Medicine for an Educator
By LORI SUNTREE
Eight weeks into my teaching career, I stood in the middle of the faculty lounge wondering “how in the world did I think I could be a teacher?” Although being a teacher was a dream I had had since the first grade, not in my wildest dreams did I imagine the escapades of those first few months. I never anticipated that the first substitute teacher I would have would ask for the numbers of my fourteen year old female students. Nor did I think I would return to my classroom to find my second substitute teacher sleeping in the back of my classroom while my students were chasing each other with scissors and glue guns.
Much to the delight of my mother, who waited for our nightly telephone calls, the calamities continued throughout the weeks and months of my first year. Educational supplies were stolen, the next door toilet overflowed into my classroom, and during the hottest time of the year the air conditioner stopped working: turning the portable classroom into a solar oven.
It did not matter that my students were mostly in special education nor that the remainder of them were gang members relocated from Los Angeles. No problem, I said to myself. I was living my dream and my heart had always been with those that struggle. However, my near breaking point came when a student brought to school a gun and after going through all the correct steps of documentation, I ended up in a parent conference in which the parent accused me of wrong doing. Oh really? Thankfully the six administrators sitting in the meeting backed me up and I will never forget this line “We are not here to talk about the integrity of this teacher, but the behavior of your son.” This very line gave me strength to continue in my career of teaching.
The stories continued to amuse my mother throughout the next two years and I learned to adapt to this educational life in which nothing made sense and nothing was logical. With each year of experience, I became more confident in my ability to make a difference in my students’ lives. I became a drug and alcohol group facilitator for troubled students, a mentor and lead teacher, I facilitated teacher in-services and sat on the leadership team. When all should have been perfect in my educational career, I slammed against an emotional wall at seven years. I now refer to this episode as the “Seven Year Itch” named after the movie that starred Marilyn Monroe.
After accomplishing most of my teaching goals and receiving awards for my hard work, I found myself being bored and uninspired. Even with collaborations across the disciplines and integration of curriculum into my program, I sensed there was something missing in education. As months passed, it seemed that mandates were being passed that did not fit with the reality of my classroom. With the general thought of the classroom being the problem with student failure, I feared for my students. They were becoming more disenfranchised with every new educational idea.
Our community had changed since I started teaching, it had suffered greatly with the Air Force Base closure. Many troubled students were given the opportunity by neighboring counties to transfer to our city in lieu of jail time. The demographics dramatically changed and the new mandates were not addressing the changes that as educators we were facing on a daily basis.
Fortunately with an exceptional staff, our school kept ahead of the norm and when it came time to provide evidence of our Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) report the leadership team presented the instructional method of the Senior Project. This senior project methodology was just what our students needed: research a problem that fit a community need (their choice), create a project, reach out for a community partner, reflect on the progress, assess the project, evaluate the success and challenges, present the project to staff and community members at oral boards.
Does this sound familiar? Before we knew about service-learning, we had our students implementing projects with the elements of service-learning. This became the medicine that lead to my recovery from the doldrums of teaching and the beginning of me truly becoming the educator of my dreams, a dream that is still being lived decades after that first traumatic year of teaching.
One of my first students decided to inform her peers on how being an aware consumer can be beneficial to the rainforest. After months of planning and research, she sold products that the proceeds went to protect the rainforest. After her project she asked if I could continue the efforts and so I started an environmental club with the money she donated from her project. This very first senior project lead to the development of a club called ECO that then became a service-learning club with international influence.
I cannot say that service-learning is easy. However it is very rewarding to watch your students gain an awareness about themselves and their community. With the implementation of a project, whether new or a continuation of a project, students gain an empowerment that is not realized through books alone. With every success and challenge, students find the confidence to face other stresses in their life.
After a very successful year in which ECO sponsored an environmental fair, ECO members were told they could not hold the fair again due to the testing schedule. When they presented their new plan to the Leadership Team they received approval for the fair held after testing. The next year the fair had to be cancelled because a never before seen tornado hit our school in late May in Southern California This, however, did not discourage the president from including all the successes along with the challenges of a sustainable fair in his introduction letter for scholarships. The result: he received a full four year scholarship to Harvard and became a Gates Millennium Scholar with his narrative of flexibility during times of struggle and stress regarding the fair. (He had been participating in this project for 4 years).
As it happens, some projects change or disappear altogether because of circumstances not in your control and then you need to start anew. This is what occurred, when our school received twenty-seven vending machines and no one was recycling. As will happen, a global awareness was developing about the lack of fresh water and I was trying to find a connection to expand the minds of my students and ECO members. So I started discussions about fresh water, disease, global child mortality and how the world is now our community. After many discussions, a plan started to develop in which we could recycle and use the money to build a clean water well in a developing country. We lovingly called ourselves the “dumpster divers” in honor of those children that must forage for food in the town dumps. We partnered with Waste Management and the City Public Works to put recycle bins in every classroom. The students presented short commercials on recycling and our global cause in various classrooms. The members reflected, assessed and evaluated their project and concluded they needed monetary and physical help.
This conclusion changed the small project into a recognized program of distinction. One of the ECO members was the student liaison to the School Board. As such, she reported what ECO was accomplishing, the newspaper heard about it and called to do a spread on the club. Meanwhile other members were designing a presentation to attract more members to help with the recycling. After twenty-four meetings and six rehearsals, seven presentations were given to student body. The result: sixty new members signed up to further the cause.
One of these new members asked to head up a paper recycling campaign and this resulted in the discovery that there were no recycling dumpsters on our campus or any of the forty other schools in the district. Since the district is not charged for recyclables put into the recycling dumpsters this became a huge savings for the district. By conducting recycling at all the school sites, the city was able to reach its fifty percent reduction in trash goal and saved three and half million dollars a year in assessment tax. ECO was written in the state report by the City Public Works.
