Beginning Teaching in Outdoor Education (or, How I was Inspired to Teach)

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When I graduated from college, I wanted as far away from academia as possible. I was tired, very tired, of memorization and tests that had sapped the joy out of learning. Now, I’m beginning my eighth year as a teacher, enthusiastic about learning, and am applying to graduate school.

College was an emotional and geographic roller coaster: I graduated from high school from the American School of Paris in June, split with dear friends, spent the summer working three jobs (including cleaning hotels rooms) in Door County, Wisconsin. In September, I plopped down at Washington University in St. Louis, and though I did well there, rowing crew and acing organic chemistry, I wasn’t happy. I spent the summer as a Girl Scout Camp Counselor near Minneapolis, the fall at the Biosphere 2 in Tucson, Arizona, studying astronomy, and the spring back in Paris at the Sorbonne. It was healing and grounding to have chosen to go back to Paris, a place I’d always felt conflicted about. At some point, I decided I didn’t want to return to St. Louis and applied to transfer to the University of Wisconsin – Madison. I spent the next two years there, starting in analytical chemistry, switching to biochemistry, and finally graduating in biology with a double major in French. While all my friends applied to medical schools, I had no idea what I wanted to do, so I moved out to Montana to work on a dude ranch.

This wasn’t even the beginning of the end of the moving around. I spent June-October working on the ranch in Bozeman, leading trail rides and pack trips, cooking for elk and sheep camps, and relishing the hard physical work and absence of tests. (More to be written about this in the future.) But I got restless. I went back to Paris to be home. While there, I started researching jobs in outdoor education and was eventually hired by AstroCamp in Idyllwild, California, as an instructor. On January 1st, I drove south in my blue chevy cavalier coupe, practically the entire length of I-15. Little did I know how profoundly this place would affect me.

It was FUN. We blew things up and launched rockets, looked through telescopes at Saturn, did microgravity exercises in the pool (all silently and with hand gestures to simulate the broken radio satellite we were fixing). We did night hikes and crunched wint-o-green lifesavers in the dark (chem-i-lum-i-ne-scence). We ran screaming down hills (best game ever), and we laughed and learned. The instructors played pranks on each other, like putting helium balloons in all the drawers of the demo table or telling another instructors group to stand up every time their instructor said “space.” It was a great way to start teaching. Electrifying hair with a 4 foot tall Van de Graf generator, letting them play with a theremin and be loud, using liquid nitrogen to show them super conductors: it was a science teacher’s dream.

Each group would come to camp for 3-5 days, so I taught mostly the same classes every three days to a new group. I knew my lessons forward and backwards. Even though it felt a little repetitive at times, the material was so engaging that there was always something new to add or students would ask different questions. I think my jokes got better too! This reinforces my growing belief that you can’t learn skills and content at the same time. Because I had mastered the content and structure of the classes, I was able to learn classroom management and concentrate on the kids rather than worrying about exactly what I was teaching or how I was supposed to teach it.

Our students were in grades 4 through 12. We had kids from small independent schools and large public schools. I saw students with a huge range of academic ability, social/emotional fluency, and engagement. Some kids were from Malibu and others from urban L.A. Some had never seen snow or been outside at night in a place where it was actually dark. I increasingly saw my job as guiding them through this exploration of their world with new experiences and environments, not just teaching them science.

I emerged from these five short months craving my own classroom for two reasons: I sensed that longer, deeper relationships with my students would result in greater learning and transformation, and I wanted, perhaps ironically, to assess what they were actually learning through their experiences. I was inspired to teach because I had experienced it as playful, challenging, and meaningful. That June, I packed up my car and drove across the country to take my first teaching job at The Bement School in Deerfield, Massachusetts.

Before arriving in Portland to take my second teaching job, I had lived in 10 different cities and had countless different jobs and apartments, making me a stereotypical millennial, I guess. As I look back on that wandering route I took as a young adult, it was perhaps my job as an outdoor education instructor was the most influential in giving me direction and inspiring a lifelong passion. “Not all those who wander are lost.” – Tolkien

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