Mrs. Davidson with her 3rd period class (Photo courtesy of Dr. Gates)
San Marino High School

Change starts in the classroom

At San Marino, our anecdotes of hallway breakdowns and tension headaches are as common as the 5s we score on our AP exams (to give you a perspective, almost 50 percent of students who took the 2018 AP Chemistry exam scored a 5). These fees we pay for academic merit have accrued for almost two decades as our necks become tired of bearing the shimmering gold medal for “top unified school district” in California.

But in a hyper-competitive modern society, where five APs still aren’t enough and six hours of sleep is the norm instead of the exception, a discussion on mental health has become impossible to neglect. 

That realization came recently for San Marino as the administration invited Challenge Success, a graduate program spearheaded by Stanford, to survey students on issues ranging from academic honesty to anxiety and depression. The implementation of a yet-to-be-open student wellness center previously addressed San Marino’s chronic issue with mental health, but for real change to come about, student stress has to be addressed at its core: the classroom.

English teachers at San Marino seem to be at the forefront of this initiative, even for junior year classes. Amid weekly timed writings and character maps of “The Crucible,” Mrs. Lisa Davidson — AP Language teacher and co-chair of the English department — finds ways to prioritize mental health in and out of the classroom, whether it be starting class with Beyoncé or discussing the “Columbia or bust” mentality students have on colleges.

And in the season of finals when student-teacher relationships might not be the most amicable, I decided to interview Mrs. Davidson to shine a light on her efforts that have brought laughter in a stress-saturated community. 

Where did you go for undergrad and graduate school?  

My first year of college was at Cal State Chico in Chico, California. Then I transferred to UC Santa Barbara and finished my BA in English Literature. I did some graduate work through USC Extension Programs on the Central Coast — they closed that program when I was a few units shy of completion. A lifetime later, I attended Pt. Loma University to obtain my teaching credential.

How long have you been teaching, in general and at SMHS? 

I did my student teaching and then a long-term sub job at La Cañada High School, then SMHS hired me. This is my 12th year at SMHS.

When did you decide that you were going to become a teacher? 

When I couldn’t stand one more lunch with people who didn’t understand allusions to Shakespeare and Wordsworth. About 15 years ago.

What is your favorite part about teaching (besides grading papers)? 

I love interacting with students who are on the verge of adulthood. I love not answering questions kids can figure out for themselves — and showing them how to do that. I love the lightbulb moments when students realize they probably are smarter than I.

Who are your favorite authors, and what are your favorite books?  

Hands-down: John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy. No particular order.

You often start your classes with music; how do you choose what songs to play, and who is/are your favorite artist(s)?  

Song choice is either random (probably the unfinished song on my playlist as I was driving from work), or very pointed — a lyric that previews what will happen in class. Favs: Michael Jackson, Phil Collins, Keith Urban, Zak Brown Band, Blake Shelton, Michael Buble, Alicia Keys, myself in the shower.

How is teaching now different from when you first started your career?  

Currently, there is an emphasis on student wellness — whatever form that takes.  When I first began teaching, it was all about delivering content to students and holding them accountable for that content.  Today, we try to find a blend between learning and balanced students.  I like the change.

What was your childhood like, and how did it influence your journey to becoming an English teacher?  

I had an outstanding childhood, surrounded by five brothers and sisters (blended family) who hated/loved me, and parents — particularly my mother — who knew I had much to offer the world.  I grew up here in So Cal, so I’m a native and proud of it!  My mother suggested I be a teacher when I was in college — I quickly rejected that until much later when I was a mother.  She was right. My stepfather is loving, hardworking, and still calls me sweetheart. My birth father was a bit edgy.

Were there times when you considered quitting your job and why?  

First year at SMHS. There was no classroom available for me — too many students. So, I had to travel from classroom to classroom during passing periods, working in different teachers’ classroom during their prep/conference period.  My desk was in the English Dept. Office. Jose Caire was super kind to me — he gave me an outdated printer so I could print progress reports. I cried a couple of times a week on the way home. But I didn’t quit — I was so happy to have a job and loved my students. I knew things would improve. They did.

Has there been a point in time when you had to juggle multiple jobs at once in order to make ends meet (from my career research paper last year, I learned that many entry-level teachers either their quit their job or become stressed out by the responsibilities of multiple due to the insufficient wage)?  

Honestly, no. My husband was very successful in business and the salary from SMUSD was not needed to supplement our income.

English teachers seem to be taking more initiative than most other teachers when it comes to discussing student mental health. What specifically have you done/plan to do to help alleviate the high-stress and overachieving community that is San Marino?  

I hold periodic “Melt-Down Fridays” where I encourage students to discard the negatives and embrace the positives in their lives.  I work hard to establish personal relationships with students — particularly those who seem more reticent — in order to help students be honest with me. I try to understand competing obligations for students and alter assignment due dates. Frankly, I just try to treat my students as fellow humans who need love and encouragement. They reciprocate, so win-win.

On that same note of mental health, it seems that most English teachers are extremely welcoming of discussing personal student problems. Has there ever been a time in your career when a student benefited from this kindness and confided in you (there is no need to expound on the circumstance if answered), and how did you see that student change afterwards?  

There have been many instances where I have had direct intervention in a student’s life:  attempted suicide, parental physical abuse, terrible divorce situations, sexuality/gender issues, etc.  What always strikes me is the resiliency of young people — people in general, I suppose — and the ability to embrace their circumstances and forge ahead.  

San Marino is often perceived as a STEM-dominant school, and can often encourage students to pursue more scientific jobs for economic stability rather than humanities-related fields at the possible expense of happiness? Are there any changes you would like to see implemented to prevent these phenomenons from happening?  

There is a reason English is the only subject required for 4 years in high school.  There is a reason the poets and philosophers and playwrights and writers and actors are what many societies are remembered for — Aristotle, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Hemingway. It’s cool that kids are moving into STEM fields, but it is imperative that language and the study of the human condition holds equal importance; otherwise, aren’t we just aliens with advanced technology?! Who teaches those engineers and coders to write, anyway?!

What impact did you hope to have on students in previous years, and how did you see that effect expressed in tangible terms?  

I hoped (and still hope) that my students learn the skills they need for college and life, and that they learn to think critically, and that they learn to FEEL. I see students return from college and life every year who tell me the lessons in Room 28 did exactly that.

What impact do you hope to have on students this year?  

This year is different, as you know. My husband was ill most of the spring (when I had mostly current seniors) and then terminal this fall (when I have mostly current juniors). My hope is that they realize the deep impact their understanding, maturity, empathy, and care has had on my family this year. That lesson isn’t something found in “The Great Gatsby,” I’m afraid.  Should they be able to take our shared experience with them and carry it through their life, then I’ve touched a lot of people.

change starts with us Change starts in the classroom

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