Ms. Saari’s Journey from Finland to California Paved the Way for Her to Help SRHS Students


Veronica Blanco, Contributor

As you walk into room L300 you are greeted by a kind, blue-eyed lady and the scent of pumpkin candles and fresh popcorn that she makes sure to offer her students every day. Because it’s October, Ms. Saari likes to keep the classroom festive. She puts up lights, decorations, fall candles, and always a full bowl of candy. She also keeps an Ofrenda for Dia de los Muertos that is filled with flowers, fruit, candles, and a picture of Frida Kahlo. The festivities and warmth continue throughout all the holidays. 

Ms. Vance, who has worked closely with Ms. Saari for the past two years, shares how she is “very open to different cultures,” as well as embracing different cultures in the classroom Ms. Saari also likes to teach us about her own culture; she comes from the Karelian People, an indigenous Baltic-Finnic ethnic group split between Finland and Russia

Many of her students view her room as a safe place, a place to eat lunch in, or just a place to sit in peace. Maybe it’s because of the feeling of comfort you feel when you’re in room L300, the smell of freshly lit candles, and pretty string lights, or maybe it’s the sense of calm  you feel when you’re around Ms. Saari. 

“She brings us things like food, games and quotes about life  to help us focus and enjoy class time,” said senior Betsey Gramajo, who is in Ms. Saari’s fifth period learning lab class.

She is in her third year as a learning lab teacher at SRHS, but based on her close-knit relationship with students, you’d expect her to have been here much longer. As a learning lab teacher, she helps students organize their schedules, schoolwork, helps develop their Individual Educational Plan (IEP), and creates a safe space for testing, studying, and for kids who need to take a break or de-stress.

At age 16, Saila Saari made the journey with her mom from Helsinki, Finland to California. Ms. Saari’s mother and father divorced when she was nine, and she did not see her father much after that. Seven years later, her mother married an American man which was their reason for moving out of Finland. It was a struggle for Ms. Saari because not only was she leaving behind her friends and other members of her family, she was not fluent in English.  

 Since she was a child, Saari has had a passion for art, and once she was in the U.S. she pursued that path. She attended Casa Grande High School in Petaluma for her senior year, which helped to improve her English. Once Saari graduated, she attended Sonoma State University, majoring in fine arts with a focus on painting. However, she did take a break and went to Alaska where she was a waitress, but she then continued taking art and drama classes at Sonoma State. Her love of the arts also allowed her to continue to work on her English with friends outside of school. She continues to create art to this day. 

In 1994 Ms. Saari and her then-boyfriend married, but they divorced in 2011. During their relationship, the two owned and operated delis and small restaurants for close to 20 years. 

Ms. Saari did not continue in the field of fine arts or teaching art like she had originally envisioned. However, she loved working with children and decided to work with them in a different way. She first worked as an instructional aid at Casa Grande High School for eight years and then went back to school and got her preschool teaching certificate at Sonoma Junior College and eventually received her B.A. in Fine Arts and Painting at Sonoma State University. Ms. Saari taught preschool for five years at Little Sprouts Daycare and Cinnabar Preschool, but the pay wasn’t enough. 

At age 52, Ms. Saari attended Sonoma State University for the third time as an education specialist. “As I was going to credential school to become a special education teacher, I got diagnosed with ADHD, and that’s when a lot of things cleared up in my mind, and why I had such a hard time in school, and not just school, managing my time and life,” said Ms. Saari. “I see a lot of the same stuff with my students here.”

Although being a special education teacher wasn’t Ms. Saari’s original idea, she made connections with her students and found community within the school. She continues to stay open with her students about previous life or school challenges, which allows many students to relate to her. 

Ms. Saari makes it her job to check in with students’ mental health on top of their schoolwork. She gives students her personal contact information and encourages them to reach out if they ever need anything. Betsy, one of her learning lab students, elaborated on Ms. Saari’s empathy: “She understands what we are going through since she has ADHD. She teaches us new things about life that most teachers wouldn’t.” According to those who worked with her and students in her classroom, it’s her compassion, life experiences, and skills that make her an important figure at San Rafael High School.