The Importance of Classrooms with Four Walls and Blue Skies

In honor of the rockhound/fireball/breadwinner I call my wife, I post her 2011 application for the summer Naturalist Internship at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. Admittedly, it was a long shot, and she didn’t get an interview. No big surprise: she’s a school teacher through and through.

Last fall, she interviewed with a better (my word) school division—“Fish grow to the size of their tank.”

Success. Time for a new tank….

“Why are you interested in this internship and what personal skills would you bring to this program?

For honesty’s sake I must confess that I still hear the call of Alaska, and I make no apologies for refusing to check the 49th state off my bucket list. No, I won’t do it. The scale and wild beauty of Denali and Kenai Fjords National Parks each require at least a third visit; I still haven’t spotted any whales at Beluga Point. And since we all need more beauty in our lives and to do more things that take our breath away, I’ll have to drive along Turnagain Arm as many more times as possible. On second thought, I’ll let my husband drive so I can get lost in the views.

That’s what we were doing last July when my mother-in-law spotted a cluster of white dots on the side of a mountain, so we found a safe place to pull off, and my husband, son, and I hoofed it back to take so-so photos and shaky video of what turned out to be a band of Dall sheep. Little did we know that two ewes were grazing on the cliff above our car, putting on quite a show for my mother-in-law while we were gone. One disappeared before we got back, but the other one, apparently indifferent to the gathering tourists, paced the cliff for ten more minutes.

Except for an arctic ground squirrel that, unfortunately, had become habituated to humans at Polychrome Overlook, I had never had such an up-close sighting of Alaskan wildlife. Yes, the views of Turnagain Arm were breathtaking, but what I remember most about the drive was that chance encounter.

What I remember most about the day, however, was my first visit to AWCC.

While most of the species on Alaska’s admittedly small endangered list are marine species, the memories I cherish most about my visit—Seymour Jr. [moose] browsing at the fence, Hugo [female grizzly] seeming to pose for the camera, Joe Boxer and Patron [male grizzlies] chasing gulls—wouldn’t have been possible if Alaska’s terrestrial species didn’t need a helping hand, too. Chance encounters with wildlife, whether by tourists or residents, are memorable but rarely provide the teachable moments that the close-up yet respectful observations of the animals at AWCC do.

As I watched a member of the staff engaging and educating a group of children about the porcupine, I was intrigued by the possibility of volunteering my 15+ years of experience as an elementary school teacher to help AWCC fulfill its mission, and upon returning to Virginia my intrigue lead to discussions and ultimately this application for internship. Accruing some of the 180 professional development points I need for licensure renewal would be icing on the cake.

I am confident that in addition to my enthusiasm for education, my strong work ethic, and my facility as a jill-of-all-trades, AWCC would be able to avail itself of my experience planning and executing field trips, graduation ceremonies, and community presentations and of my skills as a former technology teacher, including creating and running PowerPoint presentations.

What are your personal, educational, or career goals? What kinds of experiences would you like to gain during your internship to further your pursuit of these goals?

During my first year of teaching my mother-in-law gave me a plaque that reads: ‘A hundred years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove … but the world may be different because I was important in the life of a child.’ — Forest E. Witcraft

The quote is a good one and absolutely true…or at least this senior teacher hopes it’s true because the balance in my savings account is stagnating, my house might need a new roof, my car is almost ten years old, and after chasing after 16 at-risk four-year-olds each day there’s no way I’m going to be alive in a hundred years to find out how the children I’ve taught have changed the world.

I have worn many hats at [name omitted]—Early Childhood Special Education Teacher, Virginia Preschool Initiative Teacher, Technology Teacher, and again Virginia Preschool Initiative Teacher when the technology position was eliminated last year due to Virginia’s budget shortfall. Each new challenge has helped me to grow not only as a teacher but as a person as well. Admittedly, I will never be a perfect teacher or person, but I firmly intend to continue striving to be a better teacher and person and to keep exploring and learning in order to become a more complete teacher and a more well-rounded person.

Professionally, my time in Mother Nature’s classroom at AWCC would provide me with a wealth of new ideas to take back to my classroom and to share with my fellow teachers so that we can inject our lesson plans and the students’ daily activities with as much creativity as Virginia’s Standards of Learning allow.

And on a personal level, stepping outside my comfort zone and getting my literal and figurative hands dirty in something other than Virginia’s red clay would be a wonderful challenge, and if my summer in Alaska were to have the same positive effect on me that my husband’s time in Spain as an exchange student had on him, I cannot miss this opportunity, no matter how atypical my candidacy for this internship.

What is the best public presentation you have done? Describe why it was your best.

“The Virginia Preschool Initiative provides programs for at-risk four-year-old children that include quality preschool education, health services, social services, parental involvement, and transportation” (www.doe.virginia.gov), and in my classroom we use the HighScope Preschool Curriculum. The central element of HighScope is active learning, a hands-on approach to education in which children learn by participation and through direct experiences with objects, events, and ideas. The curriculum is taught at many institutions of higher learning, including my local community college, but finding classrooms that follow HighScope can be a challenge.

Taking advantage of a local HighScope resource, a professor of education at [name omitted] invited me to speak to one of his evening classes. My presentation included photographs, video clips, and printed materials and a PowerPoint presentation that I had created. The students’ interest was high during and after my presentation, and with my principal’s prior permission I invited them to visit my class the next day for some real-world practice with the curriculum. Many of the students who spent time in my classroom wrote to thank me for the “practical” and “educational” experience and for the opportunity to affirm—and in one case to doubt—their course of study. I have made countless presentations, including others at [name omitted], but I am most proud of that one because of the students’ interest and feedback and the article about it that appeared in the local newspaper.

Describe a situation where you really went above and beyond in the name of customer service. OR Describe a situation where you effectively dealt with a disgruntled customer/visitor/co-worker.

A teacher’s work is truly never done, and often going “above and beyond” is more a necessity than a reason for being patted on the back. We buy paper and pencils, for example, for students who cannot afford them because without them, they cannot do their jobs as students, we cannot do our jobs as teachers, and both of our performances suffer. For similar reasons, we stay late, make home visits, and spend even more extra time when they’re having problems. Going “above and beyond” can be tremendously rewarding. It can also be a bit of a nightmare, as it was on an occasion during my first stint as Virginia Preschool Initiative Teacher.

One of my students presented severe behavioral and cognitive delays, so I worked on special activities with him before and after school, sent activities home with him, but even with the extra help he continued to disrupt the classroom and to struggle. As a former special education teacher I knew the importance of early intervention, and I requested a parent-teacher conference to discuss the possibility of referring the child for testing.

The conference began by the father bursting through my door, cursing at me, and threatening to do me physical harm if I insisted that his son was retarded. Keeping my wits about me, I turned slightly sideways to lessen the face-to-face/confrontational mood and began calming him down by rephrasing what he had said so he would know that I was listening to him and that I understood his concerns. I then explained that special education services range from tutoring to a self-contained classroom and that he could decline services after testing even if his son was found eligible.

A month later the child was tested, found eligible, and began receiving in-school tutoring. He is now in third grade and studying on a third grade level. The father recently thanked me for my help and apologized for his behavior.

I am proud of the difference I made in the life of that child.”

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