Having Each Other’s Back

By Ana Ceballos

I recall at a very early age having to take care of my father and support my mother.  I began to work at the young age of 11 helping my parents pick the bountiful fruits of the Central Valley.  And at the age of 15 I started to clean tables as a “busgirl”.  I did this to help support my family when at times my father could not provide due to his constant drinking.  As I grew older, I realized that I had developed a lack of trust in others and a mentality of “do it yourself, don’t rely on others”.  I was determined and perseverant, and I knew that I could count and rely on the survival skills that I had built growing up to help me through any situation.  Despite having been a first-generation college graduate and the first in my family to pursue a professional career, there were times when I did not trust in my own capabilities.  I have had moments where I also felt alone, working in silos, wanting to reach out to others, to ask questions, or ask for help, yet not doing so out of fear that I would burden people, or that I would come across as not capable.  I remember thinking, “Well, I will just have to figure it out and do it myself,” and many times I did.  The experience of accomplishing something by myself was gratifying, but at times it also left me feeling bitter, drained, exhausted, and in need of a break.  Yet I have also worked in various settings of higher education and collaborated with colleagues on projects which have all been fruitful, satisfying, and rewarding.  I now look back and realize some of those experiences opened the door to my own individual personal and professional growth.  From them, I would learn to trust, be resourceful, and rely on others.  From this I would experience what it was like to “have each other’s back” at work.  I sometimes still find myself reflecting on those experiences, the people, the goals, the triumphs and fears – all part of the continuous journey and growth in the profession – and what having each other’s back at work means, how it feels, and how it can be developed.

For example, a few years ago, I was presented with the opportunity to explore this notion of offering and receiving support from colleagues at work when I was asked to form part of a new team – the Porterville College Education Careers team – whose mission is “to prepare, support, and inspire students along a successful path toward teaching and careers in education.”  What I learned quickly through our first team meetings in 2018 is that each member possessed areas of expertise that I like to refer to as gifts.  I knew that I also came with gifts to offer as a Counselor, and while I knew my colleagues had gifts of their own to share, part of me felt that I still needed to trust more fully in my gifts.  Perhaps this feeling of needing to trust more was due to my upbringing where I was taught to be strong, that to get something done you needed to do it yourself, and that no one else would do it for you.

Over the years as I worked with teams, I learned to trust more.  The Education Careers team developed a rapport over time through consistent and constant meetings, and as we did I could feel myself opening more and accepting the other team member’s gifts, as well as offering my own.  As I began relaxing, trusting, and allowing for support to flow naturally – as well as opening to creativity – I found myself actively engaged and excited with our team’s mission and everyone’s willingness to share their gifts freely.  The moments where I felt tempted to figure it out and do it myself diminished as the memories grew of my team, our experiences, and the support each member offered generously.  Trusting became more natural for me, and I found that our efforts as a team continued to strengthen, expand, and solidify.  This experience would challenge me to put fully into practice what I had learned over the years, and let go of some misconceptions I had acquired growing up.

In time, we began to see the fruits of our labor.  The program began to grow, student graduation and retention rates increased, and partnerships within campus, outside of campus with universities, K-12 schools, and community partners solidified.  The work we started and gradually opened ourselves to experience began to pay off not only with students but within us.  I had grown and I knew I would continue to grow as a professional – not alone but with the support of my colleagues.

I like to say that “having each other’s back” at work, for me, means trusting one another, offering our areas of expertise freely to the team, relying on each other, being open to growing together and as individuals.  It also means finding the anchor that keeps us motivated to do the work to show up and be vulnerable, creative, and open to the experience.  In the case of the Education Careers team, I considered our anchor to be our common goal of supporting students in their path towards a career in education.  Another key component of forming a team that has each other’s back is being comfortable with vulnerability to see our own strengths, as well as the areas where we can grow, and in turn demystify.

