Building a Sequoia Root System

Many giant trees, one set of roots. Photo by Ricardo Esquivel on

The largest tree in the world is the sequoia redwood, coming in at upwards of 2,600,000 pounds and heights taller than a football field. It follows that a tree that big must have an enormous root system to stay upright, especially in the face of the earthquakes, forest fires, and atmospheric rivers of California, right? Well, not exactly.

I learned in the new book Just Teaching: Feedback, Engagement, and Well-Being for Each Student by Jonathan Eckert that the root system for sequoia redwood is only 6-12 feet deep–a quarter of the depth of the Black Walnut growing in my backyard.

So how is that possible? How can six feet of wood and dirt hold millions of pounds of force in place while also getting hit by the extremes of the Sierra Nevadas? Well, as Eckert explains:

Sequoia redwoods function as a community. Each tree is dependent on the other trees as their roots are intertwined. Through these dense networks of roots, they share support and nutrients. Because of their root systems, sequoia redwoods can withstand wind, fire, earthquakes, and storms. They have been doing all that effectively since before our calendar started counting forward! (pg. 27)

John Eckert in Just Teaching

Eckert then goes on to argue that “Our schools and classrooms should function like redwood forests. No individual teacher or administrator can meet all the needs of each student. However, we can create the conditions where each student can flourish by creating systems of intertwining roots.” (27).

Eckert’s notion of our schools mimicking sequoia roots struck a chord with me because many of us have what feels like 2.5 million pounds of pressure weighing down on us right now as guide our students through these troubled times. And further, whenever it feels like we are finally adjusting to this Brave New World we now teach in, another earthquake or fire or ferocious storm inevitably arises to shake things up once again.

I have often observed a tendency in myself to face such pressure and such challenges, especially during the last three years, by quietly trying to push my roots a bit deeper into the ground–an approach that research suggests has been far too common as we’ve tried to maintain quality instruction both through the pandemic and the decades of disinvestment in public education before that in many parts of the country. But this year in particular, as I read endless articles about teacher burnout and walk through the halls both in my school and others,* the profound negative impacts of this approach grow more apparent by the day. It is worth noting that when plants focus on establishing roots, they often do not have energy left to fruit and flower above ground.

And whether we have the energy left to fruit and flower is a big deal for us and for our students. Later in Just Teaching, Eckert shares a study of over 1,000 teachers and their students from Harding et al. that confirms something which frankly doesn’t need much confirmation: When teacher well-being suffers, student well-being suffers because the teachers don’t have the bandwidth to develop strong, meaningful relationships with their students.

So in this new semester–the seventh since the spring of 2020–one of my central goals is to look for ways to build my roots outwards toward others instead of down. Sequoias and other redwoods don’t grow as tall or as strong in isolation because they can’t support their weight on their own; they need connections with others to bear the load, and I know the same is true for teachers, even if I also know that I haven’t been the best at doing this in recent months. Like joy or community, it can be so easy to write off connecting with other educators as a luxury or one of those ideal practices that there just isn’t time for right now in our less-than-ideal current moment. But in this moment I also am coming to realize that if I don’t want to fall over, I need to stop digging deeper and instead reach out to those around me. Here are a few of those small ways I’m doing that:

Teaming with another teacher on a unit: Pre-pandemic, I used to do a lot of teaming, so over the last few weeks I decided to take advantage of the fact that I share a prep period and a lack of an established classroom with our school’s theater director and work together on a unit I’ve been dreaming of since my first year: teaching my entire Shakespeare unit on an actual stage with costumes and all. After a couple quick conversations, it is already underway, and the image of my students running around in cloaks under the lights as they bite thumbs at each other has me more excited to teach Shakespeare than I have been in years.

Asking more questions: Last weekend I realized that I’d never really looked at another teacher’s Schoology (our learning management system) page. I had never been able to find the time, and yet when I started asking fellow teachers this week about their pages, it only took me a few minutes to find out tricks, hacks, and ideas that will likely save me hours of time going forward.

Going to that lunch or happy hour: I have a tendency to weigh that free teacher lunch or department happy hour against my to-do list, and when I do, the usual victor is the quiet thought I will try to go next time right before I shut my door and open my computer. Last week I silenced that voice and ventured out with colleagues, and it was the exact medicine I needed to cure what had been a particularly hard week until that point.

Find positive teachers online: This is the pot telling the kettle to jump online, as my social media usage has been sparse at best over the last year. But I will say that when I intentionally wade into online teacher spaces, I’m regularly blown away by the conversations I get into (like this one or this one). While teacher social media is not immune from the issues that can come with social media, if approached thoughtfully, they can be an incredible source of connection and inspiration.

Teaching is funny in that it is one of the most social jobs on the planet, and yet it can also be so easy to isolate ourselves from those working alongside us. I am guilty of that all the time, but this semester I am going to take a lesson from the mighty sequoia and look for more places to reach outwards instead of down. And if you have any thoughts about ways to do that, please reach your own sequoia roots out to me too; I’d love to share your ideas with other educators.

Yours in teaching,


*I’m booking some limited slots for coming to schools in 2023-24 right now. I’m a full time teacher so these are very limited and first come/first serve. Here are my services; reach out, if you’d like to discuss booking something.

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