Our alumni are working in ways small and large to make an impact in their communities. This “Alumni Profiles” blog series will feature some of our over 7,000 changemakers in 27 countries around the world who are working to transform conflict.
It’s one thing for a coach or a teacher to encourage students to expand their horizons, to push themselves, to see that taking even small steps outside of their comfort zone can make a lasting impact.
It’s another thing for that teacher to follow his or her own advice.
In the spring of 2017, Tom, who is the head of the physical education department at Cony High School in Augusta, Maine, said he was at a point in his nearly 30-year career where he “wanted to throw himself out there a bit.”
A few months later, he found himself unpacking his suitcase in a cabin in rural Maine for Seeds of Peace’s inaugural “Educating in a Diverse Democracy” course. At 57 years old, Tom was becoming a first-time camper.
Tom had become a Maine Seeds advisor earlier that year, and soon after learned about the nascent course. Launched in the summer of 2017, the program was designed to bring together educators from across the country to learn from one another, to focus on their craft, to support Seeds, and to multiply impact across communities where Seeds of Peace already exists or hopes to grow.
The more he learned about Seeds of Peace, the more Tom said felt it aligned with his core beliefs and much of the work he tries to accomplish as an educator.
“I was getting paid to coach sports, but early in my career I found that I was more intrigued by personal growth than whatever I was teaching. Phys-Ed is just a backdrop to making people better people,” he said. “It’s okay if you’re not a great volleyball player. Are you kind to other people? Do you go out of your way to help them? The bar for that sort of thing is pretty high for me.”
He applied for the program hoping it would allow him to better understand the Seeds’ experiences at Camp, and to hopefully pick up more skills for an experiential learning class he teaches at Cony. That class, much like Camp, uses activities like ropes courses and team-building exercises to develop confidence, leadership skills, and the ability to work well in groups.
Boot camp aside (Tom is a fifth-generation Marine), he said his parents never had money to send him and his siblings to summer camp. And like any first-time camper, there were the prerequisite nerves. When he first arrived at the Seeds of Peace Camp, Tom worried about how he, being the only P.E. teacher in the course, would fit into the group. Would he be able to keep up with all they were learning? Could he pull his own weight in the discussions?
What he found, he said, was “a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
His cohort quickly bonded over pickleball matches in their free time, meals where they could talk with their peers instead of monitor students, workshops that taught them new ways to reach their pupils, and, perhaps most importantly, intense, open-hearted dialogue sessions.
As one of only two men in the group, Tom, who is white, said it was eye opening to hear the many challenges women and people of color in his group had faced in their careers and personal lives. Some of their stories he’ll never forget, like that of a black educator from California who said she lives in constant fear for her son’s safety in dealing with law enforcement.
“I keep my ear on what’s going on in the world, but it’s different when you have someone sitting two feet away from you who is going through these things,” he said.
After the session, Tom said he returned to school re-energized, and with tools for dealing with conflicts, connecting with students, and widening their perspectives that he is using “all day, every day.”
One such tool is an an exercise that his cohort had gone through at Camp and that he began his experiential learning class with this year. He placed on a wall a photograph of what appeared to be a homeless man pushing a cart down a busy city street, and asked the students to talk about what they saw. From body language, to lighting, to the photographer’s intentions, the students’ vastly different responses, Tom said, “blew me away.”
“I told my class that we’re going to have challenges ahead of them, and to remember that we all saw different things in the same picture. We all come from different backgrounds and have different challenges, and if we want to have success as we work together, we have to honor those differences.”
For Tom, the course largely validated what he had always believed about teaching: that the most important thing an educator could do was connect with and care about students. He said he also hopes that his going to Camp shows the Seeds he advises that he’s fully committed to their success. He understands a little better what sort of transformations they’ve gone through, and can better help them figure out what to do with the newly lit fires in their bellies.
“When the Seeds come back from Camp, it reminds me of when I was coming out of boot camp: We all felt like we could jump out of helicopters and were ready for anything,” he said.
Over the past few months he’s helped them channel that enthusiasm into big projects, like organizing a 20th anniversary reunion in November for Maine Seeds and supporters. But he takes more joy in helping them understand the importance of seemingly small actions–like standing up for kids who are bullied, or eating lunch with lonely kids who want company.
“Seeds come back so passionate for helping the world and the human race, and my challenge is to focus them,” Tom said. “I tell them that they might have setbacks, but start with what’s around you–your friends, family, classmates. A small thing can impact a lot of people.”