Monday, November 25, 2013

My Message

We live in a world that seems to be growing ever the more complicated with each passing year. As a global community, we face a multitude of problems that threaten to undermine our current mode of existence. Some of the challenges we will face in this century, ranging from climate change to global economic competition to resource depletion, will have widespread effects on our way of life. And how well we respond to these challenges- as a nation and as a human race – will depend largely upon how well we prepare our youth to take on the challenges of their lifetime.

So how do we prepare our students for the complex issues that they will surely face as citizens of our nation and of our world? By having them sit still and listen for 45 minutes at a time, digesting bits and pieces of unrelated, compartmentalized content that we deem necessary?   How can we expect students to think “outside of the box” when their entire education happens “inside the box”?

As an individual, I went through all of my years of public school education and then four more years of university education without ever sufficiently “connecting the dots”. It wasn’t until I started gaining real world experiences- through travel, work, relationships, personal challenges- that I begin to see how everything is interrelated; that I began “connecting the dots”. Yet, the vast majority of educators continue to work in the same old ways, without ever really taking the time to consider whether or not our students understand how all of the disciplines interrelate and how, in the real world, it is impossible to solve problems without drawing upon skills from every aspect of one’s education.  Perhaps this is why we find ourselves in our current worldly predicament… we’ve got a lot of people out there running around with “disconnected dots”.

In order to truly prepare our children for the uncertainties of the future, we have to rethink and revamp how we educate. Students must be challenged to develop critical thinking, problem solving, leadership, and communication skills based upon their work in creating solutions to real world issues.  And what better way to prepare our students for the “real world” than to immerse them in the “real world” as a part of their educational experience? By facilitating these types of experiences, we will not only help our students to “connect their dots”, but we will also empower them to recognize the potential that each of them have to create positive change in the world in which they will be living.

The Purpose of an Education

For as long as there have been schools, there has been a debate as to what the big-picture “purpose” of education should be.  The role of public education has varied over the course of history as we have grown and developed as a people and as a nation.  Education has served as a tool for the hidden agendas of civic responsibility, moral development, naturalization and deculturalization, and economic opportunity.  Education is a powerful tool, perhaps even a fulcrum, on which the hopes and dreams of a people’s future balance precariously, fully dependent on the capabilities of the next generation to drive our way of living into the future. 

And because powerful people in powerful positions recognize this, everyone wants to have a say as to what we should expect and demand of our education system.  As a result, educational policy shifts frequently- just as quickly as the social, political, and economic trends that dictate educational policy also shift.  This makes the role of an individual teacher incredibly challenging.  Given the state of affairs in the United States, a teacher is asked to not only teach, but to role model, advise, advocate for, discipline, instill moral values, encourage civic responsibility, and produce functioning and contributing members of society. Beyond these duties, vogue educational trends come and go, leaving teachers to, once again, realign their curriculum to new standards, adapt to new administrations, or to emphasize certain philosophies promoted by recently elected school boards.

Most recently, there has been a particular emphasis placed on STEM curricular areas.  This shift, in many ways, can be attributed to the “slipping” of American students in international math, science, and engineering assessments.  We are being outperformed by China, Japan, South Korea, and Singapore in Asia, and by many other northern and western European nations.  In response, we are now prioritizing these content areas above all others, redistributing resources to improve our performance, which we believe will enhance our “competitiveness” in international economic markets.

 It’s not that I don’t believe in the value of STEM curriculum, or even that I disagree with our need, as a nation, to find ways to maintain a competitive advantage on an international level.  Mostly, my qualms come as a result of the whiplash effect of public education’s response to outside pressure.  Our policy- our standard mode of operation- is not dictated by educators, but by bureaucrats, lobbyists, multinational corporations, and a variety of other contingencies who have little or no expertise in the field of education.  Unfortunately, regardless of where we look in our nation’s history, this is the story… education is always reactive, never proactive.

This is what I believe to be the greatest issue in education today.  Public education rarely innovates… it reacts.  If you look at the meteoric rise of charter schools and private academies, you see a sense of creativity and inspiration that has been missing from public education for some time.  And part of the success of these upstart schools can be attributed to the fact that they are different and that they do break from traditional paradigms. Our inability or unwillingness to define our profession just may result in the total undermining of a centuries-old public education system.  This, to me, is a travesty.

