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Wed, Aug 18, 2021

Oscar Paz

Oscar Paz - Education & Outreach Manager

Back to School Amidst Uncertainties: Teacher Spotlight

Despite the growing uncertainties many families and schools are currently facing, the transition to a sense of normalcy is upon us. Across the county, schools are beginning to prepare for the return of students. As Education Coordinator at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH), I have been thinking about the state of mind of students and teachers as schools start to reopen. Moreover, the concerns teachers have about their students and how our community can support the needs of students going forward. To dive in deeper, I interviewed two local Santa Cruz County teachers to see how their experience has been and what they are envisioning for the future.

I would love to introduce Melissa, PVUSD District Technology Innovation Coach, and Alec, 4th Grade Teacher at Watsonville Charter School of the Arts, to share their thoughts on going back to school. Their experiences during distance learning and their transition to in-person learning prove to be words of advice as we prepare for a new type of school year.

How are you feeling about going back to teaching in person again? What is on your mind as you adjust to these new circumstances?

Alec: My primary focus as we return to full-time in-person learning is on responding to my students’ social-emotional needs. I am excited to see my students in the physical classroom, but I understand that many may feel particularly anxious about coming back to school. I am working closely with my grade level partner and other supportive staff to brainstorm activities that are low in stress and can help the students feel a sense of normalcy. The emphasis for the first couple of weeks will be on art, community bonding games, and physical activities.

Melissa: This is my 17th year in education and a particularly bittersweet launch into a new school year. It’s been invigorating to see students and teachers returning to campus this week. But I can’t help feeling pangs of FOMO as I’ve stepped outside my comfort zone and am isolated from bonding with a whole new crew of fourth-graders right now. My experience as a distance learning teacher over the last year and a half was equal parts utterly exhausting and profoundly inspiring. Everything I learned about EdTech tools and their role in transforming my digital learning space has propelled me forward onto this parallel career path with schema, perspective, and purpose to build a collaborative bridge between technology, curriculum, instruction, and empathy. I feel a deep appreciation for the timely opportunity to widen my scope while narrowing my focus. And I’m grateful to be joining an intrepid team that is entering this entirely new landscape with an innovative pulse for elevating the educational experience for all students. It’s a steep learning curve and I know I’ll be treading water for a while. It’s a little scary, but that’s why I’m here.

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“Moving forward, it would be amazing to have an art therapist in every school to help cultivate opportunities for students to creatively process and express what they are going through with someone who is supporting them.”

Melissa Shaw, PVUSD District Technology Innovation Coach

How can we support our students as they adapt to change and readjust to a new school year?

Alec: Classroom discussions and meetings are useful ways to keep a pulse on what students are concerned with and wary of during this unique time. In my teaching, I try to involve students’ voices as much as possible and facilitate discussions on topics that are relevant to my students’ lives and current events. I try to choose books and other classroom materials that are most relevant to the present context. Giving students the chance to have respectful discussions and hear from one another on things that matter to them goes a long way towards ensuring they have the resiliency and adaptability needed to adjust to our current tumultuous times.

Melissa: We can commit ourselves to becoming better social and emotional listeners, and we can honor who our students are by providing space for reflection. Powerful teaching is always rooted in powerful listening. Our deep, genuine understanding of each student goes a long way toward creating the right conditions for them to learn. After such a forced insular withdrawal from reality, it’s bound to be a complex readjustment period for us all. I’m impressed by how our school district is using this entry point to re-emerge mindfully with time and a platform to explicitly explore students’ identity, sense of belonging, and agency. I know my friends and facilitative colleagues who are posing these thoughtful questions of their students will build understanding and seed their classrooms with the empathy that is critical to trusting and productive relationships.

Mental health is a big topic across school districts. What steps do you think schools should take to meet student’s needs regarding their mental health?

