A love letter to environmental educators, my profession, and colleagues


Dear Environmental Educators,

I just spent a weekend with some of you at the Teaching Outside the Box conference hosted by the Colorado Alliance for Environmental Education in Loveland, Colorado. After a career change and eight years in this profession, I remain inspired and excited by your example. I also think of the environmental education and educators who first awakened my passion at Northland College.

You go by many names: naturalist, interpreter, park ranger, classroom teacher, program manager, visitor use specialist, recreational leader, after school program advisor, environmental educator. You do many things. You find excitement in the little things and try to spread that to the masses. You battle shrinking budgets and increasing expectations, yet you don’t waiver. Instead, you dig deep into your soul, you dig deep into your backpack, and you get stronger.

You find ways to bring new experiences to students, to toddlers, to adults. You lead hikes. You express amazement at finding a rock, ponder its age and what happened, and then you put it back for someone else to discover. Sometimes you tell the names of plants and birds, but sometimes, even when you know, you let others experience first encounters in their own ways. You ask questions and help to spark the curiosity in us all. You stretch so that your programs and activities complement learning on any level.

You fight your disappointment in environmental devastation and help others find the ways to take actions in their own lives. You are the guide, but let the students take the lead. In an era when phones are smarter and culture is dumber, you bring us knowledge in ways that a library never would. You know the best games to play with a class while waiting for the field trip bus. Your backpack is like Mary Poppins’s suitcase, full of amazing things that couldn’t possibly fit. You make things come to life. You have a playful twinkle in your eye, but you also know how to respond to an outside emergency with the calm efficiency of an ER nurse. You wax poetic about Aldo Leopold, John Muir, and Rachel Carson. You still read children’s books, not just for your Saturday programs, but for nurturing your own heart.

Your bookshelves and office are overflowing with tools: hand lenses, sunscreen, field guides, shovels and hack saws for ecological restoration projects, story books, bug nets, rope, rocks, and the list goes on. You can walk for hours and never tire, yet you never pass up a chance to rest under a tree. You know that while all living beings need water, air, food, and shelter, sometimes a child just needs the chance to be heard. You represent many viewpoints, but fight to keep out the politics and instead bring in the personal connections we all share.

You are unforgettable, as a forty-five minute lesson you teach for a fifth grader may last a lifetime. You are infectious: your laughter, your curiosity, your smile, your gentleness, your rowdiness, your sense of wonder. You’re the embodiment of nerdy cool and cool nerd. You make friends with everyone, if only for an instant passing on the trail. Some of you are quiet and introverted, others loud and extroverted, yet no matter your style, you reach people and draw them in.

You never stop trying to improve and striving to do better. You will share anything: your time, your ideas for a new presentation, your favorite trail in the park, your sunscreen, your water, your granola bar. You give people a respite from the mundane parts of daily life and yet give them a connection to how magical daily life can be. You pick up worms from the sidewalk and put them back in the soil. You don’t shy away from playing in the mud, yet know when to help folks “leave no trace.”

Your wrinkles, if you have any, are mostly from smiling and squinting in the sun. At first glance, you look a homogenous bunch, but you try to see the world from many viewpoints and struggle, yearn, and work for inclusiveness and diversity. You are musical, even if out of tune, and probably play an instrument, even if just a rubber band strummed on your fingers. You eagerly devour the latest education and science news, yet embrace generations-old traditions. You love language, Latin names, definitions, and categories to classify living organisms, and yet embrace the moment when silence is the best language of all. You see science, art, and math as part of everything.

For you, there is no such thing as bad weather, it may only represent a slight change in plans. For you, even a deserted, barren parking lot represents a chance for a teaching moment, a chance to explore the nature that still exists there. For you, nature isn’t out there, but everywhere, in our eyes and in our hearts. For you getting out isn’t a hobby, but a way of life.

This may be your first internship or your seventh career. Some of you volunteer to do this, but consider it your true vocation over your “real” job. You may know all about content standards and program evaluation, but you also realize those are only tools to try to measure the impossible: what you do.

I have much to learn from you, so thank you for sharing your skills, talents, ideas, passion, and oh so much more.

Love,
Kary

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