Thursday, December 19, 2013

Teacher of the Year Acceptance Speech

Thank you all so much!  I’d like to extend my gratitude to Mr. Vilaseca and the State Board of Education for being here today and for your commitment to ensuring the finest possible education for all Vermont youth.  I am also so appreciative of the support and welcoming that I have felt from all of the previous Teachers and Principals of the Year, who have made this entire process slightly less anxiety provoking than it could have been, but also a very enjoyable and educational experience.  Thank you also to Ms. Angela Ross, who coordinates the State Teacher of the Year program and who has provided so much guidance and support throughout this process.

I feel honored and humbled to be accepting this honor here today.  I’m honored to join such a remarkable and distinguished group of educators who represent the best that the State of Vermont has to offer.  I’m humbled because there are simply so many outstanding, passionate, creative educators out there who challenge, inspire, and support their students every day.  Both Ms. Farber and Ms. Gasco are fine examples of incredible educators who have made a world of difference within their communities, and who continue to inspire, not only their students, but also other educators (like me). 

And while I am the one who is up here receiving this honor, there are so many dedicated faculty, staff, and administrators who deserve our recognition and acknowledgement for the countless hours and boundless energy they invest in you, their students.  Take a look around at your teachers, at your principal and assistant principal, at your superintendent, at the members of our school board, at all of the staff of this school…I know that I couldn’t do what I do without their support.  And neither could you.  They deserve a hand.

Thank you also to all of our community partners who are willing to take a leap of faith in partnering their programs, departments, farms, equipment, and selves with our students.  Without you, many of the dynamic and engaging learning opportunities that our students experience would not be possible.

I also want to take the time to thank all of you, the students.  For without your openness, your enthusiasm, and your desire, all of these ideas and dreams would be for naught.  You make this happen.  You are willing to try something new, something different, and you make it work.  Whether it be hiking into remote huts in the White Mountains; lifting, carrying, and flipping huge logs until you can’t lift your arms; or running quarter-mile repeats until you want to collapse, your willingness to test your limits and to trust me… I can’t tell you how much it means to me.  You all are the driving force behind our work.  You are the reason we show up each day; excited to help you realize your dreams.  I appreciate that you are willing to let me be a part of your journey!

I’m especially excited to celebrate this honor with the students from the STAR Program and my colleague and friend, Judy Knapp. On a day to day basis, you challenge, inspire, provoke, and motivate me.   I probably learn far more from you than you could ever imagine.  And that is powerful, when we realize that education is a two-way street; that we are all learning and growing together. We have a strong community; one that pushes and pulls and supports every member regardless of what their challenges might be.  I hope you know how proud I am of you, and how much it means to me that you’ve been willing to give this “alternative thing” a shot.  A few years ago, when I joined the STAR Program, I had a goal of proving that there was a better way to educate, but it would take some outside-of-the-box thinking and a commitment to challenging the student in ways that went beyond academics. I also wanted to prove that this style of education doesn’t just work for some students, it works for all students.  I think that today is a testament to that belief of mine.  Furthermore, I can see, in each of you, that you believe it also.  Thank you for allowing me to be your teacher.

In thinking back and reflecting upon how I have come to find myself on this stage today, it is impossible for me to fully acknowledge all of those who have influenced, inspired, prepared, and supported me along the way.  I’d like to thank my parents, who happen to be in the crowd today, and who both were educators for 30 years in Colorado, where I grew up.  From my father, I learned a strong work ethic and the definition of integrity, not because he flouted his, but because I’ve never met anyone who so consistently does the “right thing”.  From my mother, I’ve taken the concepts of unconditional support for my students and a steadfast commitment to making my community a better place, one home-cooked meal at a time, (though you might want to think twice about tasting anything I whip up). 

I also want to thank my wife, Rachel, for putting up with me and for being so supportive of my every endeavor… even when it means storing tractor tires in our yard under the pretense that someday I might finally be able to convince some of my students to flip them over again and again for fun.  Thanks to the boys’ soccer team for proving me right.  Rach, you believe in me and my outlandish ideas; choosing to see my dreams and my potential, when you could just as easily focus on the early mornings, late nights, or the fact that I sometimes come home smelling like campfire, cow manure, sweat, or some terrible combination of all of those things.

Beyond my family, there are countless mentors, teachers, coaches, and guides who helped me to get here today.  If you could all take a moment to think… If you are an adult, who was it that inspired you to do what you do today?  And if you are a student, what person is helping you to see potential in yourself that maybe you didn’t recognize before?  You see, that is the power of a teacher.  We inspire.  We provoke.  We are the eternal optimists (except for Friday afternoon sometimes, but by Monday morning, we’re ready to save the world again). 

