Educator Spotlight: Jen Saarinen

Math teacher in Rhode Island focuses on SEL during remote learning and always

This story is part of a weekly series that celebrates outstanding teachers in our Flipgrid community. Stories by Angela Tewalt.


It was just a nice afternoon at home the other day when Jennifer Saarinen ran into her neighbor’s grandchildren outside.  


They were familiar faces. For the past eight years, she’s come to know those kids with a smile or a wave every time they visit Grandma and Grandpa. As a math teacher herself, of course Jennifer always asks the kids about school – how they’re doing, what they like, if they’re happy.  


Jennifer is the kind of neighbor that just makes you feel better.  


On this happenstance, however, she spoke to the grandkids more earnestly than ever before.  


“ ‘Listen,’ I said, ‘I can already tell that you didn’t like distance learning last spring, but I assume it’s going to be even harder for you this fall to ask a new teacher for help,’ ” said Jennifer, who’s school district has begun a hybrid version of learning both at home and in the classroom. “And so I just told her, ‘Reach out to me, ok? I’ll try to help.’  


“Even though I’ve never taught her as a student, she might not have an opportunity to get to know her teachers the same way she knows me, and I think having that comfort and guidance is what’s most important right now.” 


She did the same thing with an eighth-grade student who reached out to her personally to express how much he was missing physical classroom engagement in remote learning. She wasn’t his teacher for all of his classes, but she coached him through his schedule nonetheless, encouraging him to suggest virtual team meetings, one-on-one video chats to ask questions or a phone call with the superintendent.  


Jennifer assured him that, beyond the schoolwork, she was there to support him, to help him advocate for himself and to help talk through the wild emotional learning curve we’re all leaning into today. 


“My rule is, I don’t always have the answers,” Jennifer says. “But I will figure out who to put you with so you can get more help than what your math teacher might be able to give you. I just think we need to find ways to be a little bit more flexible and check in with the kids. Now more than ever.” 

‘Listening and Understanding Right Now’

Jennifer has been teaching middle school in Providence, Rhode Island, for nearly 20 years. She’s the teacher who rearranges classroom furniture, encourages group work and collaborative thinking and writes the words “Choice and Voice” next to math problems on the whiteboard to stimulate self-determination. Comprehension of the work matters, for sure, but just like her neighbors’ grandkids, she’s always looking out for her students, too.   


Last winter, pre-pandemic, she took time out of her curriculum to talk with her students about the then-unnamed virus happening in China. She would take screenshots of data being posted on the New York Times and then let the students choose which map or graph they wanted to talk about. Within these informative conversations, she built up a rapport, trust and relationship with her students that fills the empty spaces in remote learning today. 

“To me, every single kid has some sort of missing piece – a gap in their social emotional development from what has happened,” Jennifer says. “Even with students who had support and access at home, they still have some real needs, and if we don’t do a good job of listening to understanding what this experience has been like from the students’ perspective since last March, I think we’ll struggle to close those gaps.  


“Even as adults, we’re missing those water cooler chats and need to find new ways to see how people are doing. I understand that I’ve got to teach the math – I love the math! – but I would rather spend my time getting to know the kids and their personal experiences right now.” 


Jennifer’s energy and compassion for others is completely unassuming. Her ambition and mindfulness, too, is courageously humble, and yet, amid the breadth of her sensitivities, she just wants all of us to be ok.  

“I just want to say to my students, go easy on yourself and recognize that it’s hard for everybody,” she says. “You’re trying your best, and we’ve got to have faith that the other people in your school, community, and family are also doing their best.  


“And, for all of us, even though we might be spending a lot of our time looking at our computer screens for the next 12 months or so, just be a human.” 


Follow Jennifer on Twitter. For more information on social emotional learning, visit the SEL Collection in our Discovery Library.