staff) physically safe on school campuses. Teachers have been trained on the  correct procedures to use in case of natural disaster (earthquake, weather, etc) , man made disaster (gas leaks, fire) or the occurrence of intruders on campus.  Throughout the year, time is spent in staff meetings visiting scenarios  to help teachers think through even the worst possible event happening on their campuses.

The focus on physical safety is certainly supported.  Going back to our basic needs as indicated by Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, physiological and safety needs are the two largest and most  important to be met. (See diagram below.)  These needs must be met to allow an individual to learn, to achieve and to reach self-actualization. 

Schools across the nation have worked hard to develop safety guidelines to provide physical safety so staff and students can return safely to school in person amidst the current pandemic. Now the question is: what has been done to insure felt (emotional) safety for not only students but teachers and staff?

Social Emotional Health

During the last 5 -10 years, the social emotional health of students has become a focus in many schools.  ACES, trauma informed, trauma sensitive and SEL have become common vocabulary on most school sites.  83% of states report that Social Emotional Learning has increased in priority since the pandemic began. 

Social Emotional Learning is defined as the modeling and teaching of an interrelated set of cognitive, affective and behavioral competencies that underscore our capacity to learn, develop, and maintain mutually supportive relationships and be both physically and psychologically healthy.  (CASEL)

Implementation of Social Emotional Learning in our classrooms results in the physical and psychological safety of our students. Social Emotional Learning addresses the two tiers of Maslow’s Hierarchy that are needed for individuals to work towards self actualization and to be available for learning.

BUT have teachers received adequate training to model and teach the competencies that  are required?

Let’s focus on the word model in this definition. Are teachers fully equipped to model the affective and behavioral competencies required?  Can they truly model without first having the opportunity to focus and reflect on their own social emotional health?  Are they  equipped with coping strategies that will allow them to take care of their own health so can fully care for the social emotional health of their students? Can they  create an environment of “felt safety” or emotional safety if they do not feel safe?

Felt Safety (or Emotional Safety)

Felt or emotional safety is defined as an experience  “in which one feels safe to express emotions, security, and confidence to take risks and feel challenged and excited to try something new.” (National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments)

Teachers (as well as students) have experienced much trauma throughout this pandemic:

  • Teaching from home through technology platforms with family members often  all in the same room  All while helping their children to maneuver their own distance learning. 
  • Fears of  or actually becoming ill with the virus or a family  member contracting the illness. 
  • Receiving negative feedback from parents and the community sometimes on a daily basis (directly or indirectly through news and social media).
  • Putting every ounce of energy available into creating engaging lessons while learning to navigate the technology that had not been used in the classroom setting.

This trauma has and will continue to affect our teaching.  It has increased the number of teachers experiencing burnout and compassion fatigue leading to a lack of felt safety among our teachers.

Teacher Social Emotional Health-Where to Begin?

Good intentioned directives from others (admin, family, friends) have been given reminding teachers to engage in self-care.  Many schools have even provided workshops on the topic.  As a teacher, I was awful at self-care in the best of times.  If self-care was hard to achieve in “normal” times it became even more difficult in the midst of the endless “pivoting” being asked of teachers and staff. And as we approach returning to the classroom more change is imminent.

Teachers must “own” their  own social emotional health. Social emotional health is one thing that individuals can control during the crises we encounter. The challenge is to find ways to include meeting our social emotional needs without feeling like one more thing has been added to our already overflowing day.

Is it possible to find ways to incorporate small moments throughout the day that will provide time to focus on personal emotional health as well as provide the opportunity to model the strategies to the students in our classrooms?

Below are a few ideas that might be helpful to at least allow teachers to begin the journey of caring for their own social emotional health. Most teachers are including the following SEL strategies within their daily classroom routines.  Teachers can simultaneously address their own social emotional health while modeling these strategies by completing them with their students.  A few suggestions for implementation of each strategy are listed below.

Daily  Emotion Check-InTake time to complete your own emotional check-in as your students complete theirs.  
Reflective Journal Writing

Reflect on your emotion.  Teachers can write along with students about what they are feeling to start and end the day.                                                                              
Grounding StrategiesPractice throughout the day:-Breathingexercises-Meditation -Calming Music: play during independent work times and transitions-Drink water!  Make sure you are taking water breaks throughout the day.
Take a BreakJInclude physical activity when possible -During mask breaks/lunch breaks  take a walk.  Even if you are on duty you can move around maintaining social distancing.-Spend a few minutes completing a quiet calming or meditation exercise.
Create a MantraPractice positive self talk.  With your students create a positive message to yourself.  Read it to begin each day.
Practice GratitudeTake time at the end of each day to reflect on the positive in the day in a journal and/or in a  share out with the class.

What can you do to ensure felt (emotional) safety for you and your students as you return to your classroom this spring? 

Marci Haas  retired in June 2020 from Clovis Unified where she taught preschool through sixth graders for over 30 years. Her last 4 years were spent as an administrator overseeing behavior and academic intervention, EL and ASES programs, SEL development. and working with teachers doing coaching and professional development.  Marci is currently  Associate Director of Elementary for the SJVWP.

Dear ambiguous definer of teaching,

English Teacher

Homeschool Teacher


Educator Adjacent


My backspacing became increasingly more aggressive until I finally froze. I just stared at my computer screen, the cursor of my Google Doc blinking at me as if to punctuate its mocking laughter as I slowly sank deeper deeper deeper into existential crisis. Who knew signing a letter could blindside you like that.

In recent years I switched schools, left the classroom altogether, and started a job as a homeschool teacher which predominantly involves supporting homeschooling parents. My decreasing work with students made me feel like an imposter and the space between my fingertips and my keyboard swelled with one big question:

What on earth does it mean to be a teacher?

