Kottie Christie-Blick Contemplates a Career in Teaching

Kottie Christie-Blick and students

Kottie Christie-Blick received a BA from UC Santa Barbara in 1978 and then a teaching credential from what wasn't yet named the Gevirtz School in 1980--years before we offered a M.Ed. for teacher credential candidates. Christie-Blick got in touch upon receiving this year's publication of Launch, so we decided to ask her some questions about teaching given her experience in the field.

GGSE: You have been teaching for how many years?

Christie-Blick: I’ve taught in public school for over twenty years, and several years in private school before that, so let’s just say “over twenty-five years,” and leave it at that, shall we? I’ve taught most all the grades, one through six. When I first began my teaching career, I assumed I’d work in the classroom for ten years or so, and then move on. I figured I’d get bored with it by then. Once in the profession, I realized that the curriculum, and “best practices” in teaching methods, changed every five years or so. While that can be frustrating at times, it also helps a teacher stay fresh. I also discovered that I could change grades to keep life interesting, adapting teaching strategies, learning new ones, and teaching a new curriculum.

My husband and I have taken sabbatical leave every seven years, to live and work overseas. (He’s also a UCSB alumnus. I met him at a party in Isla Vista, but that’s a different story for another time.) I’ve been fortunate to be able to live for an extended time in Australia, England, New Zealand, and South Africa. While there, I observed in the local schools as a visiting academic, made connections with the local teachers, gave presentations, and created international collaborations between the local school children and my own students upon my return to the U.S. In addition, I’ve joined programs for educators that allowed me to visit schools and meet with teachers in Hong Kong, Japan, and Tonga. Each of these experiences provided me with the opportunity to reflect on what we should teach our next generation, and how we can best accomplish this most-important task.

After my first ten years of teaching, I began publishing in educational magazines and later on websites, speaking at conferences, and doing consulting work. It’s rewarding giving back to the profession, and it’s helped keep me on my toes in the classroom.

GGSE: And how long have you had a focus on environmental education and climate science? What drew you to those topics?

Christie-Blick: Typical of elementary teachers, my interests are broad, and I’ve enjoyed teaching reading, writing, math, social studies, and science. However, I became engrossed in environmental studies when I began teaching it as part of the required curriculum here in New York State about twenty years ago. Helping children understand the connections in the natural world is exciting because it fascinates the children and gives them many “Aha!” moments. I can’t help but have the feeling that I’m teaching something really important when kids can begin to understand the many cause-and-effect relationships in the natural world, and the often unforeseen consequences when one side of the relationship is changed by human intervention.

I was honored to be admitted into the Fulbright program for teachers during the 2011-12 school year to pursue my interest in teaching environmental studies. The beauty of this program is that it allows teachers to follow their passion and spend an extended time increasing their own knowledge. Since I was living in South Africa that year, I had the opportunity to visit conservation areas and interview those who protect this biodiversity hotspot. I went cage diving off the tip of Africa with great white sharks and talked with those who work to educate the public about the importance of this species in the local marine food web. I was given a private tour of SANCCOB, and saw their work to increase the population of South African penguins, bringing them back from near extinction. I was given a tour of a wind farm and shown the inside of a working turbine. I visited many national parks (in South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe), and saw first-hand the complex societies of many common African animals so exotic to us Americans. I observed in schools, watching the typical school day unfold, talking with students and their teachers. I connected a South African school and my school in New York, so the children could discuss what they were learning in environmental studies. I audited a course at the University of Cape Town, and learned about climate change from the African perspective. I began to realize that human induced climate change, with its global repercussions, is the main driver that affects all species on Earth. But it’s also an effect – one that is manipulated by people. It needs to be better understood by the public. The quality of life of today’s children depends on it. That’s where teachers come in. We’re in a position to affect societal change by educating today’s children about the basic causes and effects of climate change, and the actions they can take now to slow it down.

GGSE: What does it mean to be part of the NOAA Planet Stewards Education Project?

