Teacher Appreciation Week: The Ripple Effect of Gifted Educators
Last weekend, I got a lovely note from NAAEE member Louise Chawla. She came across a reference to a 1982 publication that I wrote with Bill Stapp, one of the founders of the EE field. Louise hadn’t realized that my EE background included studying with the legendary University of Michigan professor. For a wonderful moment, I escaped the constant undercurrent of COVID-19 with warm recollections of Bill, by far the teacher who most influenced the directions my career would take, and who helped establish my now 40+ year connection to NAAEE, my professional family. He had tremendous impact on me personally as well; for all his connections to world leaders, his role as the first head UNESCO’s Office of Environmental Education, and recognition beyond measure, Bill was one of the most genuine, open-minded, kind, and humble people I’ve known. He was the consummate environmental educator—hands-on teaching, civic engagement, community problem-solving—and a true mentor; there are not enough words to describe how much I learned from Bill, how important he remains to me, and how grateful I am.
Then I got to thinking of my high-school chemistry teacher, Mr. Falb. He was one of the “hard” teachers who most students avoided, but I didn’t want to dissect a frog so I opted for taking chemistry over biology to meet my science requirement. The very progressive Mr. Falb based half our grade on independent study related to anything in science that interested us. You earned points for writing papers, doing experiments, visiting museums—whatever, as long as it related to your chosen topic. It was 1972, just after the first Earth Day, and my topic was “environment.” I was hooked at hello, but one particular incident—touring the new visitor’s center at the San Onofre nuclear power plant—stayed with me. When Mr. Falb returned my report on the limitless benefits of nuclear power as touted in the slick exhibit, he awarded all my earned points, along with a comment something along the lines of, “You might also want to explore some different opinions about nuclear power.” I did, and it was more than enlightening. It opened the door to learning about controversial issues, stakeholders, bias in communication, and so much more. And I credit that semester’s deep dive with leading me first to an undergrad major in environmental studies, and on to pursuing EE in grad school.
I’m glad I had opportunities over the years to let Bill know how immeasurably significant he was to me, but I’m afraid Mr. Falb’s importance became evident only when I looked back from a much older and wiser vantage point. Would he know that, some 48 years later, one of his students would be citing the pivotal nature of his innovative approach to teaching science?
Louise also shared a phrase that she learned from someone she called an activist psychologist: “faith in the ripples we cannot see.” All teachers make a difference and deserve our deepest appreciation. If we’re lucky, we’re gifted with a few incredible educators who start ripples that continue to spread throughout our lives.