La Cumbre Junior High School teacher Jennifer Cervantes
La Cumbre Junior High School teacher Jennifer Cervantes sits in her new classroom, her children’s play area, where she regularly zooms her classes. Recently she’s brought in guest speakers to help keep students connected during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

The first few days La Cumbre Junior High School teacher Jennifer Cervantes held class online through Zoom she was thrilled with the strong attendance, but puzzled about one thing: Her students weren’t showing their faces.

She only saw initials on the screen. Cervantes started teaching a decade ago because she loved being in the classroom and wanted to interact with kids.

So Cervantes made a strategic move. She showed the dishes stacked in her kitchen, the laundry scattered on the floor, and made a request of her students. She asked to see everyone on video by the end of the class, even if it was just an eyeball, or an ear, or their drapes.

Anything except a letter, she said, because it was important to her to see them.

Then it happened. 

“Bam, bam the videos started poppping up within minutes,” a gleeful Cervantes recalled. “Kids never remember what I taught them. They always remember how I made them feel. I wanted to make them feel like I cared about them.”

Cervantes is among the many Santa Barbara County teachers who is working hard daily to keep her students engaged and connected at a time when the way education is delivered has been dramatically transformed.

The COVID-19 pandemic has closed schools and in-person classes, leading to a Wild West world of remote learning that is all over the map, depending on the teacher, the technology and the times. 

Cervantes, 33, teaches AVID, Advancement Via Individual Determination, a program for students who need support, largely Latino students, low-income students and students who would be the first in their families to go to college. Her role is to support them in their other classes and teach them life skills.

For Cervantes, a fireball of energy and enthusiasm, it’s the perfect role.

One of the first things she did after classes went online was to reach out to prominent people asking them to do guest lectures. Or, as Cervantes says, slide into the DMs (direct messages).

And it has worked.

Scientist Keiana Cavé, two-time Olympic snowboarding gold medalist Jamie Anderson, and Santa Barbara Assemblywoman Monique Limón, have Zoomed into her class. She’s reached out to astronauts and even Lebron James.

So far, the response from students has been positive, and they told Cervantes the guest speakers inspired them. 

La Cumbre Junior High School teacher Jennifer Cervantes

La Cumbre teacher Jennifer Cervantes plays with her 2-year-old daughter Vienna in the backyard of her Santa Barbara home. Cervantes is bringing in guest speakers to her classes and believes that the understanding a student’s emotional and mental needs is more important than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

“I really appreciate that you are taking some of your time to find world-class guest speakers and it is actually helping me because it shows me that I can be whatever I want if I set my mind to it,” one student wrote in an online survey for the class. 

Cervantes is Zooming with her students while trying to juggle young children at home. She has two kids, 2-year-old Vienna and Lola, who is six months old. 

Vienna often makes appearances, “or throws a tantrum,” Cervantes jokes, during the video classes. Despite the home challenges, Cervantes says its her job to stay committed to her students and make them feel supported during this time of unease. 

“I make sure that every kid who pops up, I say their name,” Cervantes said. “They all just want to know, ‘Oh, she noticed me. I mean something.’ That’s what we all want in life.”

Cervantes strives to reach every student individually, partly, she said, because she never felt like her needs were met in school.

“I never felt like I fit in,” she said. “I was bored.”

Cervantes grew up in Lake Tahoe and moved to live with a family in Mexico when she was 15 so she could learn Spanish, she said. She returned to California and took classes at community college, Cal State Channel Islands, and National University, where she earned four teaching credentials before she was 21 years old.

Before she blew out her knee in high school she wanted to be a professional soccer player, and idolized Mia Hamm, she said. 

The ambition runs in her blood. Her father was born in Slovakia and fled to Canada when Russians invaded.

“I can’t imagine locking my door and never coming back to the country I was raised in,” she said.

She taught health for four years at San Marcos High School before moving to La Cumbre Junior High School in Santa Barbara to teach AVID.

Cervantes credits much of her own educational approach to the late Jo Ann Caines, the former teacher and school principal who died in 2018. 

During the pandemic, it’s more important than ever to have teachers who are attempting to address the needs of the entire student, Cervantes said. 

“We are always told to differentiate by skill,” Cervantes said. “We cannot do that right now. That’s out the window. You need to assess the emotional and mental well-being of your kids and differentiate by social, emotional and mental health.”

She asks students how they are doing and explains to the students why she cares about them. Teaching is about service, she said. 

“They don’t care how much you know unless you show them how much you care,” Cervantes said. 

In that context, she is trying to represent herself as a real person, just like her students. 

“I don’t like to pretend like I am cruising over here,” she said. Usually she’s up at 4 a.m. to feed her six-month-old. She also takes her own online classes during that time, before her day of teaching. 

Cervantes said teachers are showing such heart during this unpredictable time. Now is not the time to let new technologies or remote learning be barriers or obstacles to reaching kids, she said. 

“Everyone is doing such a good job in their own way,” Cervantes said. “We just need to remember, kids need us now more than ever.”

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.