John Zaber has a long history with Sterling and in this episode he reflects on his rich career as an explorer and educator. As a Sterling alum, faculty member, Dean of Student Life, and Director of Learning Support (among other important roles), John has lived and shaped so many aspects of the Sterling experience and inspired generations of students. In this conversation, he offers reflections from various lookout points on his personal and professional journey — a journey often traversed on two wheels and pedal-powered. He also explores learning theories and explains why communities eclipse classrooms as spaces where education happens. John reminds listeners of the power of reflection, the importance of allowing students to have agency, and the need to serve diverse learners and cultivate a polyculture of thinkers.
[04:50]-Early inspirations, Peter Jenkins’ A Walk Across America-biked across country to Sterling as a student
[08:35]-Educational Systems and Sterling’s unique version; theories applied to personal life
[17:41]-Re-defining old educational models; developing self-reflective tools; students and agency
[22:55]-Learning communities rather than classrooms; teaching is story-telling
[27:16]-Role of failure in education; community and belonging
[31:21]-Inspired by Sterling students; students walking examples of resiliency
John Zaber TranscriptOPENING CREDITS: [:
Welcome to Emergency to Emergence a podcast produced by Sterling college. I'm Nakasi Fortune and I'm Dakota La Croix. This podcast intends to engage in spirited, heart-centered dialogue about intersecting, eco-social emergencies, featuring the voices and perspectives of people purposefully, engaging in ecological thinking and action, while fostering active, community engaged, responses that offer hope.NAKASI FORTUNE: [:
Today, we're delighted to be in conversation with John Zaber. John has been a faculty member in outdoor education at Sterling and playfully refers to himself as the indoor component to the outdoor ed major. He's engaged with a number of outdoor organizations, such as the Green Mountain Club. As an active community member, John has worn many hats over his 27 years at Sterling, including Dean of students, Director of learning support and patron of the Green Bikes program, just to name a few. John, thank you so much for taking time out of your day to have this conversation with us. You grew up in, in NYC, can you tell us you know, little bit about your, your upbringing and how that shaped you to be the educator that you are right now.JOHN ZABER: [:graduated from high school in:DAKOTA LACROIX: [:
John, thanks again so much for being here with us and, growing up in New York city, John, it sounds like there was a really profound shift in you in experiencing nature. Can you tell us a little bit more about that? And was there any moment in particular that kind of shifted your relationship to nature?JOHN ZABER: [:
That's interesting. I do remember one moment, when we would drive to and from Pennsylvania, we would cross over the Verrazano-Narrows bridge, which connects Staten island to Brooklyn. And probably around my sophomore year of high school, driving back from Pennsylvania, I just looked out at the city and thought I'm done.
I'm done here. I've had enough. And I, I think it's important to note that my visits to Pennsylvania occurred at a time, when it was the waning days of the anthracite coal industry. So I, my grandfather was a, um, I forget the technical word, but he basically went around and collected coal samples and tested them for their purity and whatever energy levels or whatever he was testing them for.
So I got to witness, um, active coal mines and the degradation to the environment as a result. And whether or not that had a direct influence, I'm not sure, but it was also a time of, um, witnessing economic decline, where vibrant downtowns became ghost towns and the malls became the social hub of, of life.NAKASI FORTUNE: [:
So, can you tell us how was biking? Or what has biking taught you about, you know, the environment, education, and the connection between the two.JOHN ZABER: [:In, uh, the fall of:
So I decided to bicycle across country, and wove my way down the west coast into Nevada and up to the north rim of the grand canyon, and just meandered for three months on my bicycle. And one of those substantial moments on that trip was being at the north rim of the Grand Canyon and meeting a bunch of college students who were studying Geology by trade, by traveling down into the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
Prior to that point, I had never considered myself much of a learner or much of a student, but all of a sudden, I saw a connection with education that I hadn't witnessed before in my life. My elementary and high school education was rote learning, not a lot of creativity, no connection to the greater world outside of the classroom.
