Thoughts on a journey from educator to environmentalist to award winner.
When I first arrived at Providence Day in 2011, my purpose in life was teaching, coaching, and playing video games. I was not an outdoorswoman, and I can’t say I was truly passionate about being a teacher. I knew that I needed a change from teaching in the public schools, and I knew that there were schools that “existed to inspire learning.” Little did I know, becoming a teacher at Providence Day would shape me into the woman I am today.
I grew up in Long Island, New York, and while I enjoyed spending time outside in nature, most of my explorations were how to make mud pies in a frisbee, which if I am being honest is also about the extent of my frisbee skills. We played out in the “preserves” which essentially were small forests inside chain-linked fences. I remember being intrigued with frogs but mostly because they were cute, and I wasn’t afraid to hold them.
However, the concrete jungle instilled in me a fear of bugs and a lack of appreciation for green spaces. I don’t remember any experiences in elementary school, middle school, or high school that taught me, showed me, or shared the importance of conservation and biodiversity. The only thing we did do was “celebrate Earth Day.”
Before I moved to Charlotte, I was a public school teacher in Burke County where I had the mountains in my pocket. Even then I didn’t appreciate the trails when I had the chance. Furthermore, I was still afraid of bugs! I’ve come a long way since then, and I owe it all to the Pamela Wilson Endowment Grant and the amazing professional development opportunities that PD has awarded to me.
It was in 2014 when I applied for the Wilson grant to visit the Amazon rainforest. Wait, what? Why on earth does this city girl who is afraid of spiders want to go to the Amazon rainforest? Initially, I really just wanted to travel as much as I could and learn all there was to learn about everything! After months of research and an approaching grant deadline, I received an email to attend the Educator Academy in the Amazon rainforest, and that email changed the course of my life, personally and professionally.
It was in Peru that I learned to truly appreciate just how lucky I am to live the lifestyle that I do. It was here that I was first exposed to the interconnectedness of ecosystems and the great impact we have on destroying and conserving biodiversity. I was able to gain an appreciation for indigenous tribes and how dependent they are on the natural resources of the forest for basic necessities, medicine, and food for survival. This made me realize how incredibly lucky I am to have the access to daily needs. In 11 days, the Amazon Rainforest literally changed my life.
I didn’t know it at the time, but my mission as an educator changed, too. When I returned home, I was no longer afraid of insects like the city girl I used to be, and I no longer had a need for paper towels or napkins. The smallest of changes and a little awareness was all it took and that is why I decided to become more involved in sustainability at Providence Day. I became the Go Green Club advisor, created the Middle School elective Global Environmental Issues, and was asked to represent the middle school as an Environmental Sustainability Coordinator.
As one of the Environmental Sustainability Coordinators, my role is to continue encouraging students to be better stewards to the environment, but also to help PD make better transitions into making decisions for our community through an environmental lens. The Amazon taught me that we have more power than we think to change the course of environmental destruction and it all starts with awareness, small changes, and sharing knowledge. As a teacher, it became clear to me that this was how I can best contribute to helping our students be better environmental stewards.
Over the course of the next few years, I dove into professional development head first. I needed to learn more about our ecosystems and the effect of human interaction on the cycles and forces that shape our environment and the sustainability of it. The Museum of Natural Sciences teacher education programs were instrumental in getting me out into the field. They took me to Yellowstone National Park, the Great Smokies National Park, and the swamps of coastal N.C., to name a few.
During this time, I enrolled in the N.C. Environmental Educator Certification program and the Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certification program. It is during these weekend and summer workshops that I was able to gain not only knowledge but also learn how to get my students involved in being scientists.
For four years, I was consistently enrolling in new professional development workshops and programs. I think it is safe to say that even though COVID may have helped slow it down, I still find myself frequently enrolling in virtual workshops because they are all free and why not!? I thrive on knowledge and am not sure I will ever stop trying to gain more resources for helping my students make connections to the natural world.
I adopted the “Trout in the Classroom” program from a former PD teacher and mentor. I didn’t know it at the time, but this might have been the single most influential “gift” for me as my career in Environmental Education unfolded. The program is accredited by the Rocky River chapter of Trout Unlimited. They supply the trout eggs in late September, and the students in Go Green are responsible for testing the water chemistry, cleaning the tank, and taking care of the feeding. When the fish are all large enough to hopefully fend for themselves in the river, we take a field trip to South Mountains State Park.