While recycling at the end of the year another student suggested he organize all the notebooks and paper that were thrown out at locker clean-out time. The next year, one hundred needy students received notebooks for their class work. Two more presentations were planned to give at the feeder schools of the site and this lead to three students writing raps to attract attention to the plight of the students around the world.
In one of my presentations to ECO members and my students, I said I was willing to work harder than the hardest working student, never thinking that the next year I would be driven to the brink of my energy by students that could not get enough from their various projects and the empowerment they felt.
Another statement I made, was that if ECO and my students would trust the process they would experience things they could not imagine. Since that statement members and students participating in the service learning project called “An Environmental Cause with a Humanitarian Heart” raised money for a school in Uganda, that includes: installation of electricity, a clean water well, daily supplies for fifty AIDS orphans, showers and latrines, two acres for a kitchen garden and medical supplies for a health clinic in the remote village of Kasega, Uganda. This all through recycling and coin drives. Then ECO was invited to present at six student conferences and was acknowledge again in the newspaper and on the County of Education website.
The next school year, ECO members were ready for their senior year and therefore their senior projects. What developed next absolutely cemented my complete faith in service-learning and the students that participate in the resulting projects. The president of ECO did a comparison of two cities that included the economic and environmental facts of each town. When he traveled to the Netherlands on a student trip to present his joint project with Dutch students he discovered that to his dismay that the Dutch students had never presented in front of the class and they were due to present their findings at the Hague in a week. He took it upon himself to train them in the format he learned when developing the presentations for his service learning projects.
The treasurer of ECO wrote a one-act play regarding peer pressure and doing the right thing for the environment. Another student developed an interactive, standard-based, Earth Day fair at an Elementary school, while the vice-president developed six environmental lessons for an after school program. All total, eleven seniors created unique projects that were off-shoots of the original service-learning project and all students were given special recognition for their efforts.
In my final months work at my school, I was too busy to be devastated with the closure of my program. Students and ECO members alike were continuing all the projects ECO and they had started. I, as a senior project mentor and club advisor, was trying to stay ahead of the excitement that is generated by service-learning and overcoming challenges of projects. While I was concerned about my future, I had no doubt that what I had taught and guided my students through was valuable and could be adapted for other schools. So this idea of taking the “An Environmental Cause with a Humanitarian Heart” on the road to other schools seemed to be one of my missions to carry on with beyond my classroom. Then it happened, I received a phone call from the Superintendent of the County Office of Education, I was their “Teacher of the Year!” Yes, one month I am out of work and with no classroom, program or ECO club and the next month I am Teacher of the Year.
Remember the beginning of my story? Nothing makes sense and nothing is logical? Well, after twenty plus years and even though I had evolved as an educator, this definitely did not make sense and it certainly was not logical. So when I was extended the invitation to attend a dinner in my honor I invited my eleven senior students to the dinner as well. When I gave my acceptance speech, I told their story and what they had accomplished, after all, my selection of this award was because they trusted me enough to embark into this service-learning world. Their evolution from students to participants in the global society was amazing to watch and a dream of teachers everywhere. To be witness from the beginning the potential of your students morph into contributors to the community at-large is by far the best medicine for the doldrums.
After the standing ovation, presentation of flowers, a vase and a clock, my students had one more surprise for me, one that would take my breath away and continue my enthusiasm for service-learning to this day. They announced that even though they were all going to college, they did not want to stop the work we had started. They wanted to form a foundation in my name and partner with me in my endeavor to spread “An Environmental Cause with a Humanitarian heart.”
So the work began that summer, the Suntree Foundation was formed, received nonprofit status and the students, “My kids” as I call them, have branched out. The Suntree Foundation is in fifteen schools here in Southern California and five countries in Africa. We encourage schools to raise money through conservation and coin drives. The students have met with US congress representatives and senators, and presented their mission. They have attended international conferences and learned to network on a professional level. They have started an “Education for All” organization so that any graduating high school senior that wants to continue with their humanitarian efforts can participate at the university level.
Yes, I was right! “My kids” would go places they never dreamed of going. And I am still trying to work harder then the hardest working student, but I have never felt the doldrums again. The “Seven Year itch” was cured through my decision to expand my teaching into the instructional method of service-learning. Rarely do we have an example of the after affects of service-learning as it pertains to the continuation of student endeavors. However, with the Suntree Foundation and its founding members, we have the longevity of story and evidence of what service-learning can achieve no matter what the demographics of the community.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lorie Suntree has worked for Riverside County Office of Education as a Career Technical Education instructor in the field of Agriculture and Natural Resources since 1990. She has been very involved in Service-learning since 1996, training educators and students in this instructional methodology using the environment as theme for implementing projects. Many of the projects Lorie helped initiate are still in existence through her strong believe of sustainability and student involvement. In 2009, Lorie began working in the field of STEM, as a Regional Co-Lead in STEM Service Learning and an After School STEM Coach. Lorie’s specialty is her ability to customize STEM and project-based learning at school sites. This entails training teachers and students throughout RIMS Region 10 and the state of California, matching school plans with community needs. With a strong emphasis on the disenfranchised students and schools, Lorie has a vast arsenal of tools to engage both educators and their students in the STEM content areas and beyond, using the instructional method of STEM Service-Learning. Recently she has been the Conference Chair for the three Southern California STEM Service-Learning Institutes, which she developed as a mechanism to connect k-12 educators with industry through a unique three-day conference.
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