Our Students Need us More than Ever
Despite the hard work of educators, administrators, and parents fighting for their students every day, America’s education system is deteriorating and students are suffering as a result. According to a series of studies from the Broad foundation, American students aren’t learning the skills needed to succeed in today’s world. In a society where two thirds of eighth graders can’t read proficiently, and 27% of high school students drop out every year—a figure that rises to 40% for minority students—we have fallen behind the rest of the industrialized world when it comes to teaching our kids. After World War II, the United States ranked first in high school graduation. Today, we rank 22nd of 27 industrialized nations.
For over 50 years, our educational model of industrialized mass production has failed to adapt to a changing world increasingly built on creativity and connection. Instead, we’ve implemented ever more depersonalized, paint-by-numbers assessments in the form of standardized tests. This disconnect increasingly punishes students, especially those coming from disadvantaged backgrounds, by inadequately meeting their basic needs for safety, health, belonging, and self-esteem outlined by Maslow in his seminal Hierarchy of Needs.
It’s time to revamp our education system and rethink the role we play in supporting students. It’s time to ensure that we meet the basic needs of our students so they can learn to think creatively, practice working collaboratively, and meet their potential. It’s time to provide opportunities outside of the classroom to show that learning isn’t something that only happens at school, but something we should pursue passionately throughout life. Through our Outdoor Education program, we’re playing an important role in partnering with schools to help meet their needs and develop the skills that transform classrooms into communities and ignite a passion for learning in students.
Camp and Classroom Collide
Tecumseh has a way of bringing us back. Once we’ve spent time here in any capacity, we’re part of the family, and we inherently understand those intangible factors that make Tecumseh special. Like most of our staff, I started my time here as a camper. I experienced the Tecumseh effect as a kid, and it profoundly impacted my growth. My faith, relationships, and sense of belonging are all a byproduct of my time here.
After working as a summer staff member in college, I found myself in the “real world” with a “big boy” job, where I realized that so much of what I know I learned at Camp. I joined Teach for America where I started my teaching career in Miami-Dade County Public Schools as a high school biology teacher. The experience not only altered my career path, but ignited my passion for education—a passion that ultimately brought me back to camp.
I love science. I especially loved studying it while I was in college, but science is a challenge to teach. It can be abstract, intangible, and difficult to grasp. I worked with amazing students. They were smart, hardworking,and full of love and dreams, even when the odds were stacked against their potential achievement. Many came from broken homes, took care of their siblings, lived in communities wracked by violence, and often had to work long hours in addition to school work in order to support their families. Even on the most difficult days, watching them walk through my door each morning kept me motivated.
As I was planning a lesson on taxonomy—the categorizing of plants and animals—I realized the only way I could make the topic stick was to provide a real example. I brought my students to the beach (this is Florida, remember). We waded into the waters of Key Biscayne, collecting a wide range of specimens and organizing them based on a variety of traits. The kids loved it, enthralled by what they found in the aquatic ecosystem, and fascinated by the diversity of specimens within a small area. At the end of the experience, I asked my students how many had been to the beach. My jaw dropped as over half of them were here for the very first time.
How could I expect my students to grasp the vastness of big scientific concepts if their life experience was limited to their neighborhood and their classroom? This was when my Tecumseh experience and education experience collided, and it’s the reason I’m back at Tecumseh leading the Outdoor Education Department. I’m fueled by a desire to ensure all kids have an opportunity for hands-on learning.
My time in the classroom opened my eyes to the staggering levels of injustice and inequality affecting our poorest students and the challenges our educators face on a daily basis. In many ways, my Tecumseh experience set me up to be successful in the classroom. Tecumseh taught me that education works best when it’s based on relationships. Kids need to know they are loved before they can worry about Punnett Squares or the dichotomous key. This is why Tecumseh plays such an import role in a challenging educational environment.
Our environment in Outdoor Education allows students to succeed, grow in self-confidence and leadership, and receive hands-on experience that’s vital to their academic success. We’re dedicated to maintaining a culture where students connect with and gain respect for themselves, each other, and the natural world. Through relationships and connection, we can transform schools and help students grow. Just ask Sandy Hoy, a teacher for St. Thomas Aquinas in Indianapolis. Mrs. Hoy has attended camp for 30 years. She describes the experience as “visceral” and “…it is the kind of learning that doesn’t come all that often in a school setting and will carry students through the rest of their life.” Mrs. Hoy is the first person to admit that she’s “addicted” to camp, going on to say, “The time with the kids here is so special. They open up in a way that they wouldn’t normally at school.” That opportunity to build relationships helps create a positive culture within the classroom. Teachers like Mrs. Hoy motivate me every day. They dedicate their lives to enriching their students. They don’t just raise kids who can pass a standardized test, they raise kids who will leave the classroom and change the world.
