I’ve been (sort of) planning the two classes I’ll be teaching at our homeschool co-op this fall, which has led me to realize that I basically evolved my teaching style by instinct and default almost 20 years ago. Most of my paid jobs—and several unpaid ones—have been in what I think is still called “nonformal education,” that is, education that doesn’t take place in a school setting. Summer camps, environmental education programs, Girl Scout programs, after-school programs, urban outreach…I did lots of that sort of thing, usually creating my own program rather than following somebody else’s script.
I began planning my own programs primarily while working in environmental education, and I think that contributed to how I planned. Firstly, I was the sort of “teacher” who liked to plan more activities than I’d need, so I could tailor what we did to the group and circumstances. I also liked to leave room and space for the unexpected discovery and the emergent interests of the group. Right from the beginning, it seemed backwards to strictly plan everything without an important component: the kids. (Or, sometimes, adults.) Instinctually, I wanted the learning to be a group-tailored activity, not a top-down affair.
Secondly, by default, I couldn’t be afraid of saying “I don’t know.” I was never going to be an ace naturalist, who could identify every native tree, shrub, wildflower and weed, every track, every sign, every fleeting bird call. My greatest strength as a group leader was my enthusiasm. This world is amazing! The wonder and drama and beauties—both minute and grand—of the natural world still thrill me. It never got old, no matter how many times I hauled my touch-tank of local marine life into an after school program and told the gripping story of how a sea star wears down its bivalve prey until it cracks open the shell just enough to slip its stomach—just its stomach!—inside the shell and digest the clam or scallop or mussel in its own home before slurping it out again. How is that not fascinating? My genuine passion is my strength.
Knowing everything, though? I never even thought I could. One of my favorite stories about my nonformal “teaching” is from a summer I spent as the nature director at a day camp run by a prestigious private school. Many of the campers and counselors were students at the school. One day two girls, about 10 or 11 years old, came to find me and asked, “If only the female mosquitoes bite us, what do boy mosquitoes eat?”
“That’s a good question,” I said. “I don’t know, but let me show you my shelf of guide books…”
“But you’re the teacher!” one of them exclaimed. “Yeah, you’re supposed to know everything!” her friend chimed in.
I wondered if that was really what they were learning at their expensive private school, that teachers knew everything? “Nobody knows everything,” I told them, “but I know how you can find out.” I walked them to my storage area, showed them the shelf of resource books, suggested a couple that might have the answer, and left them to it. Not too long afterwards, they came to me with a book. (This, of course, was in the days before 11-year-olds carried the Internet in their pockets.)
“Male mosquitoes suck nectar, like butterflies!” they told me. I’ve never, ever forgotten that. I hope they haven’t either. I could teach a kid what boy mosquitoes eat and answer one day’s question, or I can teach a kid how to find out the answer for herself and enable her to answer anything. Oh, and I only lasted one summer at that nature director job. I thought wandering through the woods overturning rocks was a fine way to spend some time during the summer, even on more than one afternoon. The camp director felt I wasn’t imparting enough facts and I repeated the same activities too much—I had a tendency to let the kids enjoy themselves and just be in the woods (on summer vacation!). We mutually agreed that our education philosophies didn’t match.
I’ve held onto to those two basic tenets of “teaching” all the way throughout all those nonformal education jobs and into parenting as well: leave space for the group’s interests and the unexpected, and don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know, but here’s how we can find out” (or “let’s try it,” or any variation thereof). It’s why I can’t really plan more than a basic outline of ideas and supplies for those co-op classes. I’m just there to guide the discovery; the ultimate path is up to all of us together.