And frankly, we love our jobs.  Why else would anyone electively spend most of their best years with teenagers?  If you read the news, you would know that you are all self-absorbed, video game addicts, who would rather read Snooki’s tweets than engage your parents in a conversation around the dining room table.  And while some of this is likely true, there is a good reason for it… there are a lot of powerful people and messages telling you that this is what you are supposed to be like.

As a culture, we don’t do much to really prepare you for the next step in your life.  Yes, we want you to be successful, but we never give you an opportunity to think about what success really means to you.  And since you are young and you still care about what we – your parents, teachers, mentors – think, (don’t worry, your secret is safe with me) you go forth into the world and you try to make us all proud.  You’re left with the idea that the best that we all could expect from you all would be a Cribs-worthy mansion, nice cars, and a high-powered job.  

You deserve more!  You deserve to have the opportunity to set your own course, to fall, dust yourself off, and get moving again towards your whatever it is that you are passionate about.  As a culture, not only do we not give you chances to get to know yourself, we also don’t let you fail.  You deserve to fall down!  I promise you that you will learn more about yourself in those moments when the cards are stacked against you than when everything seems to be going right.  I want you to have the chance to struggle, to flounder, and then to overcome.  Because life isn’t easy, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to be getting any easier in your lifetime.  But we don’t have to be victims to all of the bad news out there.  We can do something about it.

And I want you to have an opportunity to create your own definition of success.  Now, I don’t believe in giving out the answers.  Typically, you’ve got to find those for yourself.  But here is a little gem for you to start with; something of a seed that might eventually grow into some self-awareness in each of you.  “Success is waking up in the morning feeling excited and going to bed at night feeling fulfilled.”  I had to wait until I was 24 to hear those words, and by then, I had been struggling for years to find my purpose in life.  I remember hearing that quote and it gave me a chance to re-evaluate; to hit the pause button and think about what goals I was really working towards; about who and what I wanted to be…

Then I lost a bet, and now I’m here with you all today.  Just kidding, I made the choice to be an educator… In fact, I might even go so far as to say that I always knew that I would become an educator; that all of those others hopes and dreams were really delaying the inevitable.  So do me a favor, think about that one line for a while.  Think about what you love doing.  Think about what you are good at.  Think about where your great passion meets the world’s great need.  And then go do that, with all of your might.  I’ll be with you, every step of the way.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Sunrise on Scragg Mountain

Three miles into our hike to a remote backcountry hut, I’m surprised that I still haven’t heard a single complaint.  But now we’ve hit a particularly treacherous section of trail and I’m wondering how our students will respond.  Forty-pound packs and slippery footing, mixed with a group of teens coming of age in an instant gratification society… things could get ugly.   We pause, drop our packs, grab a snack and some water, all while I scout the challenge ahead.

Years of neglect and infrequent usage have transformed a once merely steep section of trail into a free-flowing cascade of bone-chilling water.  Fall rains add to the torrent that has eroded away all stable footing, leaving in its place only jagged rocks, ankle-twisting crevices, and deceptively camouflaged mud slicks.  Fortunately, someone has taken the time to tie an old length of climbing rope to a tree at the top of the cliff. 

I lean back against the rope, allowing it to carry some of my weight so I can focus my attention on the intricate foot placements needed to maneuver my way up the steep slope.  I slowly weight each step, testing the rock, mud, or moss that present the only options of where to place my feet.  At the most desperate of times, I sink my body close to hillside, which seems to slowly be sliding its way to the bottom of the pitch, carrying me along with it.  Certain steps or handholds send 40-degree water over the top of my boots or down my shirtsleeve.  Branches grab hold of my pack as I struggle my way up, grasping anything and everything that will keep me from joining the cascade down the slope. 

This is not easy.  Not easy for me, a former wilderness guide who spent the better part of a decade living outside and leading trips in the American West and around the world.  Even though I’ve since domesticated a bit- with a wife, a daughter, and a house- some skills, honed over years of experience, become muscle memory and allow us to still exert some level of expertise with tasks that once were commonplace and taken for granted.  But still, this is not easy for me.  How will my inexperienced students respond?

