By Emily Hoyler
The beginning of the school year is ripe with expectation and anticipation. I spend a significant amount of time over the summer dreaming of the possibilities, mapping my curriculum, aligning lessons to standards, tweaking the scope and sequence of activities, and planning exciting learning experiences that will fully engage my students. I am so excited and full of energy. I’ve got this!
Then the marathon begins.
We must be outside. My students need to connect with the real, tangible world. But the first time we step out, their brains switch to recess mode, and they run haywire. I realize we need more structure. We begin to slow down, to notice and wonder. One by one they walk through the meadow in silence, sharpening their senses. We sit down to discuss our observations and their attention wanders to grass, bugs, and wind on the trees. It takes weeks to learn to refocus our attention each time it wanders. I start to worry that I’m abandoning my curriculum map. I know what I’m doing is essential for my students, yet doubt creeps in.
By the time the first pause for breath comes around Thanksgiving, I’m exhausted and exhilarated. We’re in it. A late fall weekend provides space for more planning and reflection. I think back to those September days in the meadow. What was it I was doing? I map out the unit after the fact and realize just what we were doing. We were discovering that
- We are a learning community.
- We can learn both inside and outside the classroom.
- We can strengthen our focus and attention through practice.
- We need to plan and practice classroom routines.
- We need to engage in daily practice and discussion of mindful awareness.
- We can focus on learning in an outdoor spaces.
My curriculum map is a quaint artifact now. To make room for emergence, for student interest, and for the myriad other things that come up, that neatly drafted plan is relegated to a guideline. I readjust and carry on.
Snow falls. Holiday buzz begins to permeate the walls of the classroom. Attention wanders, so we go outside.
The new year comes. My students are so much older than they were in the fall. Expectations need to be reestablished, routines practiced. I remember something I already knew but forgot for a bit: the less of me and the more of them, the better. I limit my airtime; we design projects. I turn their learning over to them and flow through the room offering guidance when I can.
Spring finally arrives. We all have cabin fever. We go outside as much as possible. Literature circle meeting under the tree? Sure! Geometry scavenger hunt on the playground? Yes, please.
The year winds down. I’m nostalgic. I’m exhausted. I’m done. As my students make their way into summers filled with sunshine, sunburns, and swimming, I anticipate that my daily pace will slow. Except it doesn’t. My summer “off” becomes filled with professional learning and planning. On purpose. It is a time to replenish my energy and passion and to remember why I chose this profession.
So many times over the course of the year I wonder: Is this what it looks like? Am I doing it? Am I doing it right? I get lost in the layers. I feel overwhelmed every day. I feel like I’m not doing enough. I wonder how I can squeeze more minutes from the day. And sometimes, I wonder if I was crazy when I chose this work where there is always more to do.
Then summer rolls in. I join colleagues from across the country at institutes, conferences, and workshops. And I remember: we are in this together.
We all know the value of reflection. We also know all too well the pressures of the school year, and that something’s gotta give. So time for reflection—what I think of as the savasana of our teaching practice—becomes a victim of osmosis. That is why inspirational, reflective, and restorative summer professional work is so essential to nurturing the whole teacher.
I am so fortunate to have found “my people” at Shelburne Farms. Several years ago I took a hiatus from teaching and came to Shelburne Farms to work as the curriculum specialist. In this role, I supported teachers in applying Education for Sustainability (EFS) pedagogy to their teaching practice. EFS is a philosophy that aims to nurture the development of citizens engaged in creating sustainable and democratic communities by connecting students with their natural and human communities, cultivating an understanding of interconnectedness, and offering students an opportunity to make a positive difference in their community here and now.
Each summer Shelburne Farms offers a variety of professional development opportunities in a bucolic setting to guide and support educators in EFS. These experiences are designed to nurture the whole teacher. The programs are designed with the input of participants and take a gentle rain rather than fire hose approach to content—also known as the less is more approach. There is plenty of time and space for work and reflection; emergent design and opportunities to network and learn from one another abound; learning happens inside and out. And perhaps what is most appreciated is the nourishing whole food meals (much of which is grown on-site). Shelburne Farms strives to “walk the talk” and let the place and process reflect the core strategies of EFS.
I have since returned to the classroom full time, but I find myself drawn back to this place each summer. This is the place that restores my spirit and inspires me to keep doing the work that I believe is in the best interest of children and our planet. Here, I find (my) community. We celebrate each other, share our best resources, and learn from each other’s struggles and triumphs. There is resonance in our experiences—and in our inner worries. When they wonder, I assure them that they are doing it right; they reflect it back to me. I’m doing it! I’ve got this!
If you haven’t already, I implore you to find your summer people.
Emily Hoyler is a curriculum specialist at Shelburne Farms where she works with many of its educational and professional development programs, including the Sustainable Schools Project. She also teaches upper elementary grades in Cornwall, Vt., and has served as a visiting lecturer in education at Middlebury College.