So I was a fairly disengaged student. And what that, that moment did for me was create a sense of wonder about the world around me, that I hadn't really experienced before or thought aboutNAKASI FORTUNE: [:
How has education changed or shifted since you began your journey as an educator? Some I'd say 27 or more years ago.JOHN ZABER: [:ducation where the summers of:DAKOTA LACROIX: [:
Can you tell us a little bit more about what really struck you? And how that resonated with you, the comment that your father made to you.JOHN ZABER: [:
Well, one thing to consider is the, the history of public education in this country, that it was developed around the rise of the industrial system and needing workers for the factory. And, um, and you know, I was never going to be a worker in a factory, so that maybe that's why education never rang for me,NAKASI FORTUNE: [:
Perhaps this is too broad a question, but what do you think the education of today is preparing us for?JOHN ZABER: [:
The education of who?NAKASI FORTUNE: [:
In, within public school systems within Sterling, specifically within Sterling I'd say.JOHN ZABER: [:
Well, there are two different systems. I'm actually, philosophically, agree with the principles of public education of bringing the intent of being a democratic model and bringing different folks from different backgrounds together to learn together, though, that isn't how it plays out. And, they're no longer in the factory production mode and many public schools are making attempts. Like the common comment is, or the phrase is that the jobs that exist now in X amount of years, aren't going to be there when they graduate, so what are we really preparing students for? And it's, you know, my mind to be flexible.
Independent thinkers with a commitment to culture and society. And, uh, in that Sterling, I see that, um, you know, right now I'm teaching an education and learning theory class too, with 15 students, and, uh, you know, we've explored concepts of trauma, various thought patterns that lead ones to thinking about education.
I think it begins with, I think one of the things that Sterling has going for it is that it, it incorporates reflection and allows time for students to take these theoretical theoretical models and apply them to their own personal.DAKOTA LACROIX: [:
You just mentioned the word reflection, and I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about the idea of reflecting and working at the same time or participating and being active?JOHN ZABER: [:
Yeah, well, you know, in my roots as a master's degree, my thesis was experiential education and implications for public school reform. I don't know if I've impacted public education, but, um, experiential education has certainly had an impact on me. And, um, and that without that period of reflection, there's little opportunity for most learners to not develop a connection or application for what they're learning.
So I think that period of reflection is, ah, a time that can be spent in journal writing and drawing. In going for walks and talking about what you learned in creating space for reflection. At Sterling, at like most colleges were at the, we benefit from not having a standardized testing, forced on us, like in public school.
Um, so we have the ability to set our agenda and to, uh, to respond to student needs more so than a system that has to stick to a certain way of teaching because of the test and, and, you know, one of the things that's kept me going at Sterling for so many years is the ability to connect with alumni who are doing significant things in their communities, who are raising healthy kids, who are contributing to their community, who operate with a sense of appreciation for diversity.
And I think. Um, that the ecological model, the ecological thinking that I apply in my classrooms is to understand diversity on a variety of different perspectives, different levels, and how to honor diversities because the healthy ecological system is one of diversity and the danger of public schools is that they're are monocultures.NAKASI FORTUNE: [:
Do you think the climate crisis is an education crisis as well?JOHN ZABER: [:
I think the climate crisis is in everybody crisis. I'm not sure how to address your question Nakasi.NAKASI FORTUNE: [:
I suppose another way to rephrase this, rephrase it is that, um, perhaps we are not as a society being educated adequately as to the impacts of climate change and our own doings. And so we, because of this lack of education are contributing to. Um, and I think I may have just answered my question.JOHN ZABER: [:
Well, I think we live in a very complex world and we're, we're being bombarded with, you know, why, you know, so I'm coming off reading 12 different papers, focused on trauma that we just covered in my education and learning theory class.
And how, as an educator, do you, do you address the climate? While I think I, you know, it's an interesting question. I think that if we spent more time in education, focused on the individual and their connections and contributions to society, it might be easier to work through issues of climate change and social injustice.
Um, yeah, that's a really complex question, but I think it, you know, there’s…ah, man. We're just not unified as a country or a globe on the causes of climate science or climate change and the implications, and I do my brief encounters with public school teachers, they are addressing topics of climate change. Um, but I don't know how thoroughly they do.
I think the, the, the, there really needs to be a focus on developing healthy young people in this countryNAKASI FORTUNE: [:
Yeah.JOHN ZABER: [:
and worldwide. And I think from there, we would see improvements. The speaker in last week's class talked about, if you have a, if you see a bear in the woods, you know, you freeze up or your run or, or your fight and, and then you use that metaphor to discuss the bear that follows you home, and when you get into your home, are you living with that bear that causes you to fight or flight? And the the bear doesn't have to be a physical being, but it can be the news of the day or turmoil that when experienced at school, I think it's hard for, for folks to focus on things like climate change when they're struggling to maintain a safe and healthy environment, living environment.DAKOTA LACROIX: [:
What opportunities are there for educators like yourself to bring diversity and cultivate diversity within this paradigm of this monoculture of thinking. And so I'm, I'm really interested in that because in one respect, I'm hearing diversity and yet we bring such diverse stories to the space.And how to respectfully engage them and foster a new level of, of experience and education is what I'm curious about. If you could talk about that at all.JOHN ZABER: [:
Yeah, that's interesting, my immediate thought is the brain is not a monoculture. The brain itself is a complex network of social systems and, um, that we, we should help students to understand the basic principles of the brain and what gets in the way of learning, which could also get in the way of being accepting towards diversity. You know, I, I, I struggle with the personally, I struggle with creating a diverse curriculum because I've got over 30 years of educational experience.