The United States is a country of innovators, or creativity, of inspiration.  This has been, and is still our competitive advantage on an international level.  Other countries wish that they could tap into the creative expression of our software designers, our scientists, our inventors. So why are we taking a step back by attempting to do what they already do better?  How about we focus on our strengths by building upon our problem solving skills and ingenuity? 

And what if we extend this beyond the marketplace and into the classroom?  What if we actually entrusted our public educators to define what education could and should be?  What might happen if, rather than bowing to the forces of the market or to the politicians currently in office, we actually worked to define our own profession- our life’s work- on our own terms?  We are, in reality, the professionals.

The Importance of Community

The desire for community drove my family’s move to Vermont and my transition into public education.  I have always been an active member of my community – coaching sports teams, volunteering with local environmental organizations, and participating in local politics – and so I was looking for ways to merge my passion for education with my desire for community.  By choosing to work in public schools, there was an optimal interface between my personal and professional lives.  I still continue to volunteer in my own time by helping to design and build local recreational trails, by spending time at our Senior Center, and by teaching free outdoor skills classes to local groups, among other activities. At school, I advise the Outing Club, coach middle school track, and run after school workout groups.  For our faculty community, I volunteer my time as a wellness coordinator, lead outdoor adventure trips and clinics, and I serve on the “Community” PLC in our high school, arranging events and activities that work to bring our faculty and staff closer together.

While I personally find it incredibly rewarding to be a part of these community-building efforts, my true passion lies in helping my students to recognize the value of community. As a part of my program, I have designed a service learning component in which every student designs, plans, and implements projects of their own choosing that benefit our school and local communities in myriad ways.  The students take on the entire process- from researching, to building community support, to writing grant applications- in an effort to create a resource, which can be used by the school and local community for years to come.  In this spring semester alone, students in my program are in the process of planning the construction of an outdoor classroom/picnic pavilion, a high ropes challenge course, an extensive trail network in our school forest, and a formidable school garden that produces food for our school cafeteria.  With the success we are currently experiencing with these projects, I am in the process of developing a senior year “Legacy Project”, in which each graduating senior creates a project that reflects their personal interests and passions.  To me, this is the utmost service that I can provide to my community – a group of young citizens who recognize the value of giving back to the place they call home.


Teaching Philosophy

“Prepare the child for the path, not the path for the child.” – Navajo proverb

One of the greatest challenges I face, whether it be in my personal or professional life, is allowing someone I care about to struggle through an experience that they find difficult. When the chips are down and things get hard, I find it extremely challenging to resist the temptation to swoop in to the rescue. Many times, it is far easier to provide support and to help a person through their challenges than to allow them to fully experience the feeling of failure and defeat. But, in doing this, what is it, exactly, that this person misses out upon?

                To be honest, I think that they miss out on learning the most vital lesson that anyone can ever learn- how to persist.  In a recently published book entitled How Children Succeed, Paul Tough describes the most important personal characteristic that separates those that succeed from those that don’t.  Whether you are growing up in poverty in Chicago, or attending a prestigious Ivy League school, the key to success is “grit” – the ability to persevere in pursuit of a passion.  By consistently rescuing our students from this fear of failure, we essentially hamstring their ability to work through challenge. Not only this, but we rob them of accountability and ownership of that experience, whether it be good, bad, or somewhere in between.

My experience has taught me that “learning” does not constitute a teacher pouring information into the empty container that is a student’s mind.  It also does not mean completing tasks or doing things for students, especially when things get tough.  I believe that the best education is experiential.  Students must explore and discover the meaning behind the topic at hand.  They must also struggle at times, finding ways to uncover the answer to their questions, rather than having those answers handed to them. I believe that students can construct their own opinions and insight with regards to the topic, as opposed to simply learning how to regurgitate the information that the teacher thinks is important.  Not only does this help my students to foster their own independent belief system, but it teaches them to think about how they learn and unravel information most effectively.

On this note, students must see the relevance in what they are learning.  My curriculum needs to reflect events and issues that are important to them, as they relate to the content we are covering.  As an educator, I must look to inspire and empower my students to give direction and purpose to their educations.  Without student ownership and investment, an education is merely jumping through hoops in order to move on to the next step.  Powerful education is driven by the student. Students must see and feel connected to the purpose of education- identifying content as the vehicle that will drive them towards understanding important principles, patterns, and concepts that are a part of our everyday lives.

