By Yvette tenBerge
Shell-shocked second graders shuffled into their classroom at Gage Elementary, located at 6811 Bisby Lake Avenue, just days after the September 11 attacks on America. This ethnically diverse group of students - including a child whose family is still in Afghanistan and several others from the Middle East - were passed into the hands of Ernestine “Rae” Riner, a 34-year teacher who was just designated “Teacher of the Year” by San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD).
Ms. Riner, 58, recalls the parents’ initial hesitancy in dropping off their children. “The parents didn’t know me well, and their kids had these looks on their faces. We held hands and did an energy circle for a week,” says Ms. Riner, explaining that some children had been exposed to numerous television replays of the explosions, while others were not aware that anything out of the ordinary had happened. “We sent energy to New York, and we talked about the event and their feelings.”
Ms. Riner did not refer to a curriculum handbook to determine how she could best help her students through this crisis. She explains that incorporating caring and healing lessons is simply how she has always run her classroom.
“Improving the way a child is feeling today is my mission. Nothing going on in my own life should take precedence,” says Ms. Riner, who pulls out a picture of her class. “Any given year I have children who are being raised by their grandparents, single dads and co-parenting families; every child is different, but they deserve the same things.”
Ms. Riner, who has been teaching at Gage Elementary since 1989, admits that she was surprised when her colleagues pressed her to apply for this prestigious district-wide award and “filled with joy” when she learned that she had won. Applications from teachers throughout the 182-school district flooded in, but the honor was bestowed upon one elementary teacher, one middle school teacher and one high school teacher.
As her students file out of the classroom for lunch, Ms. Riner pulls out her invitation to the San Diego County, Academy Awards-style “Salute to Teachers,” a black-tie event on October 5. On this evening, four teachers out of the more than 35 who have received awards from their district will be selected to represent the county at the “California Teacher of the Year” event. The competition culminates on a national level.
Marianna Zavestoski is a parent who has volunteered in Ms. Riner’s classroom for the past three years. She explains that her own mother also helped in Ms. Riner’s classroom, and that her daughter, who was once a student of Ms. Riner’s, has spent her time working in the classroom, as well. Ms. Zavestoski recalls her initial meeting with Ms. Riner, back when she was on a search to find the “best” second grade teacher for her child.
“All of the teachers here at Gage are good, but Rae goes that extra mile. She cares about each and every child. She cares about the ones who are excelling, as well as the ones who aren’t doing as well,” says Ms. Zavestoski, who reveals that Ms. Riner greets every child personally when they walk into her classroom each day, and wishes them well when they leave. “I have seen her do her utmost best every day that she is here.”
Ms. Riner’s work at Gage Elementary doesn’t end in the classroom. Her involvement with the Parent Teacher Association, the site Governance Team and her three-year stint as a mentor teacher have sealed her status as a professional in the minds of her colleagues.
Jacquelyn Talbert, a third grade teacher at Gage, has more than 33 years of teaching experience under her belt. She recalls her initial meeting with Ms. Riner more than 11 years ago when she was applying for a position at the school. The retiring principal handed the hiring responsibilities over to Ms. Riner.
“There were six or seven positions to fill, and Rae set everything up. She called for references and completed the whole process. The interviews started on time, and we were all notified of the school’s decision immediately,” says Ms. Talbert, who describes the process as “very well run.” “During this time, she also set up our site Governance Team, and spent a whole week writing official papers for the school instead of going to sixth grade camp.”
Ms. Talbert states that she knows Ms. Riner’s teaching style well because many of her second grade students enter Ms. Talbert’s third grade class. “She’s an excellent teacher. The children I receive from her are well prepared for third grade, and they adore her,” says Ms. Talbert. “I hear about Ms. Riner all day long.”
But this teacher’s commitment to children is not limited to the Gage community. Since 1996, Ms. Riner has dedicated roughly 20 hours per month to Kids’ Turn, San Diego, a non-profit organization that helps parents and children deal with divorce.
“That’s where you’ll find me every Saturday morning. I work with seven through nine years olds who are going through divorce, and we help these kids talk about their feelings,” says Ms. Riner. “The program is pro-child, and the message is all about how to nurture our children.”
Dr. Shari Delisle founded Kids’ Turn after discovering that there were “really no resources for children whose parents are involved in a divorce or custody dispute.” She has her Ph.D. in counseling and psychology, and hired Ms. Riner for a modest stipend at the program’s inception.
“First and foremost, Rae is dedicated to the welfare of the children. I notice the way they relate to her. They are so affectionate and enthusiastic when they see her,” says Dr. Delisle. “She creates a special bond with each of the children at our workshops, and demonstrates a deep understanding and caring for them.”
Dr. Delisle highlights Ms. Riner’s mastery of curriculum development, as well. “She is very creative in terms of curriculum and is able to tailor it to the emotional needs of each child,” says Dr. Delisle, who states that Kids’ Turn utilizes activities such as puppet shows, music and role-playing. “This is the first time that many of these children are sharing their innermost, heart felt experiences, and Rae creates a loving and supportive environment where they can talk freely.”
The students in Ms. Riner’s classroom at Gage gather around her in a circle. One by one they say something special about a classmate. It is an exercise that they seem to know well, and the statements range from, “Diana, because she’s really nice and kind” to “Robert, because he always draws good Poke-mon’s.” As the exercise comes to a close, Ms. Riner hands them each a piece of paper on which an outline of a gingerbread-like figure is drawn.
“Now, write something on this piece of paper about yourself. Tell me what makes you special,” says Ms. Riner. As her students head back to their desks, she takes a moment to reflect on the reasons she received the “Teacher of the Year” award.
“Yes, other teachers come to me for curriculum advice. I am a listener, a problem solver and a cheerleader, but the first question I always ask myself is, ‘Is this in the best interest of kids?’”