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The Long-Held Dream of Teaching


service learningKary Schumpert is an environmental educator at Eco-Cycle in Boulder, Colorado. She is an always-learning writer, runner, gardener, composter, and teacher, among many things. She is interested in how small, rural towns build community and infrastructure to be more sustainable. She prefers the plains and prairies and finds her greatest sense of place in New Mexico, where she grew up and calls home. Mary is a regular contributor to Community Works Journal.

Fourteen years ago, I realized that I wanted to teach. It was a dream and goal that I had been battling my entire life. Yes, battling. I will get to the battle in a moment.

I tend to make decisions in small, incremental steps and I was not sure that I wanted to give up my career working for a small environmental nonprofit. Caring for and working for the environment is an identity that I carry close to my heart and consider it a calling. Fourteen years ago, I signed up for a local environmental education workshop. Over the next year and a half, I introduced myself to the environmental education community in the Twin Cities, attending workshops and joining the state professional organizations. I kept my job, working in communications, but then all of a sudden I knew that big steps were needed.

I quit my job and and took an internship as a summer naturalist. I figured that if I were indeed suffering from a “grass-is-greener” syndrome, well, the summer would be enough to prove that. If I didn’t like kids at the end of a summer leading day camps, well then I was not cut out for a career in environmental education.

The summer was a dream. My teaching, in retrospect, is cringe-worthy, but I basically played with kids in the mud and muck and let them teach me. If anything, the summer taught me a lot about myself and made me realize that I had been stuffing a dream way down in my gut, which is about as successful as trying to shoulder an overly stuffed backpack in the middle of a backpacking trip.

After the summer, I moved to Colorado, much nearer where my heart has always resided in New Mexico, to be back in my beloved West and closer to family. It was a bit of a shock after ten years in the Midwest for college and my early career working adventures.

In a weird coincidence and luck of timing, a recycling organization in Boulder was hiring an environmental educator. My resume had recycling all over it, having worked at a small recycling organization for three of my six years in post-college employment. I think recycling made my resume float to the top, but my interview in which I told jokes and puns about composting worms revealed my humor and passion for teaching. Somehow I was hired.


Ten and a half years later, I still work for the same organization. I am proud to call myself an environmental educator. I feel as if I get the best of both the nonformal and formal education worlds in my job. Most of my work is in the classroom, and I appreciate getting to be part of the day-to-day learning experience with students. When kids, and adults, ask about my job, I explain that I am like a guest teacher. I show up at a different school just about every day. Wednesday, I sang and played with pre-schoolers. Tomorrow, I look forward to a morning with science classes of middle school sixth graders. I get to work with just about all age groups, from pre-K to high school seniors. In this way, I get to remember, and remind myself, just how magical every age can be.

The pre-schoolers think I am amazing just because I stepped into their classroom, and that I also love jumping up and down, doesn’t hurt either. The skeptical high schoolers are sure they know most things and question the very essence of everything I say. This keeps me on my game and they can see through discomfort, just as I can see their outward confidence is really a shell to protect themselves from this sometimes harsh world. The silent sixth graders are fighting their way through a hormonal haze, trying on different personas for size. I love them all.

Recently, I was talking to my sister, who listens to my daily “cute kid stories” with patience and grace. I was lamenting that I never really get to know the students. I fall in love daily, but hardly ever get to see the students more than once or twice in a school year. Although some students will see me yearly as they grow through the school system, given my organization’s close partnership with the two area school districts. She said, “Why don’t you just finally do it?” I responded cluelessly, “Do what?”

“Why don’t you stop talking about it and why don’t you just become a teacher?” she looked at me with the direct look of someone who can see into my soul. “You’ve been talking about it for years, maybe it’s time.”

The battle, I mentioned above. Since I was the age of three, I have been playing teacher. I used to line up stuffed animals and dolls with books and then later my cousins and younger sister. Throughout elementary and high school, I picked out my favorite teachers and tried to emulate their voices and presence. Then, I heeded the call of environmentalism and left behind my dream of teaching. Now, I realize it never had to be an either-or proposition. Even now, I get to work in a job where I get to do a bit of both. Teaching was always my back-up option on bad days, and even on good days.

The recent conversation, though, with my sister (who is my teacher, it turns out) changed things. Maybe instead of teaching being the back-up option, it could be my primary dream. Instead of always having side conversations about the latest in educational theory with teachers whose classrooms I visit, or instead of peppering student teachers with their opinions on various teacher prep programs, I realize it is my turn. It means, though, giving teaching its due, its importance.

I gave my boss ten months’ notice that I will be leaving my job as an environmental educator at the end of the year. I am applying to teaching programs in New Mexico and next January, I will become a student again, at the ripe age of forty. Sometimes dreams take a while before coming true. And sometimes, it just takes a hard listen to hear the clarion call of a dream.


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