Experienced on the Trail

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How has my Kenan Fellowship changed me? Let me count the ways. First, let me ask you a crazy question. Have you ever been in the right place at the right time where sunlight warmed part of your body and shade chilled the other?

My wife and I spent a number of years hiking in the mountains. Many of our hikes in the Rockies and Appalachians put us in a unique position where shade from a boulder made part of our bodies cold while sunlight warmed us elsewhere. I mean, standing in one spot, half in shade and half in sunlight with the shade half feeling cold and the sun half feeling super warm! My fellowship experience mirrors that FEELING.

The warm, sunny side opened my eyes to my leadership skills as an educator, leadership skills I never acknowledged prior to my fellowship. Previous blog posts referred to this awakening and the behavioral changes that ensued. Recently I began informally mentoring new teachers in several areas, all at the young teacher’s’ request. In other cases, I saw where someone needed to step in and assume responsibility for correcting a situation. The fellowship gave me the confidence and skills to lead by example and by direct action.  

Another warm fuzzy came from learning about the work of North Carolina State University’s ASSIST Center (https://assist.ncsu.edu/). Amazing work by amazing people. The knowledge I gained at ASSIST helps students reach for their dreams and for dreams they discover in my class. One such student, a future science rock star, wants to improve the current generation of photo-catalytic materials like titanium oxide in an effort to increase the efficiency of low cost, portable water purification systems. She plans to evaluate the feasibility of integrating energy harvesters, like we used at the ASSIST Center, to ramp up the catalytic properties of TiO. WOW! The fellowship went through me and now might influence a next-gen innovator, how awesome!

This final point deserves repeating. The Kenan Fellowship can help teachers integrate a STEM experience with their course content. This process can inspire a new generation of thinkers, inventors, leaders and educators. To me, this is the strength of the program and the area that should garner the most attention.

The cold, shady part of my experience does not sound so positive. Waking up at 4 AM stressing over whether I completed another action item on schedule or if it is late or missing. Stressing to the point of anxiety attacks, all before getting out of bed! This cold, shady aspect of the fellowship experience does NOT give me a warm fuzzy. Quite the opposite. Do not get me wrong; the communication of expectations was clear. The organization of the expectations and how to track them was not very clear.

For my fellow teachers, let me provide a concrete example. Two summers ago, I was paid $X to complete an externship with NIEHS. An amazing two-week experience that changed the way I teach Biology and Environmental Science in fundamental ways. I made contacts with people who still collaborate with my students! The time commitment was two weeks in July, 8-5 each day. During the externship, we had time to create relevant lesson plans, and when the externship ended so did the obligation.

For my Kenan Fellowship, I received half of $X-n, had a four-week summer commitment, a year-long monthly blog prompt, a monthly report on what I did, 16 additional hours of professional development with a required reflection on each PD experience, a two-day session in the fall, two lesson plans submitted for review and editing, demonstration of the lesson plans in a real class for a Kenan rep, and pressure to participate in a poorly organized competition for our students. In the days leading up to winter break we received notification anyone not completing all of the expectations risked not receiving the second half of the $X-n stipend.

I applied for a fellowship at the encouragement of colleagues who themselves enjoyed their fellowship experience. In comparing the experiences, I find there are many more demands on current Kenan Fellows than in the past. I think this will prove deleterious to the program. This year the Kenan Fellowship asked too much of the Fellows. For me personally it made the experience I enjoyed at NCAAT dim into distant memory (https://kenanfellows.org/2017-ttomlinson/2016/06/26/and-the-journey-continues/). I believe in accountability, yet at the same time feel that trust, relevancy and respect for my time are important. The current demand for excessive accountability may hurt the future resilience for the program. As it stands now, I would not recommend the experience to a teacher who works at their craft as hard as I did before the fellowship.