That was developed by, um, some great thinkers, but they are also were isolated, their focus on, um, on, on white kids and possibly from more affluent backgrounds than the norm. So I try to own take those tenants and try to bring in a different perspective, a different cultural perspective. And that's a challenge.
And it requires time and an investment of resources, particularly I find in the world of education because it is so dominated. The theories are so dominated by, by white males that I don't want to discredit, but I try to, I guess it comes around and thinking outside the box as an educator, if I'm not willing to push my boundaries of the box, how can I expect my students to do that.
So I think a lot of it is rooted in the, in the educator, in, um, developing self-reflective tools, developing methods of self-assessment and feedback, and, um, allowing the students to have some direction and, and authority in the classroom. Maybe that's the word agency, because I don't know it all, but I find my students often know more than I do.
Um, and that's one of the, the more encouraging, um, experiences about teaching in college and just watching the generational shift over the years to greater social awareness and greater appreciation in recognition of diversity, at least my experiences at Sterling is that the population of students coming to Sterling, um, in general have a greater sense of awareness of diversity and the importance of diversity and culture.DAKOTA LACROIX: [:
John, I'm hearing a through-line or a thread here of many people who have had experiences that shifted their consciousness, shifted their awareness. Anything you could share in regards to how we might bridge that gap and, or find a more universal language while respecting the diversity of, of spaces and places, both emotionally and physically, that we come from?JOHN ZABER: [:
Wow! If I could answer that. Yikes! Well, here's an example. So in the education and learning theory class, there's always a couple of students who get really angry or express anger, and their angered because they're looking back on their educational experience and thinking and become aware of the disservice that was, um, that they experience.DAKOTA LACROIX: [:
Yeah.JOHN ZABER: [:
Being separated from fellow classmates because their learning style didn't fit the mode. Um,DAKOTA LACROIX: [:
I was right there, I was one of them.JOHN ZABER: [:
Yeah. And many of us are, um, are and were. So, being able to work with people so that they can reflect on their life experiences and, and, and move beyond the trauma, move beyond the disservice, into being productive, more productive members of society. And, uh, and I've witnessed that change here at Sterling of students that arrive disillusioned with education and, uh, and then deciding that they want to become educators because not only to make amends with their past, but to create healthy learning environments and learning communities in, in whatever role they play, they may be professional educators, or they may find themselves applying the concepts that we talk about into their work in conservation or wildlife biology or, or agriculture, but that ability to sit back and reflect on one's life experiences. and to be able to develop the skills to unload the baggage and move forward, I think is something that, um, Sterling is as good at.NAKASI FORTUNE: [:
John. Can you share one or two concrete steps that educators can take to address that disconnect in that disservice that students usually feel within the classroom as they reflect, well, within their lives as they're reflecting on their own educational experience.JOHN ZABER: [:
Yeah. Let me, you know, I just want to be clear. I'm not beating up on public school educators. I think that they're, they're doing a fine job...NAKASI FORTUNE: [:
that is very true.JOHN ZABER: [:
Given what's...DAKOTA LACROIX: [:
given what they, yeah.JOHN ZABER: [:
Presented to them. And, um, I have great respect for my public school colleagues. So, um, I think it's more the system that I'm commenting on rather than the individuals. I think, you know, if we're going to ask students to push their boundaries, then I think teachers should be willing to push their boundaries and explore topics that they're not comfortable with and explore why they're not comfortable with them and how to access the resources that can help them feel less discomforted and, um, forward thinking,NAKASI FORTUNE: [:
How does, how does education play a role, um, or, or what's the connection between community and education?JOHN ZABER: [:
I like to use the term, the phrase, learning communities as opposed to classrooms. And there's some research out there to support those that are basic biological needs, and our physiological emotional need, need to be addressed before one can fully engage in learning.
