Finding Our Roots as Educators


Do you remember when you first knew that you wanted to become a teacher? Was it a childhood dream? Or, did you discover your love of teaching and learning as an adult? What in your life inspired you to teach? On the long and sometimes harried days of teaching, what in your roots serve as your points of strength and inspiration?

Recently, I was spending some time looking forward, specifically working on some goals and plans for my professional and personal lives — both in the next few months and over the next few years — the near-term more definite, while the future is sketched out in broader strokes. At the end of that exercise, and at the urging of my editor (thanks, Joe!), I realized that I needed to look backward to look forward.

With most of my professional life spent as an environmental educator, I had to think about what really inspired me. I grew up wanting to be a teacher, and environmental education wasn’t even a part of my vocabulary until college. Sometime, though, in elementary school, I knew I wanted to help take care of the earth. I didn’t really know what it meant and there weren’t any grownups around me that were doing that specifically as a job. I knew lots of people who worked outside, though, and there was a silent, yet powerful conservation message that surged through my small town New Mexico life.

Both sets of my grandparents came into adulthood during the Depression. Both couples settled into small towns in eastern New Mexico. The economies of these small towns were dominated by farming and ranching. Right before the seventh grade, my mom moved us to northeastern New Mexico, to another small town which was surrounded by small farms and ranches, with coal mines nearby. No one at that time, or in those places, would have called themselves environmentalists. In fact, there was thinly veiled derision at the term “environmentalist.” However, there was also an understanding that people needed to take care of the land, the water, the soil, the animals. It was not about laws or government involvement, but about self-preservation and preservation of a way of life.

These were folks who went deer hunting in fall, killed coyotes that might get to their cattle, and gave the leftover vegetable scraps to the chickens. No one talked about water conservation, but you saved the dish water to water the trees at night. If it was a dry year, fewer heads of cattle grazed. Yes, there was a “rugged individualism” that seems to persist throughout a lot of the Western United States, but there was also a strong sense of community and helping each other.

I remember that when I figured out that I wanted to do something “environmental” for a living and a life’s purpose I remember thinking that I would have to go far and wide to figure out what that was. Then I realized it was all around me. It lived in the uncle who ran a small wheat farm. It was in the grandmother who killed the wasps who might sting us, but left the spiders and bees to themselves. It was in the neighbor who offered to do an errand for us “in town” 35 miles away. It was in the minister’s sermon about gardening and cleaning up after ourselves. It was in my on-and-off high school boyfriend’s fishing, he only brought home what his family could eat, even if it was well below the catch limit. In college, my childhood best friend’s rancher fiancé and I talked about grazing and I believed in his forthright assessment that “If I overgraze my cattle this year, I won’t have anything to live on in the future years.”

Despite going to a college that prided itself on its “environmental mission,” I realized that my environmental education had a solid foundation in the conservation ethic of my childhood and formative years. It was more Theodore Roosevelt conservation, rather than John Muir preservation. It was simple pragmatism and yet still provided for thinking of the whole. I grew up thinking that taking care and cleaning up after ourselves was just what you did: I cleaned my room and my uncle cleaned up his wheat fields. I shared books and encyclopedias in the classroom just like community members shared resources.

When people say that “actions speak louder than words” this is what they mean. Our students, our community members may remember far more what we do than what we say. We teach values by the way we treat each other and our students. Even without a sophisticated “environmental education” curriculum, we teach little bits based on how we take care of our classrooms. While the “nature-scape” at some schools might only include cracked pavement and a spindly, yet indescribable tree, there can still be stewardship.

Today, I work as an environmental educator, visiting elementary schools in Albuquerque. I am very aware of the perceived notion that “environmentalists” are hippies and come from one political party. I have fought my entire life to dispel that belief. My message is about taking care. How do we take of one another, our water, our communities, our world? We do it like anything else. We come together in one small step, one small action, and preferably with very few words.

Kary Schumpert is an environmental educator, a writer, and a student in Albuquerque. She finds her greatest sense of place and inspiration in New Mexico. Kary loves composting with worms, running, hiking, swimming, writing, teaching, and learning, among many things. Kary is a contributing editor to The Community Works Journal and her writing has also appeared in Green Teacher, Elephant Journal, New Leaf Meditation Project, and The Upper Room. She keeps a personal blog at

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