In a highly charged political season, the state of education has once again taken center stage. Every day we hear that our education system is failing our students, that we need reform, that we’re falling behind. This isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s a trend that began before the civil rights movement. Our schools have adopted a system of mass production that cranks out graduates who all fall within a set of uniform standards in which success is linked to test performance. Creativity and collaboration have been devalued, as easily quantifiable measurements serve as barometers of success. Classes that encourage creativity, like music and art, are no longer part of the normal curriculum. We’re in a crisis, but there is still hope. We can fix it. We have to fix it.
Teachers are the foundation of our education system. We can all look back on our own education and identify those teachers who helped shape us into the people we are. We need to constantly remind ourselves of the importance of our teachers in the lives of our children, and support them as the role models and life-changers they are. Brené Brown, in her book Daring Greatly, describes a leader as “anyone who holds themselves accountable for finding potential in people and process.” Using that definition, our teachers are ultimate leaders for our children. It’s time to rally around these leaders, our schools, and come together to help all students succeed. At Tecumseh, we strive to partner with every teacher who comes to us to help educate students. We aim to be a tool at a teacher’s disposal to help encourage soft skills best taught in an outdoor setting.
Learning From Maslow’s Hierarchy
Career educator Dr Jeff Duncan-Andrade has never been afraid to ask tough questions, challenging educators to critically analyze their approach and pedagogy. He views education’s problems through the lens of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, advocating for an approach that takes care of basic needs before expecting academic growth. Many of his solutions are staples of the Tecumseh experience. We need to foster feelings of love, connection, purpose, and respect while building relationships that empower children.
Maslow’s hierarchy starts with the basics. Do kids have a safe place to sleep? Were they able to eat breakfast? Do they know where their next meal is coming from? Do they have clean clothes? We can’t expect students to succeed in the classroom before first meeting their basic needs.
Once we’ve met a student’s basic needs, they need a sense of love and belonging. They need to feel like they are part of a community. At Tecumseh, we excel at creating community. The outdoor education experience highlights parents and teachers in new ways for kids. It breaks down professional barriers and allows students to see the adults in their lives as interesting people who love and care about them. Something special happens when a child sees his teacher in the morning without makeup for the first time, or sees a school administrator act goofy at campfire. When kids, teachers, administrators, and parents come together at Tecumseh, we help solidify communities.
Chris Gensinger, the principal of Eisenhower Elementary in Warsaw, Indiana has seen this firsthand for the past 21 years. “Building relationships is a big deal. It helps kids see teachers and principals with their hair down. They learn more about each other, lasting friendships occur, and relationships with teachers are better.” The time out of the classroom in a new environment helps create a lasting bond, solidifying a student’s role in their community.
After students have developed a feeling of community, they must develop respect for themselves, feel respected by their peers, and possess confidence in their abilities. Too often, students find it difficult to be themselves in the classroom because they have been pigeon-holed by their peers based on a previous experience. At Tecumseh, we build esteem by encouraging students to step outside of their comfort zone and learn new skills, by challenging students through teambuilding initiatives that require every member of the group to succeed, and by creating a supportive, loving environment where individuals are celebrated for their unique personalities.
It’s only when these needs are met that a student is able to self-actualize, think creatively, develop morality, and discover a greater potential for problem solving. In a nation that has dehumanized classroom learning, it’s no wonder our students are underperforming and our teachers are under fire. Tecumseh’s Outdoor Education experiences are playing an important role in supporting our teachers and transforming the way learning takes place: by taking care of a child’s needs, forging strong relationships between teachers, peers, and parents, and providing hands-on, creative, and collaborative experiences in an engaging setting where students learn both classroom curriculum and indispensable life skills. We all have a stake in reforming education, and we all have the ability to make a difference in our own communities. A Tecumseh experience can help start that fire.
Matt Radding is the Outdoor Education Director at Camp Tecumseh. To book your group, inquire here, or give us a call at 765-564-2898