As an educator, I also aim to provide students with an experience that encourages introspection and reflection on the path towards identity development.  This can be done through curriculum, assignments, and content, but, most importantly, it requires my commitment to providing students the time, space, and provocation to explore the depths of themselves. I believe that we can do more to encourage this type of growth.  Our efforts, in my mind, will pay off tremendously, as students will transition into adulthood with more insight, awareness, and purpose.

The experience of a childhood is the experience of learning – about the world, about ourselves, and about the role that we play in the world around us.  Therefore, the purpose of an education should be to prepare a student for their future, whatever that might mean.  For most, they will be the only true constant that will be with them throughout the duration of their life.  The role of education, thus, should be to do as much as possible to create a series of learning experiences that allow these individuals to understand themselves, to be self-aware, and to have purpose and meaning to their pursuits.  In doing so, we will be bestowing them with a gift that is far more significant than a job with perks, a moral upbringing, or even a vote.  We will prepare them to experience all that our world offers, simply by recognizing and following their own path.



Educational Roots

850 field days…

Most people I meet are shocked to learn that this is the number of days (and nights) that I lived outside, working in the vast canyon country of southern Utah before moving on to the lush Green Mountains of Vermont. For the equivalent of more than two years of my life, I would take at-risk youth into wilderness environments for one week at a time, looking to facilitate a significantly different and meaningful learning experience. We served a population of students who were experiencing significant struggles in their home environments; significant enough to warrant sending them far away from their home to a completely alien environment.  Once in the wilderness, students were challenged to work through these emotional, social, and clinical issues through a series of team-building, leadership development, and self-confidence inspiring activities.  Utilizing a strong and supportive group structure, they were able to overcome obstacles that they were previously avoidant of.  They learned things about themselves that other teenagers never do; they saw their strengths, they learned their struggles, they found abilities, insight, and understanding that they had not known before.  When they returned home, they were changed people. 

              While vastly different from the schooling experiences I had in my upbringing, there is no doubt how powerful this alternative approach to an “education” can be.  Rather than focusing simply on academic outcomes, this style of education emphasized the emotional, social, and physical needs of individuals alongside the intellectual.  Each student was treated as an individual, with instructors placing a priority on relationships, partnering in a process of self-exploration that challenged each student on their own terms. It was imminently clear that, for intellectual growth to occur, all of the social, emotional, and physical needs of the individual had to be met.

My experience working in wilderness taught me many things – skills, strategies, and beliefs- that I continue to employ today. For everyone involved, students and instructors alike, the process was transformative.  For me, this happened to be a circuitous route to the inevitable – that I would one day find myself working in public education.

You see, both of my parents were public school teachers. Seemingly all of their friends, and, therefore, the adults that I was surrounded by as a youth, were also teachers. Throughout my school years, I loved learning and thrived in the classroom environment.  As I progressed into high school, I began identifying particular fields of study that appealed to me.  I had two fantastic social studies teachers and, through my experiences in learning with them, I solidified my love for history, culture, government, and sociology.  This love was apparent to my teachers, many of whom I recall encouraging me to someday follow in their footsteps to become a teacher.  At the time, I considered this possibility, but still found myself drawn to other careers and professions that I thought to be the epitome of “success”.  I figured that a future in law or business would suit me, and so that is what I pursued.  Little did I know how different my life path would end up being.

The fact that my parents both taught obviously impacted my eventual decision to become an educator.  It is the profession that I know best, learned from a childhood of constant exposure to the challenges, frustrations, and rewards of being an educator.  However, it was only after a college education, various jobs around the world, and some serious personal introspection that I began to hone in on what my personal definition of success really was.  I came to see that true success, by my terms, meant waking up each day excited and going to bed feeling fulfilled.  I began to understand that my pursuit of success, which had driven me to great lengths over the course of my education, had been carried out under false pretenses.  I was simply attempting to meet the expectations of others, without even really taking the time to consider what my own core values were.  Once I took the time to reflect upon these personal beliefs, I quickly realized that my true definition of success, my real sense of purpose, was in helping young people to navigate these difficult transition years of adolescence.

With time, I have come to understand that perhaps my greatest contribution to the field of education will be in my intention to bring this holistic approach to individual development to public schools.  By choosing to value the process through which students learn, as opposed to just emphasizing the products of their learning, I believe that I can not only work to influence my students on an academic level, but that I can profoundly impact the way that they choose to pursue their own personal definitions of success.