Before the trout are released into the river, the students meet with the Park Ranger to discuss the watershed and the importance of using the space responsibly. They spend about an hour surveying the river for macroinvertebrates and other bioindicators, they assess the health of the river system, and we report their data to the Ranger. The students are doing real science! They are collecting real data and reporting it so that Park Rangers can monitor pollutants in the water.
Luckily, even with the increase in human activity, the Jacob’s Fork River at South Mountains State Park continues to be healthy and ideal for trout. I love this program because it allows the kids to make a personal relationship with the conservation of nature, and contribute real data to science. Thanks to PD teacher and Upper School Sustainability Coordinator Jack Hudson, we are even able to teach them how to fly fish, responsibly. The hope is that the students will share their knowledge and experiences with family and friends, so that they will want to get out and appreciate green spaces more, too!
This past year, the Go Green club raised the largest number of trout than ever before. Unfortunately, COVID had other plans, and of course, on the rainiest, most dreary of days, I had to release the trout solo. I missed having the kids with me, but I look forward to the next arrival of eggs.
Did I mention that I went back to the rainforest!? The next time, in 2017, I took 15 brave Middle School students, and it was the most incredible full-circle experience for me. This was a full immersion experience into tropical ecology and biodiversity, indigenous culture, sustainable development, field research, and service learning. It was an all encompassing program of what we do and what our PD Passport describes.
I worked tirelessly on making sure that every single detail was explicit. From the most obvious of “to-do” items, to planning daily reflections before and after meal time. Every single thing I wanted to accomplish with this group, I did, and it felt good. Every “quote” or “reflection” was intentionally matched to force them to internalize the day's mission, whether it was about bugs and overcoming their fears of creepy crawlies or interacting with natives in the village where they restored water-damaged school houses and played soccer with the kids.
The days were long, hot, and humid but I wouldn’t trade forcing electrolytes at every meal for anything in the world. Those kids care, a lot, about a lot of things. We are so lucky to have a place like Providence Day where our kids have these amazing opportunities for growth and are able to build their own learning journey. The Amazon is truly a place to learn how capable each of us is of achieving personal greatness.
Over the years I have been slowly introducing naturalist and environmental studies into my curriculum by providing opportunities for us to go outside and document field notes in a nature journal and contribute real scientific data to scientists. It’s important to me that students are given opportunities to make their own connection with nature. My hope is that they will be curious enough to learn more, to develop an appreciation for natural resources, and be motivated to solve real environmental issues.
Looking forward, I have this enormous dream for the wooded area in the middle of our campus. I would love for that area to be used to its fullest potential. This area provides drainage for our campus so in keeping with the functionality of the area, I would love to see that area turned into a true wetland where we can foster the development of native plant species for pollution control while bringing more science opportunities to campus for our students. Not only does the introduction of a wetland allow for more wild habitats to form, it could also support environmental citizen science projects for students to participate in year-round.
It would be a dream come true to have a sanctuary for wildlife, a place for peaceful reflection and journaling, and a place where students can contribute to scientific data by documenting weather, testing water quality, and identifying various species. I also see this space as a place to create opportunities for our Freedom School students who may not otherwise have opportunities to be hands-on with nature. When we provide the vehicle by which students can be more involved in the work of real scientists, we provide a higher environmental intelligence which allows the future of our Earth to be much brighter.
My sister describes me as someone who can’t just do one thing. I have to do all of the things. I thrive on knowledge and love learning more about how I can bring nature to my students. When I was awarded the Blackwell Award for Teaching Merit in Science and Math* for the 2019-20 school year I was completely taken by surprise.
The Blackwell family, our dedicated endowment donors, and our professional development budget are all in place because they recognize that our students are their best when our faculty are their best. Thank you for trusting in me and my passion for learning, for allowing my vision to grow so that I could share that with my students, and allowing me to find my life’s purpose: to foster curiosity and thirst for more knowledge and hopefully develop life-long learners along the way. It has been a 2020 for the books, and I know I speak for many when I say I am beyond lucky to be a member of the Providence Day School community, family, and faculty.
*The Blackwell Award for Teaching Merit in Science in Math is given in recognition of effective teaching of an innovative curriculum, positive role modeling within and outside the classroom, and the willingness to establish and maintain constructive relationships with students, parents, and other faculty.
Hear Sarah Goodman and the other Environmental Sustainability Coordinators discuss making PD more Earth friendly in Season 1, Episode 9 of the PD podcast, “From the Horse’s Mouth,” available at www.providenceday.org/podcast.
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