A conversation with Mr. Williams...
Nate Williams always knew he would be an educator due to his youthful spirit and kinship to childlike wonder and curiosity. After gaining his B.A. in natural science and M.A. in educational leadership from Castleton University, Nate joined the Vermont Academy community in 2012. Teaching at VA allows Nate to encourage his students’ curiosity by submerging them into the outdoor classroom experience. It is common to find Nate knee-deep in a beaver pond studying the unique ecosystem alongside his students. His love for the natural world has also allowed Nate to reinvigorate the Outdoor Programs at VA into a three-fold approach: Wilderness, Rock Climbing, and the Long Trail Hike. In all of these facets, Nate enjoys facilitating personal growth and self-reflection for the students involved. He encourages all his students to unplug, play outdoors, and connect to the natural world.
He and his wife, Leah, an educator at Putney Central School, live in the woods of Westminster West with their three boys, Llewyn, Birk, and Oliver. At their home, they play in the garden and work to fell trees for firewood. When not teaching, Nate can be found climbing a cliff face, kicking a soccer ball barefoot, riding a snowboard, or playing hoops with students in the gym. Above all, he loves to play, centering his life and teaching philosophy around it.
How did you know you wanted to be an educator?
I always knew I wanted to be an educator from the time that I was a little kid. I grew up with many cousins, and all of my aunts and uncles would frequently comment, “Wow, you are so good with kids.” So it just felt right -- I perked up playing with kids, especially being an older cousin and having a chance to be a leader. I always connected with the youthfulness and the child-like wonder of young people and still do. As I grew up, a lot of the influences in my life were teachers. My mom taught kindergarten and first grade. In high school, I connected with my earth science teacher, who taught me how to snowboard as well, so my experience with that teacher went beyond the classroom, making it all the more influential. These experiences led me to pursue a career in education, beginning with a B.A. in natural science and an M.A. in educational leadership.
What do you think is the most challenging aspect of being an educator right now?
One challenge right now is how we address the inequity in our society -- the history of the prejudices profoundly entrenched and taught. As educators, some of us have to unlearn what we were taught through systemic conditioning and then turn around and teach these things to the next generation. That’s a big challenge that has been exposed as of late and is essential for humanity’s growth.
Another significant challenge I find as an educator is attempting for students to actively participate in their own curiosity and sense of wonder. As children, we did this naturally, but our connection to this sense of wonder commonly disappears by the time we are young adults. To me, this is unfortunate because experiencing wonder is what drives our thirst for learning. As an educator, there is no moment I am more proud of when I witness a student come into the present moment and marvel in wonder at what they are observing in a class. I believe that wonder is the fertile ground for which the seeds of learning grow. But in this age of heavy screen use and information overload, allowing for wonder to be found is tough. As a society, our addiction to screens is very real, and it’s an endless battle to bring students to the present moment and ask questions about the natural world that is all around them.
What is your Vermont Academy story?
Traveling before and after college allowed me to gain essential perspective on who I was and who I wanted to be in this world, with the most profound experience being the thirty consecutive days spent hiking the Long Trail in Vermont. This transformative journey is something that I want all humans to experience, and I saw the opportunity to infuse this into my teaching at Vermont Academy. I joined the community in January 2012, and within a year, I became the Outdoor Programs Director. In the summer of 2014, we offered a six-day backpacking hike for students to work on their leadership skills, which continued for the following six consecutive summers. Many students and teachers have been involved over the years and have found deep meaning in the journey they embarked on.
Another facet of VA in which I hold dear to my heart is living in the dorms. I was a dorm parent in both Alumni Hall and Davis House, and the connections I have made with those residents have turned into life-long friends. Living on campus was one of the greatest joys that I never saw coming. Some of my favorite moments were late nights chatting with kids over tea and records, covering life’s topics and its meaning. For me, dorm parenting was where the connections were made, and the trust was earned -- and when a student trusts you, real learning can take place.
How do you feel Vermont’s outdoor offerings support the VA curriculum outside of the classroom?
Before my time at VA, my teaching experience stemmed from outdoor field studies programs where students would come for several weeks at a time and focus on field research. Vermont Academy was my first time teaching inside a classroom, but I brought this outdoor classroom concept to my VA curriculum, which was the best part. The outdoor classroom at VA is so rich in biodiversity -- beaver habitats, river systems, bird migration, maple sugar stands, for example. Many of our classes utilize these various habitats for project-based learning. Teachers across all disciplines take advantage of our grand campus; it is not just the science department. For example, students studying Huck Finn in English class make rafts to send down the Saxtons River.
How is Outdoor Programming implemented at VA?
Following my first year of teaching at VA, I hopped on the opportunity to play a part in our Outdoor Programs.
In the fall, we offer a sport called Wilderness Skills, whose curriculum is based on three pillars: play, reflection, and gratitude. We hike a local mountain once a week, spend Friday nights camping out, canoe and kayak, and we Sit Spot.
Sit Spot is weekly time spent alone -- without a screen -- submerged in our VA forest. These solitary moments are a foundation of this sport, allowing students to break from their busy life and time for exploration of themselves and their surroundings. The key to this is the group sharing that occurs after the Sit Spot. We gather around the fire circle and share what we experienced at our spots. At the beginning of the season, students fight it and claim it’s so dull, but soon their relationship changes with their Sit Spot. After a while, students look forward to the weekly time alone, claiming that it lowers their stress and lets them just be. It’s a massive challenge for this generation to be away from screens and ask themselves, who am I? Our students don’t experience boredom anymore, and that’s why these exercises are so important.
Our season culminates with overnight solo camping where students build a shelter made of only natural material and spend the night alone in them. Students most certainly find empowerment.
We also offer the sport of rock climbing in the spring, where we utilize our on-campus indoor climbing wall and our outdoor ropes course. Weekly trips to off-campus crags occur throughout New England, like Marlow Profile in New Hampshire, Farley Ledges in Western Massachusetts, and Rumney in Northern New Hampshire. On some of these trips, we camp out overnight, adding to the overall experience. Our philosophy on climbing is based in safety, trust, and a growth mindset. We are a team, but the climbing experience is a personal journey with the coaches as the guide.
Our most in-depth outdoor experience occurs in the summer on the Long Trail Hike. Participating students go on a six-day backpacking trip on the Long Trail in Vermont, carrying everything they need to thrive in the woods for six days. This experience is designed for all hiker levels and is meant to allow students to find their power and place in our community. This is facilitated best by our “Leader of the Day” approach, where each hiker is responsible for leading the group for 24 hours. The responsibilities include orienteering, map use, food management, breaks, keeping track of others’ wellness, and overall group dynamic management. Each day ends with a fireside reflection and feedback for the corresponding leader, allowing them time to reflect on their experience. Participants walk away from the 6-day hike with a better sense of who they are in the world, personal empowerment, and, in many cases, a rather funny trail name.
What does it mean to be a successful student at VA?
VA honors and exemplifies students that try new things and then go with it. For example, a student may come to VA identifying as an athlete but then take an acting class and uncover a passion for the performing arts. They then take part in a school production and begin to follow this passion. Socially, it is acceptable at VA to try something new. It is not as risky as other places. At graduation, a successful student here feels like they have grown or had the chance to grow into someone they thought they never could be. Our school motto is “Be true to your best self.” We do this very well here at Vermont Academy.
This interview is one in a series spotlighting Vermont Academy educators; their unique and innovative classroom approaches; what makes their classrooms successful and what challenges them; and what it means to live and learn at Vermont Academy.