by Emilie Lygren
We all want high quality student experiences in our programs, but sometimes the policies or structure of our organization can unintentionally get in the way. We all want high quality student experiences in our programs, but sometimes our program’s policies or structure can unintentionally get in the way. This Tale from the Field, originally printed in our Guide for Program Leaders, highlights how San Mateo Outdoor Education changed their program policies to better support high-quality teaching and learning at their site. It also shows how consistently soliciting staff feedback on program structure, and using a range of ways to collect that feedback, can be a catalyst for organizational improvement.
It was a requirement at San Mateo Outdoor Education for group of students to visit “The Emerald Forest,” a grove of buckeye trees that were covered in moss, during one day of their field experience. Field instructors loved telling stories (both fictional tales or stories rooted in scientific concepts) about how the trees got there, and students would always react with enthusiastic ooohs and aaahs upon arriving.
During a weekly reflection time in which groups of 4-5 instructors checked in about the successes and challenges of their weeks, one instructor brought up the feeling that visiting the buckeye grove was limiting what he could do with his students during teaching time. The group of instructors discussed many different factors and weighed different perspectives– they all enjoyed taking their students to the location, but only one group could be there at a time, so it was necessary to schedule ahead of time when they would visit the buckeye grove. Instructors found this limiting in several ways. Since the location was close to campus, they couldn’t take students as far as they would have liked to reach some of the more interesting areas of their site. Being at the buckeye grove at a certain time often limited the flexibility instructors had in planning and sequencing their teaching day. Because instructors had to arrive at and leave the destination on a tight schedule, they weren’t able to be as responsive to students’ needs and energy in the moment, often needing to cut students off when they were excited about exploring or learning in another area.
The program leaders at SMOE had successfully created a staff culture where instructors felt encouraged to bring up ideas for program improvement whenever they arose. This culture was established by the presence of formal, anonymous feedback mechanisms, as well as frequent informal conversations about the program structure. Weekly staff meetings also included time for instructional staff to raise issues and questions about program structure. Any idea an instructor brought up to program leaders was listened to carefully. Because this culture was in place, instructors felt safe immediately going to program leaders to share their thoughts after their discussion about the “destination hike” to the buckeye grove.
The program leaders listened to these instructors’ thoughts, and were responsive immediately in addressing it. At their next all- staff meeting, the leadership team brought up the idea of making a visit to the buckeye grove optional. While program leaders shared some of their thoughts and perspectives during the discussion, they put the decision to their teaching staff, who would be most directly impacted by the potential change in program structure. After some discussion, the staff decided to make visiting the buckeye grove optional. After that, some instructors still took their students to visit the buckeye grove, but many chose instead to take their students farther afield, and spend more time focused on teaching and learning in other locations. The flexibility displayed by SMOE has allowed their program to continually evolve to be responsive to the needs of instructors and students, and to be responsive to the ideas of their teaching staff.