Overall, I felt that I had found the answer of how it felt and looked “to have each other’s back”.  I felt supported, secure, and confident.  The team offered diverse areas of expertise, experiences, and thought processes.  Such a team can be developed gradually and progressively through openness, trust, vulnerability, and a common goal.  I am grateful for the experience, and for my colleagues – excellent individuals whose strengths have helped me grow in more ways than one, and who have fostered a greater understanding of what it is to form a team and have “each other’s back”.  These great colleagues, humans, and mentors are:  Dr. Robert Simpkins, Kimanthi Warren, Primavera Arvizu, Professor Karen Bishop, Dr. Michelle Pengilly, Professor Jacqueline Pennell-Meredith, Michael Carley, DJ Vanderwerff, Jacqueline Escareno, and Frida Mendez.

I opened myself to the experience of forming part of the Education Careers team, and the experience not only produced fruits for students but for myself as well.  I take the lessons learned to take risks more often, be vulnerable and open, try new strategies, be resourceful, and to trust more in the capability that lies inside myself and others.  I felt that I had grown in leadership skills, creativity, and determination.  I led several of our team meetings, coordinated events, formed and strengthened partnerships, and – most importantly – grew in trusting not only myself but also my colleagues.  I grew in gratitude for the diversity of the Education Careers team that united us in accomplishing a common goal.  Most importantly, the experience also helped me to see myself and my own gifts more clearly which led me to grow in gratitude for my parents and the upbringing that shaped me to be the person I am today.  I always say I would not be here if it was not for them, they are my rock and my motivation and continue to play a positive role in me.  We are all part of various teams in life, and if we are actively open to the experience we will continue to grow.  I can now see more clearly what it means to “have each other’s back” at work – and in life.

Ana Ceballos is a Counselor Faculty member at Porterville College.  Ana was born in Michoacán, Mexico and immigrated with her family to the United States at the age of five.  She attended Porterville College, earning an AA degree in Social Science, before transferring to CSU-Fresno and earning a BA in Psychology and an MS in Counseling, Student Services option, as well as the Pupil Personnel Service (PPS) Credential.  For over 15 years, Ana has dedicated her energy and time in working in the field of education, including the K-12 system as a Substitute Teacher for Fresno Unified School District & Project Specialist for Fresno County Office of Education, and at UC-Merced as K-14 Education Preparation Specialist.  She has also served as a facilitator for Parent Institute for Quality of Education (PIQE) and Parent Empowerment Program (PEP), and the CSU-Fresno College Assistant Migrant Program (CAMP) and Educational Opportunity Program (EOP).  For the past 8 years Ana has supported students at Porterville College as a Counselor for EOPS/CARE & CalWORKs, the Student Support Services (SSSP) program, undocumented student support services, online counseling, and the Teacher Education program. She has also served as Counselor lead for AB705 and assisted in its 2019 implementation. Ana finds it rewarding to work alongside great colleagues at PC who are passionate about providing equitable opportunities and a safe, welcoming, and resourceful environment to all students.

Rethinking My Teaching Policies: What I Learned From the Pandemic

By Rebecca Baird

In March of 2020 I, like so many other instructors, packed up my classroom and left for Spring Break, not knowing that I wouldn’t see this group of students in person ever again.  My office, with its remaining graded midterms and papers for students to pick up, would sit empty for the rest of the semester.  As I walked the last students out of my classroom that March day they expressed fear and anxiety over the growing pandemic, but also hope that we would return to normal in a few weeks’ time.  Little did any of us know at that time that those weeks would stretch into months, semesters, even years. 

While the pandemic certainly upended life, it also gave me time to reflect on my teaching philosophy and the strategies I used in my classrooms, both in-person and online.  For me, the pandemic and the chaos it wrought created a space for me to re-evaluate some long-held teaching styles, policies, and ingrained beliefs about best classroom practices.  Ultimately this self-reflection helped shift my teaching style and enabled me to enact changes in my classes that would benefit both my students and myself. 

