Educators On The Edge

April 01, 2001 2 min read
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If there’s a teaching equivalent to bungee jumping off a cliff, the educators in this special section have done it. They’ve walked away from locker-lined schools, classrooms of their own, and departmental meetings. They’ve left behind 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. schedules, playground duty, teachers’ editions of textbooks—in some cases, textbooks themselves. Their common tether: a belief that learning can occur any time, any place—and that it should. Then they’ve leapt into the unknown.


  • Polar Attraction: Science teacher Kevin Lavigne experiences professional development in Antarctica.
  • The Idealist: In a dusty Dominican village, Peace Corps volunteer David Smith is on a mission to undo the digital divide.
  • The Healer: Responsible for educating kids who are battling cancer, Dennis Medford actually goes one step further—he offers comfort.
  • The Advocate: While many would like to lock her students up and throw away the keys, Julie Campoverde is working hard to provide second chances.
  • The Roadie: One-night stays, noisy crews, hysterical crowds—that’s life for the teacher of the kids in the travelling Barney show.

The “extreme” teachers featured in these stories (see box at right) have willingly placed themselves in situations that many would consider dangerous or, at the very least, uncomfortable. First up is a high school teacher who, this past winter, spent five weeks in Antarctica, where a National Science Foundation program enabled him to conduct research in the most unforgiving of landscapes. He then returned to his classroom and shared with his students what he’d learned.

His story is followed by profiles of four teachers whose “classrooms” are located in far-from-conventional places—in a village in the Dominican Republic, in the cancer ward of a hospital, on the road with performing kids, and behind bars with juvenile offenders. Yet each teacher—to a person—confesses that he or she wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

Why? Allow us to indulge in a sports analogy. For all their motion, extreme athletes—surfers, snow-boarders, and freestyle skiers among them—are chasing that one moment when time seems to stop—when they’re hanging 10, frozen above a half-pipe, or airborne over a mogul. Likewise, extreme teachers angle for the clarity of purpose that emerges when they parachute into complicated, unpredictable environments.

Of course, anyone who enters into teaching is signing up for adventure. We know that teachers experience enough professional thrills and spills in school settings to satisfy the most intense cravings for excitement. During a recent conversation, Bill Ayers, a distinguished professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told us: “Teaching is always and everywhere potentially an extreme calling. Because there are internal and ethical dilemmas that are hard to pin down in a finite way. Because it’s always dynamic. Because the human experience is more various, complex, and idiosyncratic than uniform teaching could allow for.

“The fundamental message of a teacher is, ‘You can change your life.’ How awesome is that? And teachers who are thoughtful teach that you can not only change your life but you can change the world.”

Still, the people in this issue just can’t resist pushing the envelope in ways not possible in traditional schools. We invite you to read their stories and consider the similarities between teaching on the edge and teaching where you work.

—The Editors


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