In the spirit of writing and reflection inspired by Jim Leonard’s Minds Matter publication, please consider this an invitation to open the lines of dialogue between us as we partner in the most important endeavor of educating and inspiring children and launching them into the world to live lives of purpose. I also hope that preparing this type of communication as a regular blog will help me to further polish and focus my own lens as an educator, as this undertaking has inspired me to read, write, think more deeply, and most importantly, to create conversations that help connect us. In the true spirit of an essay, I hope to learn something new about myself, our school community, and the broader world each time I create a new post. Thank you for reading. – AS
I have a friend who says that as we age, we become more of who we are— more intensive than extensive. It’s certainly true that in turbulent times, such as this year (and sometimes with mixed results), I fell back on some of my deeply formative experiences and areas of strengths. In this inaugural blog, I unpack several formative experiences that guided me over the course of my career and through the many decision points that I faced at my former school, The Colorado Springs School (CSS), and at Santa Fe Prep last year.
I was a history major. The last course I took during my undergraduate career was an emergency medical technician (EMT-B) course, which was offered in the basement of the gym at Colorado College, a mere 322 miles up the road from Santa Fe. This was the closest thing to vocational education that the college offered, and looking back, I think it might have been an attempt by the administration to lower the accident/evacuation rate from the monthly block breaks that provided the CC student body and me the opportunity to embark on self-organized (and sometimes bold) expeditions into the Rockies.
As a young person whose mind was spinning with abstract ideas, I was drawn to the clear steps and logical thinking embedded in the mnemonic devices that filled the EMT course. For example, “ABCs” in the title of this essay stands for Airway, Breathing, and Circulation. That, and many other acronyms and initialisms I learned, provide a clear framework for analyzing and prioritizing interventions in medical scenarios. And even though I fainted during my first rotation in the emergency room, I admired the physicians, nurses, and paramedics who used their medical skills and demeanor to calm and care for their severely ill and injured patients.
I was intrigued enough by that initial course that I continued my medical training and earned a Wilderness EMT endorsement through the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). This credential, in addition to the NOLS Fall Semester in the Rockies course I participated in during my sophomore year of college, taught me how to mitigate risk, treat emergencies in the field, and care for the members of an expedition. Truth be told, these skills were the deciding factors for the hiring committee when I landed my first job as a classroom teacher and outdoor educator at The Colorado Springs School in 1996-1997 at the tender age of 23.
So, yes, it’s true: Learning my ABCs was my gateway to a career as an educator.
During my first years in the classroom, I worked hard to improve my teaching skills, but every afternoon I played to my strengths and took 15 students at a time with me for some trail running, bouldering, and rock climbing in the foothills of the Front Range.
Three years into my education career, my future spouse (and fellow independent school educator) Anna Sass and I took a self-funded (and barely solvent) trip to ride our bicycles from England to Italy. As a teacher of world history, I was captivated by the smell of smoke in the cathedrals, the feel of the architectural monuments, and the thrill of riding my bike on Roman roads. These incredible experiences greatly increased my knowledge of and appreciation for the people and accomplishments of the past and present, and they shaped the way I view my chosen field.
At the close of that fall (and with the dwindling of our self-funding), I decided to parlay my emergency medical skills into a ski patrol job. So I found myself in British Columbia during the winter of 1999-2000. At the time, we all were convinced that Y2K would ruin the world. If that were actually going to happen, I figured I wanted to be in a place with deep snow. It was there—amidst the utter exhaustion of physical work and the titillating thrill of throwing avalanche charges—that I learned more deep lessons from folks who really knew how to manage a crisis.
Some of my biggest takeaways from these formative early career experiences:
- Through talking on the radio and talking to patients, I learned to give people information that they can use, in the order in which they need it, in digestible chunks. This past year, I traded my radio for a Zoom room.
- Paul Petzoldt, the founder of the National Outdoor Leadership School, was famous for saying that when an emergency occurs, you should be sure to take the time to smoke a cigarette and think everything through. Today, we might call this mindfulness and take 20 deep breaths, thankfully without the carcinogens.
- Setting rock climbing and rappel anchors taught me to get the right gear, build a system with redundant safety, check it twice (or more), and only make plans and decisions that I’d be willing to bet my life on.
- Expeditions come in many forms—from the academic journey of a course to the environmental and interpersonal explorations that occur off-campus. Sports seasons and play productions can also be conceptualized as expeditions– with treks, base camps, storms, and summit bids occurring over the course of the season.
- Make it fun and bring snacks. I can’t tell you the number of times that knowing my students well—understanding their personalities, their likes and dislikes—allowed me to support them and teach them when things got challenging. Napoleon once said that the French army marches on its stomach. He was right that success often starts at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
Later in my career, as Director of Outdoor Education at Fountain Valley School of Colorado and Head of School at CSS, I was able to play a key role in designing academic, service learning, and environmental education programs that offered my students the same sense of agency and connectedness to the natural world that made such a difference in my education and career.
And here we are today— at Santa Fe Prep— preparing for a school year that we anticipate will be both a return to normalcy as well as a chance to embrace and celebrate change. Thanks to the courage and efficiency of the world’s frontline medical workers and medical researchers, we are able to plan a school year and future at Santa Fe Prep that isn’t animated by crisis. The opportunities in front of us are profound and impactful, and they will help our students to envision and forge their own life paths.
I look forward to embarking on this expedition with all of you.
Head of School