In Ron Berger’s noteworthy book, An Ethic of Excellence, the author paints a picture of school culture that invites students to care deeply about the quality of their work. He uses the winsome phrase “beautiful work” to convey the idea that striving for excellence is catching, and transformational.
Meet Danny Martin, Siri Berg-Moberg, Lou Duloisy, and Kara Johnson. They are each learning and teaching in a Mountain Academy classroom this year as TSS Graduate Program Fellows while completing a Master’s in education (M.Ed.) with a concentration in place-based education (PBE). The Graduate Student Fellows program is a collaboration between TSS and Antioch University New England (AUNE) that is now in its second year. The Teaching Fellows take AUNE courses online and spend four days a week in their respective classrooms.
I recently had a chance to meet with these talented educators (over Zoom) and I left the conversation inspired by their tenacity, good humor, and adaptability. Thanks to the thoughtful protocols of the Mountain Academy Pandemic Response Plan, students have had in-person learning this school year. So although there were a number of adjustments such as health screenings, masks, and social distancing, there was also a fair degree of normalcy experienced by these new teachers.
Partway through my conversation with Danny, Siri, Lou, and Kara, it struck me that despite the many unique challenges facing students and educators this year, we were talking about beautiful work.
The art of teaching is driven by the heart
Pursuing graduate studies demands self-motivation, perseverance, and a growth mindset. Good teaching requires high levels of creativity, commitment, and resilience. Put them together and you get a whole lot of hard work – as well as an endless supply of learning opportunities. Add the complex challenges of navigating safe, in-person teaching during a global pandemic and you might be looking at superhero status. As Danny said, “This art is driven by what lies within your heart. It takes a lot of caring to teach.”
Yes, participating in online grad school classes in the evening when you’ve just spent the majority of your waking hours in a teaching role is not for the faint of heart. But running through their commentary was a shared echo of agreement that:
1. It’s worth it.
2. I can’t imagine doing this without such a supportive school community.
Each, in turn, shared how interactions with students help them discover joy in the present moment and that having a supportive school community is essential to taking on this challenge.
Inspiration is often there if you take the time to notice it
Siri observed how it’s often the small things that are bright spots for her. Knowing that high school students share a universal tendency to downplay enthusiasm for school, she loves it when a student lets slip that they were so excited about something that they began to research it further on their own. Though initially unsure how it would look to incorporate place-based learning into high school chemistry, Siri later developed a project about local water quality, and the connection happened. She recalled moments of being in the middle of teaching chemistry and looking out to see faces lit up with engagement and focus.
“In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not.” -Albert Einstein
Clearly, these educators are invested in their students. And remarkably, they are also finding ways to incorporate principles of place-based education (PBE) during an academic year that’s anything but normal. In the 4th & 5th-grade class that Danny works with, students were having difficulty keeping to the boundaries of their recess play area because there were no visible markers. The teachers asked the students to work with them on solving this problem, and they came up with the idea of painting birdhouses that could be installed along the boundary. Meeting this practical need had the added benefit of incentivizing the students to learn more about the kinds of birds that would benefit from the added habitat features. It reminded Danny of something he’d recently read for an AUNE course by Sarah Anderson, author of Bringing School to Life. Within a PBE context, learning flows from one thing to the next quite naturally.
Adopting a growth mindset opens new possibilities
Their remarks also reminded me of the importance of cultivating a growth mindset, a term Stanford psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck coined to describe what happens when individuals believe in their own capacity to grow and learn and recognize that effort and challenge help them move toward their goals. As the conversation wrapped up, I asked what advice these four would give to anyone thinking about becoming an educator. Their responses were forward-looking and optimistic.
- Lou suggested asking your students for feedback. Though middle school students may not feel confident about offering feedback unless it’s requested, they can offer valuable insight that will improve your teaching.
- Kara mentioned that she didn’t realize that she wanted to be a teacher right away, and had even less certainty about what grade level she’d prefer. She ended up working with a wide variety of age groups and discovered that trying out a few different age groups gave her a broad perspective on education, as well as tools that she can apply to any developmental stage.
- Danny recommended checking in with yourself to make sure that your heart is in it and to keep the importance of relationship-building in mind. Social-emotional learning can sometimes be viewed as less essential than content knowledge, but this year’s challenges have assured Danny of its centrality.
- Siri gave the charge to have fun learning how to teach, and take advantage of opportunities to try it out before you feel entirely ready; you will learn as you go! She also spoke of how valuable it’s been for her to observe other teachers.
As new teachers in the field during a global pandemic, these educators could easily feel sidelined by the many unexpected circumstances of this unusual year. However, each expressed a willingness to learn from challenges, invite critical feedback, find inspiration in the success of others, and persist in the midst of setbacks. I can’t wait to see where they’ll take this hard-won wisdom next.