Christie-Blick: I’ve been part of NOAA Planet Stewards for five years now. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is working to get more environmental education into classrooms across the U.S., and to provide teachers with the background information and resources to do so. The program provides a wonderful opportunity for free, high quality professional development for teachers. Monthly webinars are presented by scientists, environmentalists, and educators. Grants are also available for teachers looking for resources to implement environmental projects in their classroom. The professional development and grants I’ve received have helped further my environmental work in the classroom. I’m pleased to have the opportunity now to mentor new teachers coming into the program, to speak about the Planet Stewards program at NSTA conferences, to present classroom activities at conferences organized by Planet Stewards, and to have been one of the representatives at a climate education event organized by the White House during the Obama administration.

Being a Planet Stewards Educator has also opened doors to other interesting opportunities. While chimp trekking in Tanzania, I was granted an interview with Dr. Collins, the senior scientist at the Jane Goodall Institute. There I sat, in Dr. Goodall’s house in the middle of the jungle, having a cup of tea and discussing biodiversity of the local area, habitat preservation efforts, and climate change. I was in my element!

Planet Stewards has also benefitted my students in many ways. A few years ago, my students created a website, Kids Against Climate Change, so kids could discuss climate change issues and ways they could help. Students find it empowering. (Teachers find it a good motivator to get their students interested in the science.) Each year, my current students add to the discussion, and we’re hoping that this year it will go international. As a result of their climate work, my students and I were invited to a private meeting with then Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the United Nations in New York City. They listened to him tell of his commitment to keep countries moving forward on reducing climate change, and he listened to my students tell him that even though they’re just kids they “get it,” and that they too can help reduce air pollution to slow down climate change. When he ended the meeting by telling them that they had inspired him to keep working on this issue, I couldn’t have been more proud of my fifth graders, and couldn’t imagine having a more rewarding profession.

GGSE: What memories of the Teacher Education Program do you have? How did getting your credential at UCSB help prepare you for your career?

Christie-Blick: As a student in the Graduate School of Education, I was impatient. I wanted only the practical courses and the student teaching experiences. I used to dream of the day I would have my own classroom and of the students I would inspire. I didn’t understand until years later how very valuable the theory courses were to my continued growth in the teaching profession. They helped me get the big picture, and kept me grounded. I’m grateful for all of the classes, and the practicum, that prepared me so well as a new teacher, but also for the long run. I remember Carolyn Cogan and her enthusiastic teaching. She made us all feel like teaching was the most important job in the world. I remember the sense of camaraderie amongst the students in the credentialing program. It was so very helpful to be able to talk with others who were going through the same experiences – classes, homework, student teaching, lesson plans, tests and term papers. It was an intense time with many short-term and long-term pay-offs.

Several years later, living and teaching in New York State, I went back to school for my master’s degree. With my bachelor’s and credential from UCSB, I had no trouble getting into Teachers College, Columbia University. I had been well-prepared for a rigorous program. Now, as an educational consultant, specializing in the teaching of climate change in the classroom, K-12, I help teachers understand the theory behind the practice. It keeps us all grounded, and helps us maintain that sense of purpose that makes teaching so fulfilling.

GGSE: As someone with a lengthy and distinguished career teaching, what advice do you have for those considering teaching today?

Christie-Blick: This is an exciting time to be in the teaching profession. We’re learning so much about how the brain works and how people learn, that it’s really revolutionizing education. In addition, the technology that’s coming into the classroom is allowing us to teach/coach/mentor in ways we couldn’t have imagined when I was hired for my first teaching position in the ‘80s.

I have two pieces of advice, if I may be so bold: 1) Pay attention to the theory classes that give you a deeper understanding of the educational system in America. Educational theory will give you the background you need to help you keep your perspective. And it will help you remember to teach to enduring understandings, and not lose sight of what’s really important. 2) Be flexible. Be prepared for changes in curricula and methodologies, structures and assessments. It is the nature of education. It must grow and change along with society’s increasing knowledge, values, and lifestyles. The education profession does not make for an easy career, but it’s interesting and rewarding, with many opportunities for self-growth, and our society needs committed teachers who are willing to give it their all.