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FEATURED ESSAY

The Power Of Learning: An Environmental Educator
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By KARY SCHUMPERT

Kary Schumpert is an environmental educator at Eco-Cycle in Boulder, Colorado. She is an aspiring writer, runner, gardener, composter, and teacher, among many things. She is interested in how small, rural towns build community and infrastructure to be more sustainable. She prefers the plains and prairies and finds her greatest sense of place in New Mexico, where she grew up and calls home, even though she hasn’t lived there for fifteen years.

The power of teaching lies in the power of learning. For those of us who teach, whether as non-formal or formal educators, we are often caught up in learning standards, objectives, and outcomes, even while we are concerned about our students. It helps, at times, to go back to the moments in our learning lives (which we hope are continuing and living continuously) to remember what helped us as learners. What awakened our brains? What ignited our passions? What helped us to become a lifelong learner? What inspired us to teach? What was the turning point? Who was the teaching wizard who helped make magic in our brains and hearts? What is it that sustains us over a lifetime?

The Power of Love
I grew up in a small town in New Mexico, where school crowding was never an issue. Teaching was traditional and the teacher was the center and head of the classroom. Learning happened. Sometimes it was rote, sometimes it was boring, but there was usually love. The teachers knew our parents, knew our siblings, and knew our extended families. Sometimes I wanted to escape all that familiarity, especially because my mother was a teacher at the high school, and there was no way to not be tangled in all of those relationships. What I learned, though, was that these teachers loved us and cared about us. We weren’t just numbers in a gradebook, we were the reasons that these teachers came back year after year.

The Power of Not Getting an A
After high school, I left for winter and water in northern Wisconsin for college. Despite the faraway landscape and the very different feel, I still picked a small school, rather than the big state university. College, for me, was a big transition, after most of my early years of not having to study, or being able to do some last-minute cramming to ace a test. College was completely different, and not just because of weather. Learning to manage my time and learning to be an independent learner were difficult lessons, and these are things I am still learning in my late 30s. After being a straight A student and then getting mostly Bs and my first C in my first semester was a good lesson. I realized that learning was up to me and no one, except for me, was going to be affected if I did not study or prepare or complete the work.

The Power of Learning Outside of Class
In an apparent antidote to the above, I learned more in college outside of class. I happened to choose a college where the environment wasn’t just an environmental studies major (popular in the mid 90s when I attended college), but a whole institutional emphasis. So, even the basic liberal arts classes had an environmental focus and students had a chance to be a big part of institutional decisions. I was active, with a student job and off-campus work and finding my way in college activism. I attended rallies and lost sleep as the editor of the student newspaper (enough sleep, that I eventually realized I couldn’t hack the job, resigned, and returned as a student reporter which was much more up my alley) and tried to remember that the deadline on my final paper was just as important, or perhaps more important, as attending three meetings in one night. Working with students, working with professors, juggling responsibilities, and sometimes wishing that my class schedule wouldn’t get in the way of my extracurricular activities and my jobs was taking a big juicy bite of life. I was living, I was doing, and I was learning, sometimes on very little sleep. I learned sitting in those meetings where passions were high, but very little got done. I learned riding my bike home at midnight, my mind swirling with ideas. I learned that I couldn’t do everything and sometimes I was ineffectual. I learned when to speak up and when to be quiet and let others share. I learned the beauty of silent leadership. I learned how to help and I learned how to say no. I learned a lot. I also learned the power of doing grounded in theory and knowledge from class.

The Power of a Professor Who Opens up a World
I enrolled in “Environmental Education Curriculum Review” in my second year of college, which sounded as dry northern New Mexico. It was me dipping my toe to see if I wanted to take on environmental education as a minor and focus. The class was large (40 students, I think)and three hours scheduled for a late Thursday afternoon. The class had a wonderful cross-section of students: traditional education majors and the outdoor education students (which was a large major and selling point to the school when I enrolled) who were coming to education in completely different ways. The mishmash of nonformal and formal grounded me and formed me as a professional. The professor, though, sparked it alive. He filled the class with activities and guest speakers and opportunities to expand our knowledge and experience and resumes (he even offered a Project WILD workshop during one class). Rarely, were we sitting and listening. More often than not, we were working in groups to perform an energy audit of the campus or walking up and down the highway near school to form a scaled-down version of the solar system. We picked up litter and he read us inspirational stories and essays. If you waited to see him after class, he was likely still on campus another hour to talk and listen to students. He graded papers with suggestions and comments and margin marks that often meant he had spent as long with my paper as I had.
I am still good friends with this professor. That we have stayed in touch for twenty years amazes me. He keeps up with his students and lots of former students, still giving that extra part of himself. He is still brimming with passion and energy and he is still current with what 18-22 year-olds are living and loving. When I think of the teacher who shaped me and opened up the world of environmental education, I think of him.

The Power of Changing Careers
When I got out of college, while teaching appealed to me, I was sure I would take the role of activist in my professional work. With my environmental studies diploma in hand, I eventually got a job as an executive assistant with a small hunting and habitat conservation organization in Minnesota. I moved on to a river education organization, working to preserve and protect the upper Mississippi. Then I got a job with a small recycling nonprofit. In each of these jobs, I talked on the phone, coordinated volunteers, and planned community events like workshops and conferences and volunteer events. In the back of my head, though, the itch to teach was still there. I started attending environmental education workshops in my spare time, during evenings and weekends, and asking naturalists and environmental educators to spare some time for me in informational interviews.
Finally, though, the passion to teach outweighed anything I was doing in my regular day job. With help from my boss, who knew the direction I wanted to turn, I quit my job and lined up a summer gig as a naturalist intern leading day camps. The summer was both terrifying and terrific fun. Sometimes I was in over my head as I waded with the six year-olds in the muddy river bank, but I knew I had found it. It was my calling, my avocation. The fall after that magical summer, I somehow stumbled into my dream job as an environmental educator. Eleven years later, I love teaching environmental education in the public schools as much as ever, but now I look to classroom teaching as my next thing.

The Power of Growing
When people think of growth, we think of babies becoming toddlers and adolescents reaching their final growth spurts. What we know, though, is that growing and learning is a constant and lifelong process. When I hit 30, I was thinking I had found what I wanted for work and that I was done growing. How silly was I? I think I’ve grown more in this decade than in any other. Some of the growth has been painful and ponderous, but welcome and warming. I feel lucky that I am constantly learning in my work, in my life, in my choices. I seek out that learning, not just the life experiences, but in books I read, in lectures I attend, in the questions I ask. Sometimes I soak it up silently, as I sit and listen and observe. Sometimes this learning is hard (perfecting my front crawl in swimming is a lesson that is more difficult than I realized it would be) and sometimes it comes easily. The people who inspire me and show me and teach me are those who are constantly and actively learning, from the three year-old in a pre-school class last week to the 64 year-old friend I met for coffee this morning to my thirty year-old co-worker who is passionate about her craft.
The power of education

I am now looking into teacher education programs, finding the one that fits me and the one that will help me to return to New Mexico to live and learn and teach. I am also looking into a wildly divergent vocational program that may allow me to work part-time while I pursue teaching. I talk to admissions representatives, tour campuses, and ponder the first day of school. I am scared and excited and ready to begin!


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