Five days a week, Danny Bliss weaves his beat-up blue Ford Taurus station wagon from his apartment in San Francisco’s Alamo Square down to the Mission district, where he picks up Ben Canning and they begin their 20-mile drive to Sequoia High School in Redwood City.
Bliss and Canning, both third-year teachers at the public school, are not simply colleagues looking to save gas money. They are friends who graduated from the Stanford Teacher Education Program (STEP) in 2008. And it is no coincidence that they are at Sequoia; for the past decade or so, the school has been consistently plucking fresh-faced Stanford grads to roam its halls.
There are five ‘08 “Steppies,” as they are affectionately called, teaching at Sequoia today. “So many of my friends work here; so many of my colleagues are also my friends,” said Bliss, a history teacher.
The presence of so many Steppies creates more than a fraternity among teachers at Sequoia. It gives them a support system and ensures they are on the same page, according to Bliss. “It adds a level of comfort, especially as a new teacher,” he said. “I remember my first day running down to another STEP teacher’s room after two periods and saying, ‘alright, I made it!’”
Bliss’s path to teaching was not entirely direct — he was pre-med before majoring in history — but it’s one that began when he was young. His mom, a lifelong educator, and a teaching experience he had while studying abroad in Costa Rica are the two influences he cites as most important in leading him to where he is today.
“My dad has a job at Northwestern hospital that pays well but that he doesn’t love,” said Bliss, who grew up outside of Chicago. “My mom has a job that she absolutely gushes about.”
After his time abroad at an underprivileged, ill-equipped school and a by-chance invitation to apply to STEP, Bliss was on the path to becoming a teacher.
There are certain modes of learning emphasized at STEP that trickle into the Sequoia community. One of the staples is that it is the obligation of all teachers to teach students how to read and write. This couldn’t ring more true for Bliss and Canning at Sequoia, a school with a large population of students learning English.
On a recent Tuesday morning, Bliss spent about half of his one hour and 40-minute freshman World Studies I period going over how to write a good thesis statement as he wrapped up the Middle East unit by assigning an essay on Saudi Arabia’s ban on female drivers.
Bliss, with curly blond hair and a face rarely in need of a shave, didn’t hesitate to challenge his students to think beyond normal assumptions. He explained how to write a thesis to his class while pacing the room, giving examples which high school freshmen could relate to—such as the merits of rap music—while using a clicker to control a PowerPoint presentation.
“Your thesis statement is your point,” said Bliss, dressed in a baby-blue “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” T-shirt for the school’s “Superhero Day.” Behind him, a PowerPoint slide read, “The Most Important Sentence You Will Ever Read: The Thesis Statement.”
Rachel Lotan, STEP’s director of secondary education, agrees that teaching English is something the program stresses to all of its teachers. “In California, the number of kids who are English learners and academically unprepared is tremendous,” she said.
Lotan said it doesn’t matter if you are a math, physics or chemistry teacher, English is part of your curriculum.
“Guess what, you have to be a language and literacy teacher,” she said. “Your 10th-grader reads at fifth- or seventh-grade levels, and they can’t understand what’s in the textbook.”
STEP also provides teachers with shared skills and experiences. One example Bliss gives is an activity called a Structured Academic Controversy—SAC for short—which is a document-based debate among students over a specific controversial historical topic, such as the question, “Was Abraham Lincoln a racist?”
Because the Steppies are familiar with SACs, all Bliss needs to tell other STEP history teachers when they meet is to “do the Lincoln SAC,” and everyone knows what he means.
Even though Canning is a physics teacher and may never use SACs, he too understands the benefit of having familiarity among teachers.
“It is nice to know that everyone is on the same philosophical page,” said Canning from his newly-renovated Physics lab while he waited for Bliss to give him a ride back to San Francisco.
Sequoia’s strong relationship with STEP isn’t particularly surprising, given the school’s history, Bliss said.
Sequoia was founded in 1895 as the first high school between San Francisco and San Jose, and it was built as an institution for the children of Stanford professors (Stanford was founded in 1891). The school’s buildings and grounds are modeled after the Stanford campus and it has remained a partner school of STEP for many years, though there has been a particularly steady flow of STEP teachers coming to Sequoia in the past six or seven years according to Bliss.
The school’s current principal, Bonnie Hansen, now in her second year, has long had a relationship with STEP, and the school’s previous principal was a STEP graduate, Lotan said.
For all the help STEP provided Bliss and Canning, they had to make plenty of adjustments when they arrived at Sequoia.
“I appreciate what STEP taught us,” Canning said. “But not everything they taught us is feasible.”
Classes aren’t necessarily as small or intimate as the STEP ideal, according to Canning, but Sequoia has fostered an adaptive environment, something that makes both Bliss and Canning feel right at home in Redwood City.
“[Sequoia] shies away from teachers unwilling to change,” Canning said before Bliss interjected, “Those are pretty hard to find around here, most of them are shuttled out and don’t make tenure.”
Because of the steady stream of new teachers—there are 21 this year, from STEP and elsewhere—coming to Sequoia every year, the faculty is extremely young, which Bliss finds to be beneficial in relating to the students. “I compare Pocahontas going back to England with John Rolfe and her celebrity there to Kim Kardashian,” he said.
Even in his capacity as a teacher at Sequoia, Bliss remains forever tied to Stanford. He can be found at the university’s football and basketball games and he doesn’t hide his allegiances at Sequoia. Teachers were instructed to hang up pennants and signs for different colleges in their classrooms. In Bliss’s room flies a Stanford sign and Harvard and Wisconsin pennants; tucked under a pile of books is a USC pennant that he just can’t bring himself to put up.