Teacher Talk

Nicole Simonsen, Luther Burbank High School
English teacher shifts focus to cheering students

Nicole Simonsen, English teacher at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento

English teacher Nicole Simonsen remembers a pivotal moment in her career—a shift from critic to cheerleader.

“One year, I had this student who struggled all the time with writing. He just hated it. Any time he had to write more than a few sentences, he would just shut down and only complete part of the assignment. But this one time, he wrote five whole paragraphs. Instead of writing critical comments and looking for mistakes, I looked at what he was doing well. His essay had a beginning, middle and an end.  I gave him a B on that assignment, by far the highest grade he’d ever gotten.

“When he saw that grade, he jumped out of the chair and started shouting ‘I got a B’ and started running around the room. He was so excited and I felt so happy. It wasn’t a perfect essay, but he was doing things I hadn’t seen him do before, and I wanted him to see he could do it. The shift to cheerleader made a big difference. I try to keep doing that.”

Simonsen, who has been a teacher at inner-city schools for her entire 13-year career, has been at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento for the last six years.

Her students come from varied backgrounds, some of them having endured significant trauma, from family members in jail, to experiencing violence on the streets or being in foster care, Simonsen said.

“Students bring those experiences into the classroom. It makes it hard for them to focus, pay attention or care. When you’re in the midst of a crisis, it’s hard to want to read a short story or open up a book.”

It can take a lot of energy to motivate her students when they’re struggling. “They might act out or behave in ways that are maladapted, and you understand as a teacher why they’re doing it, but it can be frustrating. That’s probably my biggest challenge.”

Open to change

“As a teacher, I always feel like I could be doing it better. It’s just one of those professions where you can always improve. When I’m in the middle of a lesson, I’ll think I should’ve done it this way, or I’ll change it for the next period. I guess I’m proud that I’m flexible and willing to change.”

Life as a writer

In 2016, Simonsen’s essay “Empire of School” won the Norman Mailer High School English Teacher Creative Non-Fiction Award from the National Council of Teachers of English. In it, she writes of her struggles as an inner-city teacher and a mutual lesson of patience between the student and educator.

Simonsen, who is working on a book, writes essays but is mostly a writer of literary short stories. She finds sibling and parenting relationships interesting and also likes coming-of-age stories. “I think that’s a really interesting time in a person’s life—those teen years. I’m around that age group all day long.”

Second career

After graduating from college with a degree in English and journalism, Simonsen realized she didn’t want to be a journalist but loved books. Instead, she ended up as an editorial assistant at an academic publisher in Boston. As Simonsen’s love for writing grew, she went to graduate school. Most of the editors at her publisher had master’s degrees and she thought she would need a degree if she wanted to continue in book publishing. She got a Master of Arts in Creative Writing at University of California Davis.

She discovered there weren’t a lot of publishers in California. Instead, Simonsen had a child and took time off. When she was ready to go back to work, teaching seemed to be the best use of her degree if she wasn’t going to work in book publishing. Simonsen taught a couple of classes as a grad student and realized she liked being in the classroom and creating lessons to bring a story to life.

“I wanted a career that would allow me to keep reading and writing and to share that love of reading and writing with other people in a meaningful way. So teaching seemed a natural fit,” Simonsen said.

Inspiration as a teacher?

Simonsen said her love of writing blossomed as high school student when a young teacher took over her English class after the previous teacher died in an accident. “We might have been her first class. She was really young and had a lot of energy and she had a lot of creative assignments. She had us write a diary. Some kids struggled with it, but I wrote pages. She wouldn’t read it but she would check off pages. It was just to get us to write.”

Outside school

Simonsen is married with two daughters and a stepson. She also has hosted two exchange students. She and her husband took the first one into their home at the last minute, when a student from Denmark needed to quickly find a family. “We said ‘Let’s try it. This could be fun.’ We liked it so much we did it again.” This year, they hosted an exchange student from Thailand.

Retirement is a long time off, at least 22 to 24 years. “I don’t plan to retire for a while. I hope I’m still writing. That’s one thing I don’t want to retire from. I would like to travel and see more of the world when I get older.”

Teacher Talk is a series of profiles on California teachers and other educators. To be considered for a future profile, please email communications@calstrs.com, with Teacher Talk in the subject line.