Clearly, I am more concerned than they are.  Even though I can see that they are tired- in their movements and in their faces- they jump up at the challenge.  A young man named Mike goes first.  Big and strong, but sometimes still a bit clumsy, he muscles his way up the slope, grunting and heaving his pack, and his body to the top.  Next, Kelsea goes, struggling and determined, under a pack that fits her awkwardly and is heavier than she is accustomed to carrying.  She is supported from behind by Dakota- the strong and silent type- who holds branches for her and gently nudges her pack as she stretches and reaches her way upward. A few minutes later, Cody goes.  Surprisingly agile, he shows skill beyond his experience.  One by one, we all reach the top, collapsing after the exertion, with grins running ear to ear.  When Judy, my co-leader who is bringing up the rear, finally joins us above the crux, we exchange high fives before slinging our packs back on and continuing along our way.

From here, it is smooth sailing.  Having passed the routes trickiest section, we now enjoy the transition out of mixed deciduous forest into a scene dominated by paper birch.  Traveling further and higher, we enter the red spruce krummholz, and I know that we are getting close.  A few more switchbacks and we see our destination, an old fire cabin set high on this ridgeline in Vermont’s Green Mountains. 

We enter the cabin, excited to see our night’s dwelling. Having travelled to this cabin before, I know what to expect.  The students, however, are shocked at the graffiti and neglect.   In such a beautiful and remote location, why would people leave such ugly fingerprints?  The walls are adorned with profanity, pot leaves, and messages about who they were, what they did, and when they did it.  Furthermore, they are outraged at the trash left behind; mountains of beer cans and bottles are piled up under the cabin’s trap door basement.  This is part of the reason that we came up here.

As the kids unload their packs and prepare to change their baselayers, they also pull out gallons of white paint, paintbrushes, rollers, and trays.  The next morning, we will go on to paint over the interior, load up four contractor-sized trash bags worth of garbage and recycling, and do some minor repairs on the building itself. 
At the moment, though, everybody is getting hungry and a bit cranky.  We put on some extra layers, gather our cookstoves and dinner supplies, and head to the summit.  As the sun sets on the mountain’s western flank, the kids prepare and eat burritos.  From our room with a view, they learn that sometimes hunger is the best recipe for a delicious meal.

We stay up on top until the stars come out and until cold finally chases us back to the cabin.  With the stove fired up and candles lit, we play card games, tell stories, and scare one another, until, one-by-one, we slink into our sleeping bags.  As I load up the wood stove for the night and blow out the last candle, I hear someone whisper, “This is awesome.”

The next morning, we awake early and climb five minutes up to the top to catch the sunrise.  We shiver and wait, each person hypothesizing exactly where the sun will peek out from behind the White Mountains in the distance.  As the light grows and the clouds transform from red, to orange and pink, to yellow, we grow silent.  For 10 minutes, we are transfixed by a brilliant sunrise.  With work to do, we head down to the cabin to eat breakfast before getting to work. 


This trip happened in a public school… on a Tuesday.  Having shifted the expectations of our school, of our community, and of our students, we now spend several days each week outside, connecting with our place.  As educators, we can lecture our students time and again on the impact of climate change.  We can show videos, or read books, or look through articles in which impending doom seems imminent.  But all of these efforts seem to be in vain.  Our youth seem more disconnected and disenchanted with each exposure to these threats.  They don’t know why they should care or how they could impact change.  All of these problems seem so big, so distant.  You see, for our youth to take personal responsibility for the environment, they must first have a personal relationship with it. 

Your connection to wild places had to start somewhere.  And from that beginning, your love has grown, impacting your life in ways that you never expected, and helping you to define the core values that you live by each day.  But what if nobody had ever exposed you to nature?  Would you think about protecting our wild places?  Would you know how they are threatened?  Would you care at all?

There is magic in nature.  It is intrinsic and intangible.  It simply exists.  And that is why we love it so.  Nobody has to explain the feeling you get at the end of a long hike, or when topping out on a challenging climb, or at the bottom of a powder run on a bluebird day.  Words fail to capture those moments.  They are magic.  And we all feel it.

And just one magic moment can change a life.  For my students, this trip was life changing.  When they reflect back upon high school, they won’t likely remember vocab words, algebra tests, or individual essays.  But they will remember sunrise on top of a mountain that they had climbed.  And though this trip was not epic by many standards, adventure is relative.  Having never even camped, my students carried forty-pound packs up 2,000 feet of elevation in order to eat and sleep on a mountaintop.  It gave them a sense of accomplishment and it opened their eyes to a new perspective.  For them, this was the definition of epic.