The Road to Well-Being with Susana Herrera

April 24, 2018

Often during lunch, senior Nicole Baxley, one of Susana Herrera’s Positive Psychology students, is fast asleep on Herrera’s couch. She lies tucked under a blanket by Herrera and clutches her and Herrera’s favorite stuffed animal — a large elephant. Students huddle in clusters around the room, chatting quietly, or prop their feet up on desks and find solace in a quick Netflix break. Even other teachers, their rooms occupied by student clubs, come to seek a place to eat.

For many, Positive Psychology teacher Susana Herrera’s classroom acts as a second home. She’s keen to listen but doesn’t pry, and as she listens she radiates a warm, empathetic energy. She gives students her phone number so they can contact her outside of class, and offers her help to students not in her classes too. And some of her students, like Lauren Mok, ‘12, say she’s changed their lives by helping them heal through tough times.

“She’s such a courageous, bright, good person, and I hope that anybody that has the chance to take her class should because you’ll learn a lot academically, but the amount you’ll learn personally is even bigger,” Lauren said.

It’s the small things — the popcorn machine, couch, blankets, stuffed animals, Costco-sized jar of jelly beans and refrigerated chocolate in her room — that exemplify her desire to give students a place at school where they can relax and find happiness.

“I feel my duty is to be the person in their life with more flexibility, a little more compassion, because I can,” Herrera said.

Herrera’s drive to be there for her students stems from a teacher who helped her when her dad committed suicide six months after her stepfather passed away. Herrera’s Human Behavior teacher at Santa Cruz High School, Pete Newell, would end up changing her life.

Susana is a very caring person to the depths of her soul. She wants to make her community better than it is today.

— English teacher Susana Herrera’s old teacher Pete Newell

After hearing that Herrera, at the time a sophomore in Newell’s class, was considering dropping out of school, Newell rode his bike through the drive-through at Taco Bell where Herrera worked to ask her in person to come back to school. One of Newell’s previous students had dropped out of school, and although Newell wasn’t teaching her at the time, he felt like he missed the chance to talk to her. He remembers Herrera as a quiet, thoughtful student with a great smile; he had a chance to help Herrera, so he took it.

“There were two young women who should have stayed in school because they had the intelligence to, and even though there was stuff going on outside of the classroom, school is a refuge,” Newell said. “We missed on [my previous student] and didn’t want to miss on Suzie.”

Herrera recalls the moment as a turning point.
“He said ‘Look, I’m going to pick you up. I’m going to come and pick you up at your house tomorrow morning and we’re going to figure this out,’” Herrera said. “[I was] an A student and almost failed after missing so many weeks of school. He would not give up on me, so he picked me up 7:30 in the morning, drove me to school, and helped me write letters. I let people know I’m worth it, I’m going to make this work out and I’m going to get through this, but you have to know my dad just died.”

Newell helped Herrera seek out counseling, and they would talk in his room whenever she wanted to. His room, not unlike Herrera’s today, had been furnished to feel cozy with a growing collection of hanging plants inhabiting the ceiling, classical music or the Beatles filling the air and Newell himself often offering Herrera a cup of tea as they talked. At her house, Herrera’s mom wasn’t quite sure how to help her, but as Newell invited her into his room — “like you were going into his house,” Herrera said — she began to open up and heal.

“It changed my life to have one person at the worst time in my life to be like ‘You’re important to me. I see you, and I’m not going to let you go away,’” Herrera said.

Herrera also turned to her teacher Susan Moore, who helped her by talking about her own struggles. Noticing how helpful it was for her to understand one of her teacher’s experiences, Herrera tries to be just as open with her students.

“I saw how a story can be powerful and saw the effect like, ‘Oh, you had a parent who committed suicide too, I’m not the only one in the world who has this horrible thing in their past,’” Herrera said. “I saw the liberation students would feel like, ‘You really understand, and if this person lived through this… then I can live through it.’”

“She tells her stories and what she’s gone through, and she’s somebody who knows how to get through it,” Nicole said, voicing a sentiment shared by many students. “Whereas other people are just like ‘It gets better,’ she would be like, ‘Yeah, this is what I felt and this is how I worked through it.”

After graduating college and before becoming a high school English teacher, Herrera joined the Peace Corps and went to Cameroon for two years to teach English. There, she continued the healing process she started with Newell, using running and writing as her tools.

Her stepdad encouraged her to start running when she was in third grade, and as she grew older, he taught her to write in a more formal way. She exchanged long letters with her dad — some of his replies were 55 pages long — after her parents’ divorce, and noted how cathartic the letter writing process could be.

“The heart sends its energy down to the fingers, and writing it out, the scribble when you’re angry, the slow loops when you’re sad, I wrote it all out and it was liberating,” Herrera said.

