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Remembering the big picture of education

Guest commentary by Ryan Duncan

Editor’s note: Van Andel Institute for Education is dedicated to creating classrooms where curiosity, creativity and critical thinking thrive. The Institute offers engaging programs for students, as well as transformative professional development and instructional tools for teachers. VAI also supports School News Network, and its programs for teachers and students can be found on SNN’s Education Everywhere page.

Grandville — Recently, The Washington Post ran a story about a student who has been saving salamanders. Eli Bieri, a freshman at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, MI, noticed that migrating amphibians were being hit by cars while crossing the road during egg-laying season. Bieri persuaded officials to block the park road for safe salamander passage, a move that proved so popular that the city now holds a Salamander Days Festival in honor of the little amphibians. 

It’s the kind of heartwarming story every educator loves to hear. A bold, inquisitive student used his knowledge and passion to make the world a better place. The story was particularly popular among my colleagues because some of them had helped teach Eli in the past.

Years before Eli became an advocate for amphibians, he was one of many students in Van Andel Institute for Education’s (VAI’s) Afterschool Cohort. VAI strives to foster a love of learning in every student who walks through our doors, so it’s incredibly rewarding when any teacher hears how a former student has pursued a love of science and is using it to make a positive impact on the world. 

Let’s be clear, our contribution to Eli’s journey was small. Aside from saving salamanders, Bieri was part of a Sustainability Club at Grandville High School, and is currently on track to study amphibians at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Bieri deserves full credit for the extraordinary work he is doing in the present. At the same time though, his story can help teachers like us remember the big picture of education.

Ryan Duncan, editorial specialist at Van Andel Institute for Education

Bring Your Students to the World

All too often it’s easy for educators to get bogged down in the miasma of modern education. COVID drastically changed the way schools operated, and with the pandemic now beginning to recede, many of us are once again dealing with an ever-growing list of challenges. These issues are important, but we need to remember that they are also temporary. Students, on the other hand, are the ones who will leave a lasting impact in the years to come. They will carry the things we teach them throughout life, applying them to whatever problems they encounter in the world.

Just imagine, the student you’re helping in math could go on to work with NASA, exploring the universe. That shy bookworm whom you lent a novel could one day take their place among the most celebrated poets. Even the kid who drives you crazy (and let’s be honest, we all have one of those) has something precious to offer the world. Whenever the current troubles of education begin to weigh on your shoulders, it helps to take a step back and look at the big picture. Teaching isn’t about grades or protocols, it’s about students.

Moving Forward Together     

So, what does this mean for us as educators? 

  • For starters, let’s always endeavor to foster student passion and curiosity. Encourage your students to pursue inquiry outside the classroom, whether it be through afterschool cohorts, summer camps, school clubs, and more. They will be the ones to build the future, so let’s be sure to give them the tools they need. 
  • Remember to reach out to your fellow educators when you’re feeling stretched too thin. Teaching is not a job that is done alone. We succeed by working together and building one another up during difficult times. Consider asking your co-workers how you can help and what you can do to help their students succeed.
  • Finally, remember to give your students something they can engage with. Books and worksheets have their purpose in education, but students are naturally curious and long to engage with the subjects they are learning about. Implement project-based learning. When teaching about nature, take them outdoors. Even giving them an object to hold while you discuss its qualities can go a long way. Connect them with the real world.

By empowering our colleagues and encouraging students, we keep our eyes on the big picture of education. Every learning experience, every new discovery, is one more step on a lifelong learning journey. Who knows where your instruction will take them?   

Ryan Duncan is an Editorial Specialist at Van Andel Institute for Education, an education nonprofit which strives to empower teachers and build classrooms where curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking thrive.

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