One of the big changes I implemented in my online classes centered on due dates.  For a long time, I believed that my goal as an instructor was not only to impart knowledge but also to make students understand the necessity of due dates and to learn time management skills.  I had a zero tolerance late policy, meaning late work was not accepted in my class (outside of certain documented circumstances) and students who missed an assignment would receive a zero.  But as the Covid-19 pandemic progressed, this policy seemed increasingly untenable and frankly rather cruel, given the number of students getting ill, caring for ill family members, or dealing with the myriad of obstacles associated with moving class online or just dealing with the Covid-19 crisis in general.  That first semester, as students (and myself as well) grappled with the constantly changing circumstances, I received a steady flow of emails asking for extensions; by early April I had revised my late policies entirely to allow students to turn in late assignments without having to ask first.  In Spring 2020 it seemed like a small gesture to help us all get across the semester finish line without punishing students for living through such tumultuous events.   

The pandemic also required me to be more connected with my students, working closer with them to better understand their needs and the variety of issues they were facing in their lives.  Although we were now physically separated by the pandemic, in some ways we were closer than ever before, drawn together by our shared anxieties, fears, and struggles.  When a student told me it was difficult to find space to work where they wouldn’t be interrupted by their younger siblings, I thought of my own difficulty finding space and quiet in my home.  As students expressed enormous fears about the state of the world, I heard my own fears echoed back at me.   

I used the Summer of 2020 to reflect on my course policies and consider the ways they impacted students.  One of the questions I really began to ask myself was whether I wanted my students to focus on due dates or the course content.  Clearly there were students who were unable to achieve those due dates and now received a zero and could no longer turn in the work.  Was it that important to me to punish them harshly for missing an assignment? Or was it more important for them to learn about Reconstruction, or World War II, or the 1960s, albeit slightly past the due date?  What were students learning from my zero tolerance late policy, and how was it affecting their performance in class long term?  Could a student still keep or raise a grade after missing a deadline?  Did they lose motivation to continue working hard in the course after missing an assignment?  I began to develop a new framework for my course policies, one that will last even beyond the pandemic and will help address both student equity and completion in my courses.   

In the end, it came back to my desired course goals and outcomes, all of which related to History content – the due dates were really secondary to content.  My new policy takes off a slight deduction for late work, which increases day by day, but also has a limit, all of which is managed automatically by my Canvas grade book.  In the semesters that followed I found that students responded really well to this small change.  Students who missed an assignment would still turn it in late 99% of the time.  Usually students were only a day or two late, so it also did not make grading any more difficult for me – in other words, I was not getting a hundred late assignments in the last week of the semester.  And even better, once I made the new late policy very clear, I no longer had to deal with the weekly emails from students begging for mercy, as some measure of mercy was now built into the course policies. 

Best of all, students still were getting the course content and were doing better in class overall.  I have found fewer students giving up mid-semester, and more students making it to the end, often in spite of tremendous personal obstacles.  Students have much more of a safety net now, and one small incident in their personal lives or in another class won’t blow up their whole grade in my class. 

For me, the pandemic has really thrown into sharper focus the variety of challenges our students face on a daily basis and how those challenges impact their work in my classrooms, both virtual and face-to-face.  Knowing these challenges has helped me redevelop my courses to better engage with students and their needs, to grow with the changing times, and to help ensure student success without sacrificing rigor or content.   

Rebecca Baird is Professor of History at Porterville College. Before joining Porterville College in 2013 she worked as an adjunct at community colleges and universities in Connecticut, New York, and Arizona. Rebecca holds a B.A. in European History from UCLA, an M.A. in History from the University of Connecticut, and a Ph.D. in U.S. History from Arizona State University. Her doctoral dissertation centered on health care and the 1960s counterculture in Los Angeles. Before becoming an historian, she worked at veterinary hospitals in Connecticut and Los Angeles, and still has a house full of animals. In her free time, she enjoys reading about history, visiting historic sites, and learning historical sewing techniques.