Dr. John Higgins, Biology Teacher
We work in a community of opportunity, challenges, and unconditional support up here on the Hilltop. From the FGR process to the seemingly unlimited variety of potential professional development options, at SLS one can only grow as an educator, a leader, and a person. Three years ago I began to hear quiet mutterings about a study abroad opportunity for students on an island. Other whispered conversations about this unique marine experience began to pique my interest and yet I still simply passed by the information table that sporadically popped-up each year for a single lunch period.
Eventually, I learned that this seemingly clandestine location was known as The Island School on Eleuthera Island, Bahamas. So, going into my third year at SLS, with a solid few professional development experiences under my belt, I found myself being drawn back to that enigmatic natural juxtaposition where a cool, blue, mysterious ocean intentionally shapes a smooth, fluid, and sandpapery shore. This time, when I stopped at the information table, I walked away with an application for the Teacher Workshop at The Island School for the summer of 2016. Head of the Upper School, Liz Perry, immediately and enthusiastically accepted my proposal to attend.
On August 7th, 2016 with a crisp new passport in hand, I headed to The Island School. My expectations and hopes were simple: come back with some great new ideas to incorporate into my Marine Science class. My experience, however, was drastically different!
The vision of The Island School is simple yet powerful:
Leadership effecting change
The Vision of the Island School is simple yet powerful: Leadership effecting change. In my head I couldn’t help but view this as a natural extension of our own school motto, “Enter to Learn, Go Forth to Serve”, where our students step forward from the Hilltop fully equipped as leaders ready to effect change. Three keystones are built into The Island School Mission so that all participants will embody the vision:
(1) Developing an intimate sense of place in students through immersion experiences in the natural and cultural environment
(2) Modeling sustainability of individual lifestyles, larger communities, and the systems that support them
(3) Creating an intentional community whose members are cognizant of their abilities, limitations, and effect on others.
Let me be clear, this was not a teacher’s conference, this turned out to be the most important and pivotal professional development I have ever done in my decade-long career as a teacher.
This all sounded great, but again, I was just looking for some fresh ideas for my Marine Science class and what better way to get those creative tides turning than to spend a week on Eleuthera Island at a Teacher’s Conference. Let me be clear, this was not a teacher’s conference, this turned out to be the most important and pivotal professional development I have ever done in my decade-long career as a teacher.
Each day began with Circle around the flagpole where our caciques would lay out the plan for the day, rejuvenate any tired eyes, and support our group of 23 teachers from around the nation and globe. A cacique, by definition, was a leader of an indigenous group, derived from the Taíno for the pre-Columbian chiefs or leaders of tribes in the Bahamas, Greater Antilles and the northern Lesser Antilles. At The Island School, caciques were the chosen leaders based on their character and commitment to the ethos of the community. Unbeknownst to all us teachers, each participant would, at one point, become a cacique for the day!
Me (left) preparing for morning workout.
Mornings included a group workout and whether it was a 2 mile run, a run/swim, floating the cut, water polo, snorkel exploration, or a bike/run, all of us teachers (me the only upper school science teacher) willingly braved the 90 degree heat and 90% humidity. This was particularly interesting for me on the first day because I had no change of clothes since my luggage had not yet landed on Eleuthera!
While potentially beneficial physically, it wasn’t the workouts that transformed me. Rather, it was each second in which I was wholly engaged, captivated, lulled, molded, and built by an immersive and experiential life-improving event. We had Harkness discussions, cultural immersions, and were stretched well beyond our comfort zones. Character education, leadership skills, and social emotional learning were expertly interwoven like a rope that helped each of us pull ourselves up and into a new growth mindset as educators. Essentially it was as if this place, this Island School, had taken everything that I had been hearing about on the Hilltop over these past three years and morphed it into an experience that allowed me apply what I had learned here at SLS and develop new skills and ideas that I could bring back and contribute to our ethos that is the Hilltop.
Bonding with Island colleagues
My last night at the Island School culminated with a “Talent Show” into which all teachers were entered. Below is what I shared as my “talent”:
Many roads have led to this place.
Some were winding; a meandering wanderlust.
Some were uphill, wise, and marked by holes and cracks of experience.
Some were still under construction
with the intended path very much on the horizon.
Though diverse and unique, these roads had a shared destination…THIS PLACE.
Here we are. Here. WE ARE THIS PLACE.
We have created an ethos where we are each other’s querencia; We are each other’s home, each other’s support.
We are the ooids, formed by the same foundational components; shaped, molded, forged and joined together in time.
We are the lives forever changed, the shared permanent nostalgia with infinite endurance.
We are the spiritual fusion and emotional empathy that weave together these shared immersive experiences.
We are the community rhizome – a collective horizontal leadership acting as many keystones, holding each other up and shouldering each other on all sides.
We are Eleuthera. We are freedom bound by nothing.
Our bag of possibilities forever open, never truly filled but shared together wherever our roads may lead us, forward from this place.
Many roads lead from this place, all yet to built, destinations unknown. No matter what lies ahead we need only reflect back over our shoulder where we can meet on the road to this place.
While you may not understand what an ooid is or fully grasp what querencia or community rhizome means, upon reflection, it has occurred to me that “THIS PLACE” that I refer to above, for me anyway, also refers to St. Luke’s.
I am forever changed and improved from my time at The Island School and I will return, not just once, but many times I hope. I have been enlightened to the fact that my career as a science teacher will always be fulfilling but that my career as a student and teacher of character education has only just begun.
Hear more about John’s leadership experience: Meditation by John Higgins