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Verde Magazine

Verde Magazine

Verde Magazine

Returning to campus: Following Paly alumni turned teachers

PRESENT VS. PAST — Daniel Shelton is dressed up for prom (first to left) vs. now (second to left) and YJ Lee is smiling during spirit week (first to right) vs. now (second to right). Photos courtesy of Daniel Shelton and YJ Lee.

Most current Palo High School students could not imagine going through a school day without their laptops. But 10 years ago, when current math teacher and Paly alumna YJ Lee was a student, it was uncommon to bring laptops to school and cell phones were accessories, not necessities.

Like many other teachers who were former Paly students, Lee has seen drastic changes in the student body environment, from a growing dependence on technology to a culture that encourages self-discovery and exploration.

Daniel Shelton

Daniel Shelton attended private schools until enrolling in Paly as a freshman in 2004. As a result, he had to adjust to Paly’s academic and social structure.

“I didn’t even know how to calculate my GPA, and my eighth-grade graduating class was 22 kids,” Shelton said.

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Nevertheless, Shelton said he enjoyed Paly’s larger social environment and had an overall positive experience.

One of his favorite teachers, Jaclyn Edwards, still teaches in the Social Sciences Department today.

“I had her [Edwards] freshman year for World History and junior year for U.S. History,” Shelton said. “She was very influential in that I kind of just enjoyed her [teaching] style and her class.”

A past Advanced Placement Psychology teacher, Kathy Lawrence, also influenced Shelton to take an interest in psychology, which led him to eventually teach the course at Paly.

“AP Psychology was my favorite class that I took,” Shelton said. “I love psychology and learning about theories about yourself and doing interactive things in class.”

After graduating from Paly in 2008, Shelton enrolled in Goucher College with a major in international relations and a minor in history.

After graduating from college in 2012, he moved back home to Palo Alto to save money while job searching and ended up officially teaching at Paly in the fall of 2016.

Shelton has noticed some differences between his time at Paly and now, such as student expectations for teachers.

“I feel there’s a much higher expectation that teachers [have to cater] to what students need,” Shelton said. “I’m not talking about if a student has an accommodation; I mean in general like [attending] sports games or debate tournaments.”

Additionally, Shelton said his experience transitioning into a more rigorous academic environment at Paly is one of the reasons why he decided to teach high school freshmen.

“I am aware of what it’s like to go to school here [Paly],” Shelton said. “Part of the reason I like teaching freshmen is helping kids transition to high school and understand what’s most valuable within you to pay attention to.”

He said sometimes Paly teachers expect students to know the school culture regardless of whether they have experienced it before.

I try to be more like a transition coach rather than just a history teacher.”

— Daniel Shelton, social studies teacher

“There are assumptions made about freshmen in high school [in that] they should just know how [high school works],” Shelton said. “People are still figuring it out, so I try to be more like a transition coach rather than just a history teacher.”

YJ Lee

After current Paly math teacher YJ Lee graduated from Palo Alto High School in 2014, she initially embarked on a journey into dentistry. 

Lee earned a bachelor’s degree in Human Development at the University of California-Davis and studied for the Dental Admissions Test. 

“But then I realized that the populations I would work with [in dentistry] I would only see once or twice a year,” Lee said. “I would rather work a job where I can build relationships and see people more regularly, so I switched over to teaching.”

Returning to Paly, Lee said that she enjoys contributing to the community.

“I wanted to give back,” Lee said. “I think it [Paly] really did help me develop into the person that I am.”

Lee currently teaches Geometry and Algebra 2 Trigonometry Advanced. Lee said that math wasn’t always her best subject as a student, but during her sophomore year of high school, her math teacher Ms. Rao helped her spark joy in learning math.

“I remember being excited for quizzes and tests,” Lee said. “ I thought I could actually show my knowledge. I was wondering what we’re going to learn the next day.”

Lee said her experiences have influenced her to embrace an empathetic teaching method to help students grow. Her teaching focuses on slowing down, establishing what the student already understands, and then proceeding to explain the concept.

I would rather work a job where I can build relationships and see people more regularly, so I switched over to teaching.”

— YJ Lee, math teacher

Outside of teaching math, Lee said she feels a personal connection to her students since she understands the stress of being a student at Paly, thus, Lee tends to also focus on her students’ well-being.

“There needs to be some people to also keep you [students] grounded and be like, ‘Oh, don’t forget grades aren’t the only thing,’” Lee said. “‘Are you eating, are you sleeping, are you hanging out with your friends every once in a while, do you have a real social life, not just scrolling on your phone?’”

Lee also recalls that Melinda Mattes, her AP Psychology teacher, always put effort into small but significant gestures for her students.

“One thing I specifically remember is her saying before every test, ‘Best of success, you don’t need luck,’” Lee said. “To me, that meant that it wasn’t a random chance that we were doing well on a test. It was like she was rooting for us and she knew that we could actually do well.”

Mattes continues to teach AP Psychology to this day — only one of many of Lee’s former teachers who are now her colleagues. Lee said she feels grateful that she already has a connection built with them.

“I really appreciate all the work that they’ve [Paly teachers] done behind the scenes,” Lee said. “I do really like working with my old teachers because I just feel like I can immediately go to them and ask for advice.”  

Have you ever had a teacher that is also a Paly Alum?