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MAR. 18, 2021

“We Are Semester School Teachers”: An OA Faculty Roundtable (Part 1)

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Here at The Outdoor Academy, we are honored to have been one of the founding members of the Semester Schools Network, a consortium of nine semester schools around the country that all focus on transformative, experiential education for high school students. Each semester only a few hundred high school students from around the world get the chance to experience this unique type of “study away” program. If you haven’t had a chance to read Julie’s blog post from last week about the University of Utah study on semester schools’ transformative power, check it out!

We are incredibly lucky to have multiple faculty members at The Outdoor Academy who have worked at different SSN schools. So, I recently sat down with Jeffrey, Emily, Nish, and Chelsea to learn about their experiences and find out why they believe so strongly in the power of semester school education.

Read on to hear what these inspiring teachers have learned from their work in the SSN, and what working in transformative education means to them. Then, check back next week for a second installment where they discuss their favorite aspects of OA’s experiential programming and offer their advice to prospective students preparing for a semester experience.

Please introduce yourself and your connection to the SSN.

Nish: I worked at HMI for a semester as my first job after college. I was a math apprentice there, and I also did all the backpacking trips and helped with residential life. I found out about OA while working there.

Emily: I’m an OA alum, so I first heard about the Semester School Network while I was here as a student. I worked at the Island School in the spring of 2019 as a Math and English teacher, and I’m now Math and Environmental Studies here.

Jeffrey: I started as a teaching fellow at Alzar School in the fall of 2017, and then a math position opened up here and I took it!

Emily: As we were walking over here just now, I heard Jeffrey say “We are teachers, and also we are semester school teachers”. And I think that’s really important. Many of us haven’t been in public schools or in a “normal” school environment. So we’re really attuned to how things work here, and that means it’s more organic, too. We’re not trying to fit what we do into the mold of “traditional” school.

Jeffrey: Yeah, there are two pathways that lead to working at a semester school. One is a career swap: being a teacher for a while and wanting something different. Or, you come from whatever the interest of the semester school is, like the outdoor programming world. So it’s also people who say “I love the outdoors, but I also want to teach.”

Emily: Which is how I ended up [in the SSN]. I was a Coastal Manager before, so I came from environmental management to environmental education.

Chelsea: I was actually working in the tech industry in San Francisco until 2018. I had always wanted to work in the outdoor industry and with teenagers, but I didn’t know exactly what that would look like. I had not had any teaching experience, but I had lots of experience being in the backcountry with teenagers in the camp world. So I discovered the Island School and ended up applying there. I heard about OA when I met Emily there, and I loved the idea of being at a smaller school. I was also very curious about the idea of craft, which I knew very little about.

What are the commonalities between the faculty at SSN schools? What does it take to work at a semester school?

Chelsea: Planning! Making sure you have some kind of vision and plan, but then also being able to totally adapt in the moment. So having a plan, but being able to let go of it.

Emily: It takes a lot of energy, a lot of creativity, and certainly flexibility. None of us are doing it just for the money, or just as a job. We’re all in. And we are all so invested in the outcomes.

Nish: Yeah, we invest so much in the community each semester even knowing that it’s going to end. And I think that’s really hard to do in real life outside of this profession. For me, personally, that’s been one of the take-aways from working in these schools. The communities come together and then adjourn, and it can be difficult because you put in so much time and energy. But these schools do this really well. All the faculty have accepted this process and choose to invest deeply every semester.

Emily: I think that a sense of knowing what’s possible brings us together. It’s really hard to know from the outside just how much kids can change and grow, and how special it is to experience that as a teacher. If I meet other semester school faculty members, I know immediately, “oh, these are my people!”

What has working at semester programs taught you about experiential education?

Emily: I think the semester schools are all very empowering, each in their own way. At the end of the day, students are coming out of these programs taking more responsibility for their learning and for their place in the world. And, at OA, also for their place in a small, close community.

Chelsea: In the beginning, I had this big idea that I needed to do everything “correctly” and that there was a “right” way to do things and a “wrong” way. But I’ve learned that it’s a lot more about being able to improvise in the moment, meet students where they are, and ask them good questions. And also give them hands-on experiences that they can take with them and run with on their own. To be honest, when I’m doing my job well I’m probably less present in the classroom and just orchestrating it so that they can be the leaders.

Nish: Related to that, working here aligns really well with my views on education. I think it should be holistic. Working at OA allows me to be more invested in the students, not just in class but outside of it. I’m invested in their overall development, character, how they are in the community and in the field, what sports or music they like… all of it! I think that should be a part of the educational picture at every school.

Jeffrey: From what Nish is saying, it’s kind of like a small dose of all the good sides of traditional boarding school. Because it’s so contained, it can be more intense, but it gives you a blending of different [educational] worlds. It’s a taste of that intense experience, and each of the semester schools has a spin on how it should look. Each one is different, and that is what makes them all really good.

What is the most challenging aspect of working at a semester school?

Jeffrey: It’s a lot of short-term investments in the students. All of my investments go into the current group and then restart the next semester. So the investment is large, and you know it’s going to end.

Emily: And yet, it’s that return on investment! I think I fall on the opposite side, because usually teachers have to wait 10 years to get that letter saying “Now I appreciate your class”. Whereas we either get that as feedback or can just see those outcomes every single day. I find it very satisfying.

Jeffrey: Yeah, that’s true. It’s the reason to be okay with the reality of it being so short, because it’s so transformative. And you can get an email [from a student] a month after the semester that normally wouldn’t come for many years.

Chelsea: It’s also one of the things that’s allowed me to become a better teacher, because I get to re-experiment every single semester. So all semester after every class I’m going back and taking notes about what to change, what to include, how to make it better next time. The frequency with which we get to do it helps me improve as an educator.

Wow. There’s not much more to say, in my opinion, except that we are so thankful for everything our faculty invest to make an OA education so empowering and transformative for our students. That “all in” commitment to the outcomes, as Emily put it, is what makes us so glad that our faculty consider themselves not only “semester school teachers,” but also “Outdoor Academy teachers.”

See you all back here next week for the second part of this powerful discussion!

By Katie Rowlett, OA Admissions Counselor