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.