Editor's Note: This article was updated April 25, 2021 to correct errors regarding Lisa Diggs' professional experiences. She is now a graduate student in K-12 school counseling at Concordia University, Irvine.
For Lisa Diggs, it's all about passion and determination when it comes to teaching.
A Riverside County substitute teacher and Title 1 tutor and teacher with the Moreno Valley Unified School District, Diggs said she thinks of herself as a coach who empowers her students to "impact them in one way or another by just encouraging them to go on and do what they want to do."
Diggs' dedication to making a difference in her students' lives came from a young age, and her determination grew with her career.
After getting an undergraduate degree in hospitality management from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, in 1993, Diggs decided to join the AmeriCorps and volunteered her time to tutor students at two elementary schools.
"That's what really got me interested in education," she said of her two terms with the organization.
Before ever joining the AmeriCorps, however, Diggs said she was "Just looking at how I can impact children in my community."
Diggs joined a study program in the late 1990s through the University of California, Riverside, to work with youths. She explained that the goal of the program was to help occupy young people's time in the early afternoons to avoid the potential for getting into trouble or participating in gang activity. She taught dance classes and assisted with art and enrichment activities, hoping she was helping provide each child a sense of belonging in what they were doing. She said she wanted to ensure that all kids in Riverside's eastern community had "a positive place to go," no matter their backgrounds.
"I grew up in an intercity neighborhood myself, but I had a family, and some kids don't have that," Diggs said. "Or there are other things going on in their homes."
Looking back, she can remember the people who influenced her choice to become a teacher and says she has a lot of people to thank, with a family friend, Barbra, front of mind.
Just try to be open to ideas and what people have to share with you ... I'm still learning new things.Lisa Diggs
As a child in New York, Diggs said she saw how Barbra took care of her alongside her own children. Diggs would eventually work with that same nurturing passion as a teacher.
"Throughout life, I always had adults that had seen a special thing about me, I guess the light that they saw shining from me," Diggs said. "You know you really have that love and passion for others. I always wanted to help people, too."
With people like Barbra in her mind, Diggs became a substitute teacher, focusing on early childhood with preschool students. She also continued her education by getting a K-8 Multiple Subject Teaching Credential and master's degree in literacy from her alma mater, awarded in 2008.
A veteran in the Moreno Valley Unified School District, she has also worked with sixth-grade students at Mountain View Middle School.
"So, mostly I work with kids that are low in reading and math that are English learners and students that really need those skills … to learn how to read," Diggs said. "Like phonemic awareness and putting the words together and just learning the sounds and all that."
Once the pandemic began, as classes moved to Zoom and many things changed, Diggs started to think of ways to help her students in different ways.
"Kids were dealing with a lot of things not being at school," she said.
Deciding to stray from the standard lecture-and-assignment teaching mode, Diggs said she tried her best to make lessons more interactive with her after-school study hours.
By choosing student leaders to conduct breakout rooms, she found her students were more engaged with each other and their learning.
Noting that she had colleagues who struggled with just getting their students to turn on their Zoom cameras and participate in class, Diggs said it just boils down to doing what you can.
"You have to show that you really have interest in them," she said.
Summer school in 2021 came with in-person instruction, which was a first for her kindergarten students heading to first grade.
"I worked during the COVID-19 pandemic as a distance learning teacher, and it was a bit challenging, and I made sure to motivate my 27 students every day," Diggs said. " ... and then when we returned in person Summer 2021, we made sure to have an approach to help our students restore learning loss, and encourage them to interact and have fun."
Because it was the first time her young students were in a physical classroom setting, Diggs said she realized she had to start from square one and teach things as simple as lining up outside.
"They were like, 'What's that?'" she said.
Keeping this in mind, Diggs ensured she also took the time to practice mindfulness and relaxation for her students' well-being, as too many new things at once can be overwhelming, she said.
Throughout life, I always had adults that had seen a special thing about me ... I always wanted to help people, too.Lisa Diggs
She also concentrated on fine motor skills because at that age, Diggs said, it's all about the "hand-brain connection."
"Little kids need fine motor skills, so they need to know how to touch, feel, write, and how to use manipulatives with (their) hands because they learn like that," she said.
Playing with Play-Doh and physical counters like beans and peas in the mix helped her students learn counting and other basic math skills with their hands.
Diggs is also drawing on what she's learned as an educator to become a counselor and is taking classes at Concordia University, Irvine. She graduates in 2022 and will be able to work with many kinds of students, including those who are considered at-risk, "which is really my passion," she said.
"I know that there is a really need for Social Emotional Learning and Multiple Tier Interventions to help our students who are experiencing trauma," Diggs said.
Diggs has worked with children since 1999 and shared her advice for beginning educators. She said health should be a top priority, especially as we continue to live with the pandemic. When it comes to dealing directly with students, she said giving clear and concise directions without overcomplicating things is vital. If there are bumps along the way, she reminded teachers to be mindful of what the past two years have put everyone through.
Her last piece of advice: "Just try to be open to ideas and what people have to share with you," she said. "I'm still learning new things."