According to Merriam-Webster a teacher is “one that teaches.” Thanks, Merriam. Real informative. At least she follows with “especially : one whose occupation is to instruct.” But, following a year of teachers separated from students, a smorgasbord of virtual and hybrid instruction models, and parents hastily deciding to take on homeschooling, I have to question Merriam’s overly simplified perspective on teaching. The direct act of instructing is just one piece of the puzzle—but like a corner piece: yeah, you need it, but it’s the easiest piece to put into place.

Sometimes, us teachers run into non-educators who only see the entire picture and don’t understand that the puzzle of teaching is actually composed of a thousand tiny pieces that must all work in conjunction with one another to see results. Because of this, I find myself perpetually navigating encounters not unlike these:

“That’s a lot of work.”

I was on the phone with a brand new homeschool parent. She was feeling overwhelmed organizing curriculum for four different grade levels, understandably. In an effort to help streamline some of the responsibilities, I suggested leaning into one of the benefits of homeschooling: family-style learning. I offered an ELA example, the whole family reading the same book together so the majority of the lesson is shared, then differentiating expectations with the elements that are student generated. For instance, I may expect a 5th grader to give more detail in their analytical reasoning than a 3rd grader, but they can both still work on the same core assignment. “What are your thoughts?” I closed my example. Ambient static filled my ear, then, “That’s a lot of work.”

I responded, sans sugar coating, “Yes. It is.” It meant combing through and modifying existing curriculum, or tossing it completely and rebuilding from the ground up. Both daunting, time-consuming undertakings. The groundwork needed to be completed upfront before any benefits could be garnered, and learning couldn’t stop in the meantime. Indeed, a lot of work, but not futile. It is the work we do so our students can grow. We give up our evenings, weekends, vacations so our students can grow. Insanity or selflessness, whatever you call it, it’s teaching. I’m watching this new homeschool parent thrive, because she saw how much work it was and kept trudging forward for the sake of her children. She is a teacher.

“Just give them all A’s.”

A group of us sat in a restaurant for lunch. Our meal long finished, the conversation raucously carried on. The waiter eyed the table with that “you better tip me well if you’re going to be my only table this entire shift” look. Someone suggested we move our party over to a nearby coffee house, met by a course of agreements and mumbles that people had nowhere else to be. Except me. I chimed in, “I have to head home. I still have 2 classes of essays to grade,” the resident party-pooper. A flippant hand dismissed my claim with, “Just give them all A’s.”

Um, thanks but no thanks, Marie Antoinette. As a teacher, I ask my students to do real work. I expect them to navigate both the familiar and unfamiliar. I encourage them to persevere when they encounter roadblocks. I do not disrespect them by doing any less than giving the products they have worked tirelessly to produce my full attention. Every student deserves real eyes on their work to provide real feedback that recognizes their strengths and guides them to where they may want to focus their attention for future improvement. Providing authentic, purposeful feedback to students, is important. Essential. It is teaching.

“They should be embarrassed to get an F.”

I learned a nifty growth mindset snippet that I wanted to share with another teacher: X amount of cake is a lot of cake. So there I was, launching into an example of a student feeling unaccomplished because they only scored 40% on a quiz, but instead spinning it. “If you told me you ate 40% of a cake, that’s a lot of cake!” I exclaimed to my fictional student, forgetting that I was getting a little too pedagogically heavy amongst mixed company. A non-educator sort of gave me a confused look and said, “But, they should be embarrassed to get an F.”

I get it. I do. I mean, I am precisely the type of individual who when presented failure immediately launches into cyclical reattempts until I find success. I am embarrassed by low scores because I know I can do better, so I do better. I failed math facts in sixth grade, asked my teacher for a fat stack of extra copies, went home, and drilled myself until I could finally beat that timer. Heck, I replay levels of Candy Crush until I get all three of those little golden stars before I move to the next level. It’s my innate wiring. But what if it wasn’t? What if I didn’t have the objective ability to perceive failure as an opportunity to improve? What if failure crushed me and made me give up?

As teachers, we can not allow students to halt at the first, second, third-hundredth brush with failure. We do not simply dole out assessment results as if they are the final say on someone’s academic worth. When our students don’t have the skills to utilize failure to their advantage we are tasked with teaching them how. At the very least, we must use our reverse-psychology prowess to jump start them on the idea.

And this is what Merriam’s definition of teaching doesn’t take into account. The job of teaching is more than simply assigning work. Teachers build the bridges between students and the content they are learning. Not a one-size fits all bridge, but one specifically designed bridge for every learner sitting before us. We cross those bridges back and forth with them a hundred and eighty times, each trip showing them one more new thing, until the day they are ready to cross that bridge on their own. Until the day they realize, “Hey! I can build my own bridge.”

This work, the work of a teacher, has never been contained by the four walls of a classroom.

I may no longer directly instruct 150+ students each day, but that doesn’t make me any less a teacher in the work I do. And just because some of my colleagues have been leading their classes from a computer while rocking fuzzy bunny slippers doesn’t mean they aren’t the same powerhouse teachers they are face-to-face.


Caitlin Racine

Life Coach, Comedian, Therapist, Personal Assistant, Nurse, Cheerleader, Housekeeper, Bodyguard, Project Manager, Psychic, Tech Support, Copy Editor, Engineer, Gatekeeper of the Good Stapler … Teacher

In addition to the above roles, Caitlin Racine is a homeschool teacher with Yosemite Valley Charter School supporting TK-12 students on their individual educational journeys. She has been an SJVWP teacher leader since 2016 and currently serves as Associate Director of Secondary.

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