MNPS School Psychologist and Cohort 3 member, Taylor Biondi, will spend a little time each month with a member of The Educators’ Cooperative to get a sense of what makes them tick, what they love about teaching, and how their work in The Educators’ Cooperative impacts their teaching, their classrooms, and their students.
By Taylor Biondi and Natalie Elliott
The inaugural EdCo Teacher Spotlight proudly focuses on Chris Spiegel, earth science teacher at Montgomery Bell Academy, a private all-boys school in Nashville, TN. Recently I had the privilege to sit down with this veteran teacher to learn more about the secret to staying in our difficult, but rewarding, profession. As we chatted over Thanksgiving break, we discussed the challenges teachers face, ways to stay fresh in the classroom, and if teaching was more magic or science. A huge thanks to Chris for letting me in on a little of what has kept him in the profession for almost thirty years.
On how he found teaching:
Chris’s introduction into education started in an unusual way. He first began teaching as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador. As an agricultural educator he taught his students about raised bed gardening and helped the local community introduce a larger variety of vegetables into their farming practice. After his service time in the Peace Corps, Chris was a fellow at the Teachers College at Columbia University and instructed in New York City public schools for four years. There, he taught bilingual science to Latin American immigrants who were just entering the country. Chris says the program’s goal was to prepare the students, many of whom had various levels of experience with formal education, for entrance into high school. From New York, Chris and his wife moved to Nashville, where he began teaching earth science at Montgomery Bell Academy. Almost three decades later he continues to thrive in the education field.
On his biggest teaching challenges:
Chris says one of his biggest challenges is staying fresh and up to date with what is happening in his area of instruction. Change is continuous in the scientific community and he must stay tuned to this progress to best instruct his students. He says he sometimes struggles to find meaningful professional development that allows him to equip his students for their modern scientific and technological world. Advancements in science occur so quickly, he needs to ensure that his students are prepared for the world they live in and will participate in fully after graduation. Connecting with a network of colleagues can be beneficial to teachers attempting to stay ahead of the curve in both pedagogical and content specific areas.
Another challenge, he jokes, is getting old. Despite the wear and tear of the profession, the students actually keep him energized. He states, “They really wear you out, but they keep you young. It’s really paradoxical.” However, realizing that at some point his teaching career will come to an end is very bittersweet; he will eventually rotate out and someone younger will inherit his classroom, his students, and his school community (although he is looking forward to spending more time in his community garden). He notes that the passing of time is both intimidating and motivating. Intimidating because he feels he has so much more to say and more to impart to his students, but that makes him all the more motivated to make good use of the time he has left in the classroom. He is now hyper-focused on making the years in the classroom count.
His advice for staying in the game:
Find your passion and pursue it. Chris’s passion is earth science, and he has joyfully shared this love with students year after year. He proudly mentions that several former students are now entomologists, herpetologists, and other admirers of the natural world. Chris also loves the “real world” application of teaching. Last year, the first day back at school was the solar eclipse, and by the end of the week Hurricane Harvey had come through and flooded Texas. Both of those events shaped what his students learned that week, and he was able to adapt his plans to connect what happened in class to real life. Stay flexible. Finding resources to meet student needs and adjusting the curriculum based on what is happening in the world helps to not only engage students but keeps educators fresh.
Chris also stressed the importance of self-care and taking advantage of summer to rest and recharge. All jokes aside about teachers and the “three-month vacation,” Chris acknowledges that, to make ends meet, its usually necessary to work during those months “off,” but also that precious summer time is necessary to refresh and relax. In addition, he stressed the importance of believing in your mission. “It’s a good fight,” he says, “And we should fight. Because we could bail and go for the easy money, but that’s a waste of a potential gamechanger.” Believe in the impact of your position and stay the course.
Is teaching an art or a science?
When asked whether he thought teaching as a skill could be taught, or if there was more magic than science to the art of pedagogy, Chris thought it was a mix of both. He says, “For me, it’s a really meaningful career where I can be myself and I feel like I’m kind of designed for it.” He says he has watched teachers wash out and he has also watched them thrive. He thinks that most people can learn to teach if they have the time and training invested in them and are given a place to grow into themselves. After almost three decades, he seems confident that the key is to invest in the power and talent of teachers as individual professionals, rather than stressing any one particular curriculum.
On why he chose EdCo:
Chris applied for the first cohort because he wanted professional development opportunities, and he specifically wanted to stay local. He says EdCo has exceeded his wildest dreams. When asked to pinpoint what it is that makes it special, he says it’s partly the ‘support group’ aspect, but also so much more. It’s not just sharing war stories and commiserating. It’s the power of educators taking ownership of their craft; the mindset of ‘let’s build our own capacity’ and ‘let’s increase our own skillset’, with everyone bringing their own solutions. The concept of adding one more Saturday obligation would be a non-starter if it were anything else. Chris sees the value of this meeting of minds and “runs” to the monthly Saturday coffees. He believes what we’re doing and working for is not only possible, but within reach. “I leave feeling invigorated and hopeful.”
We closed our chat with Chris “butchering” (his words, not mine!) a quote by Gordon B. Hinckley. I tend to prefer the Chris Spiegl version: “Working without a vision is just a job. A vision without hard work is just a dream. But if you combine hard work and that vision, that’s life-changing.” Chris continues to inspire us all with his life-changing work in education.
Gordon B. Hinckley — ‘Work without vision is drudgery. Vision without work is dreaming. Work plus vision-this is destiny.’