Teacher of the Year co-created Encinitas district’s social emotional learning curriculum

Solana Beach's Kelly Griffin was named teacher of the year at Mission Estancia Elementary School.
(Katelyn Gill)

Solana Beach resident Kelly Griffin was recently named the Teacher of the Year at Mission Estancia School in Carlsbad. Griffin, also known as “Miss G”, was honored for her work as the co-creator of the Encinitas Union School District’s social and emotional learning program TRAC, which stands for Teamwork, Regulation, Awareness and Community.

Griffin was teaching fourth grade when a team of teachers came in with flowers, a crown, sash and a sign that said “Teacher of the Year.”

“This honor validates all of the hard work I have put into this work, this school and highlights the importance of making SEL a priority in our schools,” said Griffin. “This program was once a 29-hour a week position, not a program at all and now it is required curriculum for all nine schools, educating more than 5,000 students and hundreds of staff every year. When you step back and look, it’s quite an accomplishment.”

After receiving her masters in elementary education from Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Griffin moved out to California where she became a presenter for Sandy Hook Promise. She was a teacher at Del Mar Pines School in Carmel Valley when Encinitas Union posted a job opening for a pilot SEL program.

Griffin was hired in 2018 and along with Park Dale Lane teacher Sarah Wood, they built the framework for TRAC. The purpose of TRAC is to build positive relationships and an atmosphere where each student and adult feels connected, cared about and physically and emotionally safe. By year three of their pilot program, the district adopted TRAC, hired seven teachers and got it into all nine schools.

“It’s been amazing to build it from the ground up,” Griffin said.

Griffin reaches every student at Mission Estancia, from kindergarten to sixth grade students,“from the little guys to the super independent thinkers”. She knows the name of every kid on campus.

SEL is taught 45 minutes a week for each class and the teachers stay in the room and are part of the conversation. With her infectiously sparkling and sunny personality, her lessons focus on the core competencies of self awareness, self management, responsible decision making, social awareness and relationship skills: “The key is connection and belonging,” Griffin said.

Students do activities like weekly reflections on their “rose, thorn, bud”: a highlight (rose), a challenge (thorn) and a new idea or something they are looking forward to knowing or understanding more (bud).

They do appreciation and apologies circles, where Griffin is always blown away by the things students share and how they speak about what’s on their heart: “These kids have so much to say but as you get older, we learn to put it away.”

At Mission Estancia, Miss G has created a vibrant and engaging learning environment for her students and a culture of kindness and belonging. Students have built affirmation stations, sharing what they need to hear on a hard day: “I am brave”, “I am grateful”, “No stinky thinky.”

In one activity this year she assigned kids another younger student to greet every day at school—having a friendly interaction at the door is just one of many actions to take that helps students in a school community feel a stronger sense of belonging.

“The kids got super creative,” Griffin said, noting one student brought in a giant hand and a mini hand for high fives, some handed out fortune cookies and compliment cards, and a couple of kids dressed up as bees one day as a way to “Bee Kind.”

“I’ve never seen anything bring such change on campus…and it was just about starting the day with connection,” she said. “It’s my favorite activity I’ve done. To stop and have a moment with your peers has a huge ripple effect.”

Beyond her work with TRAC, Griffin has also spearheaded all-school events such as assemblies, author connections, family nights, philanthropy projects and campus murals.

“I love big projects, it gives kids power,” she said.

Recently she led a student design challenge for the six new benches built by parent volunteers. During Kindness Week, 125 students turned in bench designs and then the students help paint the winning designs. One design was called the “connection collection” with questions painted on the bench to encourage a conversation with someone new, another bench features a cloudscape and sun that sweetly reads: “You were born to shine.”

“There’s no amount of math or reading to science that can prepare our students to enter the world ready to face the challenges of the 21st century,” Griffin said.

She said back when most of us were growing up, bullying stopped at 3 p.m. but now it’s on their phones and students are faced with a social media rich culture in which they are bombarded with negative influences all around them. She said you only need to look at troubling news headlines to be reminded what a lack of empathy can produce.

“Social and emotional learning shines a light on what really matters,” Griffin said. “Who we are as people and how we treat others.”

Griffin loves being a light for her students, she absolutely loves her job and it shows. Drawing on one of her favorite quotes from author L.R. Knost, her job is not to toughen up students to face a cruel and heartless world but to help raise children who will make the world a little less cruel and heartless.