I was once asked in regard to my work at Alpine Valley School, “Wouldn’t you rather be teaching hundreds of students, exposing them to your passion in geology and science, developing their own interest and potential passion for the subject?” This question evoked many different responses internally. First, it questioned me as a person, as if I was unable to make a conscience decision, that I had chosen to pursue something that I actually didn’t want to do. The question also assumed that more is better. Teaching and influencing hundreds of students is better than one or a few. There was also a deeper assumption that it’s OK to make hundreds of students invest their precious time studying a subject they are passionless about so that a few of them find a possibly genuine interest.
I answered this question with a resounding “no.” And even though the question’s assumptions were present in my head, they were not the true reason for my response. For the real reason I declined the idea of teaching to hundreds of students, I would like to tell two stories.
When I was a junior in high school, I was toying with the idea of not going to college. I didn’t want to go without a focus. I also didn’t want to waste my time and my parents money. At the same time I was grappling with the college dilemma, I was taking a geology class at school. I’d had a choice between taking Geology and Chemistry, neither of which really excited me. However since I’ve always had a strong interest in the outdoors, I decided to take the Geology class. During my time in high school Geology, I decided that I would major in Geology in college. Let me be clear however, that it was not the content that interested me and convinced me to major in the subject; it was three simple ideas: I could work outside, travel (both of which I love doing), and I would get paid for doing these things. I went to college two years later as a Geology major and came out as what I like to say, “a terrible geologist.” I learned quite a lot and the University of Illinois Geology program is a terrific one. I just never applied myself because there wasn’t a true interest. If I hadn’t taken geology in high school, I would have missed out on some really fun trips and obviously my life would have gone in different directions but that’s it. I believe I’d be just as happy having done something else.
Contrast my story with a graduate of Alpine Valley School. This student grew up at Alpine Valley School. He’d never been required to take a class much less study anything that he wasn’t interested in. Yet despite never having had an education based in formal schooling, he was extremely knowledgeable and passionate about geology. When I visited the school for the first time, this student cornered me and began asking question after question about geology — what I had studied, where I had worked in the field, what cool things I had seen, essentially grilling me on my four years as a geology student. He also shared with me the things he had done, such as studying the geological maps that showed the earth below the school’s property so that he could dig a twelve foot deep hole to mine gold and other gems from under the sandbox. I left that conversation knowing full well that this sixteen-year-old knew far more about geology without having formally studied it than I did, a person with a four-year degree from a top university.
This brings me back to that original question — “Wouldn’t you rather be teaching hundreds of students, exposing them to your passion in geology and science, developing their own interest and potential passion for the subject?” I have now worked with the students like me who are lacking in interest towards the material and with students who come to a subject or idea through their own passion. As an educator, there is nothing comparable to the experience of working with a person or group of people who are totally and completely engaged in what they are working on. You fly through the material, engage in intense conversation, and lines blur between teacher and student as each pushes the other to better themselves. Another great example of this is when I was an outdoor educator. All the outdoor educators would go on hikes to learn about the natural area on which we were to teach and play the team building games we were going to lead. Because of the passion and interest each outdoor educator brought to the group, these activities were done at such a high level. Tons of learning was going on, and it was enjoyable for everyone. However, when we brought these activities over to the students, there was a noticeable drop in the level of play and participation. It was clear to see why too; there were some students who just weren’t interested (which is OK, by the way, because they were interested and engaged in other things).
Working at Alpine Valley School is like working with the group of outdoor educators. Each person brings that passion to their work and a desire to be successful so that the activity, whatever it may be, is always done with a high level of enthusiasm. The best part is that each and every single person has that passion within them. For me, it’s the natural world, camping, and learning primitive skills. For others at Alpine Valley School, it’s working on computers and creating computer programs, or it’s playing music, or cooking and baking, or learning a foreign language. And in reality, everyone at school has multiple passions that they pursue during their time here.
So when faced with whether to work in a system where students are told what to learn regardless of interest or a system where each student is engaged in something that springs from their desire to work on it, I will choose the latter each time. Because nothing is as good as when working with someone genuinely interested in what they are doing.
By Scott Goode — Staff Member at Alpine Valley School