Alone with her thoughts in Cameroon, she drew upon their lessons, writing long letters home, writing a book and running to heal. Her longest was 55 miles to the capital because no one in her village was eating or drinking water during Ramadan. As she ran, she wrote in her head what would become her book, “Mango Elephants in the Sun.”

“That’s how people live on in you,” Herrera said. “They give you gifts, and you can continue to explore those gifts when they’re gone.

“The pain we’ve had in our lives can actually be turned into the moment of light we see. The dark times are there for a purpose. It’s for us to expand.”

Newell says he can’t claim to have known Herrera would become the person she is today or he’d have such an impact on her, but he also says he’s “tremendously blessed and eternally grateful” for being able to help her at a critical point in her life.

“She is a very caring person to the depths of her soul,” Newell said. “She loves people. She has an affinity for teenagers. She wants to make her community better than it is today. She’s at Los Altos now, so take advantage of her now.”

Now, Herrera focuses on students’ well-being and teaches mindfulness in all of her classes — a lesson from her time in a Buddhist monastery at 15 years old — by encouraging her students to talk to her one-on-one if they want.

“She just radiates positivity and I feel great going into the classroom,” senior Ryan Cox said. “She’s open, understanding and listens when you’re talking to her.”

So when Principal Wynne Satterwhite had an idea about starting a Positive Psychology class, Herrera had only one thought.

“Please let me teach this class. I want to be a Mr. Newell for students.”

Positive Psychology

“I go in there and I feel like there’s a weight lifted off my shoulders,” senior Ryan Cox said. “I’ll be in class and I’ll forget I’m in school.”

Combining work and play, students in Positive Psychology can be found playing tag on the back field, studying cognitive distortions in the classroom and writing in their journals. The class aims to help students learn strategies and coping mechanisms to utilize outside of the classroom, provide a safe space for students to relax and take breaks from an otherwise stressful day. At a school where administration and teachers have said they’re trying to decrease stress levels through mindfulness and other methods, Positive Psychology is the physical manifestation of those efforts.

English and Positive Psychology teacher Susana Herrera tries to emphasize being mindful in her adaptable approach to the class, balancing the work and fun and spending more time on some units as necessary. She extended the Courage and Fear unit from one week to three weeks. She also gauges her class at the beginning of each period every day, sometimes abandoning her lesson plan if she senses a lot of stress, pushing it for a later day to go outside and destress. Every Friday is a “Fun Friday,” with an activity that helps students relax and learn — originally planned by Herrera, students now help plan activities themselves.

“Is this about work or is this about fun?” Herrera said. “Well it’s about both. It’s work and it’s a lot of fun, and that’s what life is about. Work gives us purpose and fun makes the work even better.”

Writing plays a significant role in Positive Psychology, serving as a gateway for students to try to better understand themselves and to comfortably choose what they want to share with Herrera and their classmates. Sophomore Lily Wang says that writing in the class helped her learn to better articulate her emotions. Beyond the classroom, she began writing letters to her parents after the semester final focused on expressing feelings. For her, writing helps solve arguments more than talking because it allows her to choose her words more carefully before sharing them with others.

Is this about work or is this about fun? Well it’s about both. It’s work and it’s a lot of fun, and that’s what life is about. Work gives us purpose and fun makes the work even better.

— Positive Psychology teacher Susana Herrera

As students wrote and journaled more, they gradually started sharing more with their classmates in small and eventually large group discussions. Students have forged strong bonds inside and outside the classroom, creating a sense of community.

“Learning these things about each other made us feel less judgmental,” senior Helen Kochetkova said. “I’ve become less insecure by being in a class that accepts you, where we can be ourselves.”

Through short-term and long-term assignments, students work to make themselves happier — one paper, called the “Five Problems Paper,” has students identify five areas in their lives that they would like to work on. Using the skills they’ve learned in the class, they come up with several ways to address these problems and document their experiences doing so.

Beyond being a class that focuses on developing mindful thinking and behavior, Positive Psychology is unique in its adaptable class structure. Starting as a semester class, Herrera said she extended it to a year for more learning and “more fun.” That includes more field trips, which could be grabbing a drink at Jamba Juice or seeing a screening of “Love, Simon.”

“[When we went to Jamba Juice,] we savored going outside of class and just having an enjoyable moment,” senior Varun Bopardikar said. “I think the whole idea of savoring has been my favorite idea, just taking some time to enjoy what you’re doing and not thinking about anything else that’s going on.”

Looking forward, Herrera plans on continuing to experiment with the course to make it the best experience for students possible. Some students have even expressed interest in retaking the course, and Herrera’s working on a second curriculum for people who want to take an even deeper dive into introspection.

“There’s a lot of fear, there’s a lot of fences and people are locked up and blocked, and that’s okay,” Herrera said. “It can’t be a class that everybody will want, but for those who want to work through and heal and get connected, I hope they’ll give it a chance.”

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