Teaching is like forestry.
I used to think teaching was like gardening - we nurture our students, and help their minds grow. Over time, I've come to appreciate that the complexity of students' lives is better represented by a forest than by a garden. Like trees, students demonstrate resiliency in times of draught. Like forests, students' communities include myriad factors and influences. Recognizing and collaborating with students' communities allows teachers to understand and teach students with greater respect and greater depth. Forests' roots draw deeply from surrounding soils; teachers who ground our practice in knowledge of students' lives benefit from greater reservoirs of understanding. Farmer David Abaz from Round River Farm shared this poem by Wendell Barry:
“Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.”
If students are like trees in a forest, teachers are like foresters. We can encourage the growth of the forest, protecting the homes of pollinators, mitigating the effects of toxins, and adding nutrients. But the focus of teachers’ labor — the development of minds — is much larger and longer-lived than us or our time with students.
My personal teaching style seeks to understand and respect each student’s intellectual and emotional perspective, and to let the perspectives of my class guide our work of learning science. Educators who know and teach the whole child help bring every student to her highest potential. After a decade of teaching middle and high school sciences, I still find myself searching out new lessons to “hook” diverse students with active and hands-on learning, to build marginalized students’ confidence, and to establish deep-rooted engagement in science. Students in my AP classes can be English Language Learners, students with Special Education designations, or students flagged as “at risk of dropping out of high school.” Year after year, students who would never be tapped for accelerated classes struggle through mine. Year after year, the experience of college-level work in a supportive and familiar setting removes cognitive and emotional barriers to their path to college. Our AP program is now in its eleventh year, and while our tests scores are variable, our college admittance is not — 100% of our school’s graduates have made it into college for the past six years. Many of them are first-generation college attendees.
Teachers across our nation nurture students as foresters tend to individual trees. Without this work, I believe that America would crumble, as a deforested hillside erodes to desert flatland. Our democracy depends upon an educated, engaged populace capable of guiding political and business leaders with our votes and business. Our claim to egalitarian ideals mandates that every child, regardless of circumstances of birth, has opportunities to pursue a good life and a professional career. Teachers are agents of democracy and essential to the survival of the American dream.