Alec: I was very impressed with the emphasis my school district, PVUSD, had on focusing on the social-emotional needs of students. Last year, specific time was allotted to social-emotional needs in our morning meetings. During the first half-hour of the day, my students and I had time for open discussions and community games. I would open up the discussion so that students could discuss whatever they liked. With no time to bond during what would normally be recess time, even small gestures such as this would help my students to feel they were more a part of a community. They must know that they can have chances to guide discussion topics and hear from one another. I would also challenge my students to make different community games that were accessible to us virtually. I gave them several examples, and by the end of the year, I was hardly making the games at all myself anymore. Many of my students would voluntarily make slideshows and virtual books. I think this was all relevant to supporting students’ mental health because students cannot learn when they feel disconnected, or even worse, unsafe in a learning environment. Truly appreciating their concerns and interests on such a regular basis sends a clear message to them that they matter in our classroom.

Melissa: The past year and a half has cooked up lasagna layers of trauma for everyone, and I know this transition is causing discomfort for the majority of us. We are at a moment when the focus on mental health has eclipsed core academic standards. Teachers and administrators can model vulnerable leadership by acknowledging that this time has been and continues to be distressing and filled with uncertainty. And we can support our students’ creative resilience by sharing some ways of making sense of current events by applying original thinking across domains. More than ever, I think it’s vital to highlight a culture that engages in creativity and can serve to buffer against the negative effects of living through the pandemic. I was very lucky to work at Watsonville Charter School of the Arts and have the capacity and encouragement to integrate tinkering, making, and innovating to help students develop positive coping and self-management strategies. Moving forward, it would be amazing to have an art therapist in every school to help cultivate opportunities for students to creatively process and express what they are going through with someone who is supporting them. Art therapy holds the power to help students feel that their choice and voice are heard and accounted for.

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“I believe that connecting students to important community institutions and discussions is a powerful tool for deeper and more meaningful learning.”

Alec Van Houten, Teacher

How can a student’s community help them feel less disconnected as they return to classrooms?

Alec: This makes me think of when my students had a virtual field trip to the Santa Cruz MAH last year. I appreciated that the MAH included art pieces that were relevant to the civil rights protests and COVID pandemic that was (and is) obviously very much at the forefront of our communal dialogue. My students discussed an art piece we saw during this tour that was based on George Floyd. Soon after this trip, we were analyzing a speech by Martin Luther King jr. My students were very interested in what he had said about policing. They made very interesting connections between the issues Dr. King discussed to our current times. It was very exciting to see my students practicing such important critical thinking. I believe that connecting students to important community institutions and discussions is a powerful tool for deeper and more meaningful learning. Keeping connections between my students and the wider community is very important if I am to make my teaching responsive and meaningful.

Melissa: As a community, we can continue to help students recognize the silver linings of the pandemic and how we’ve become intimately connected through this shared historical experience. We can encourage each other to actively participate in dialogue around equity and social justice, and use what we learned in distance learning last year to empower ourselves to be better learners and more compassionate humans. We can identify the plethora of learnings, trials, and tribulations from last year and analyze this as a community to help each other use the positive takeaways to make a difference this year. One successful experiment our school pursued last year was bridging our California Invention Convention into the virtual realm. Although I’ve taken a side step away from leading WCSA through our annual Invention Convention, I’d like to continue to participate with our community and our local leaders to help students recognize that invention and innovation are really about helping others and using the tools in our life to make that happen. If our community and school system redefine student success to emphasize self-directed, interdisciplinary problem-seeking/problem-solving, we will help our students foster the courage to look beyond their bubbles to ask questions, make connections, and develop empathy to reach out and understand how life affects others. Good luck, educational community—we got this!

Get to Know the Teachers

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Elementary School Teacher

Alec Van Houten

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Former Teacher, now PVUSD District Technology Innovation Coach

Melissa Shaw

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As we commence this school year, the MAH is here to help support the needs of our future leaders. Head over to our Educational Resources page to browse our current selection of free lesson plans. If you are interested in visiting the MAH for a field trip, we are accepting bookings. Register or sign up for email updates as we announce upcoming lesson plans. And as always we are happy to collaborate with teachers and welcome feedback so please feel free to email me at so we can connect.

Never Stop Learning

Field Trips

Connect your students to art and history in new ways. Go on a virtual exploration of Santa Cruz County art and history.