So I think creating that sense of community and relationship is paramount to good teaching.DAKOTA LACROIX: [:
It's almost like educators, they're facilitators of stories and their own real time journaling, experiential mapping, so to speak.JOHN ZABER: [:
Well, I once heard someone say that education teaching is the act of storytelling and, um, and storytelling is one of those traditional aspects of human culture that goes back longer than I can even think about. So what stories that you want to tell and how do you want your students to be involved in that story, you know,DAKOTA LACROIX: [:
It does feel more alive that way.JOHN ZABER: [:
Yeah, it does feel more alive, and, um, and I think that's, you know, I think that's what education is, is to, um, keep things alive and tangible, and recognizing that not everyone learns at the same pace. And if we're talking ecological principles, we should be talking about neuro-diversity. And the fact that we all don't learn the same and creating a monoculture of thinkers is not the most productive path forward.
I have, you know, I, I mean, I've got gobs of stories, but one of my favorites is, um, there were a group of educators at Sterling, public school educators, they weren't affiliated with Sterling. It was an independent group that was renting the facilities and I, they, they wanted to do a map and compass night orienteering exercise.
So before that, they had talked about learning styles and then, um, we taught map and compass and then. Kind of turn them loose. Well, not kind of. We turned them loose at night in their groups from each school. And one group never showed up at the intended location and it went on and on and they finally showed up.
And what they did was, you know, so this is nighttime, they took their bearing, their direction of travel and put their Compass's away and just started running. So in reflection with them where I thought this is it because one of them was a principal and I thought I'd lost a principal. Um, and in reflection with them, they realized that they all had, um, this particular get up and go type learning style.
And that in order for them to be successful in creating school change, they would have to intentionally recruit people with diverse approaches to learning to management. And what could have been a professional tragedy for me, ended up being a really positive learning experience.DAKOTA LACROIX: [:
In that story. I hear the idea of it being okay to make mistakes failing forward, can you talk a little bit more about that in this education system and personally for you what you learn from these aha moments, the scars, these experiences and how you apply them.JOHN ZABER: [:
Yeah. I love talking about failure, um, because I have plenty of examples that I can impart.DAKOTA LACROIX: [:
Me too.JOHN ZABER: [:
And how we have to make room for failure. And failure has such a negative connotation in the world of education and no educator. I think any educator worth there worth does not want to see a student fail, even though it's part, um, it happens and some of those are natural consequences, but that ability to create an environment where you're making mistakes and you know, this is where it all comes back.
We're looping back around to community and belonging. And I, my belief is that the greater sense of belonging in community that exists in a learning environment, the more students and teachers will be apt to take risks and then reflect on their successes and not so successful endeavors. And what did they learn from it?
So it also comes back to that process of reflection.NAKASI FORTUNE: [:
This is such a, a conversation that's so close to my heart. You know, because of my own traditional education and, and my reason for, for coming to Sterling and, and it giving me the opportunity to be an active participant in my learning and in my education. And that was something that I was not exposed to. Um, growing up in Ghana. I wonder how do you get to that point as an educator of recognizing and encouraging students to be comfortable with the levels that they're at, but also want to inspire them to work harder.JOHN ZABER: [:
So I, I do think it comes around to relationship.
Well, here's an interesting thing to ponder. At one time I was working in two public schools. I was, I split my time between the two. And I was involved in a program that focused on non-college bound youth. Which is totally bizarre word for me. But anyhow, and one school had a teacher's lounge where the teachers would go and eat lunch and retreat.
And I just found it a really considerably unpleasant environment. And then the other public school I was working in. There was no teacher lounge and the teachers ate with the students. They, they had their own table, but they were still integrated into that lunch structure. And the relationship between student and teacher with the population of students that I was working at was considerably different in each institution.
And the one where. There was no faculty lounge in faculty ate in the same room with students, there was a greater rapport and respect among students and faculty, than in the other institution where faculty were, were isolated and removed from the students. So I think that sense of community.DAKOTA LACROIX: [:
Who's inspiring you right now as an educator, both locally and globally?JOHN ZABER: [:
Yeah, yeah, well, who's inspiring me right now are my students. They are, they are walking examples of resiliency and we just, um, we just finished. Well, we're never really finished, but we just addressed trauma in the developing brain, and that, that concept of trauma got students reflecting on the trauma in their life and their decision their their, The behaviors they've chosen so that they can move forward beyond the trauma, and, and hearing and reading those stories just inspired me. Um, you know, I can list off authors and books, like, you know I think about Paulo Freire who wrote "pedagogy of the oppressed" and what would he say during this time and, you know, his, I think what he would say is that you've got to keep on learning otherwise we can't change the system that is creating the oppression that we live with, but it's really the students who are inspiring me,NAKASI FORTUNE: [:
John, I,I don't have another follow-up question, but I did want to see, thank you for engaging in such a rich conversation about a topic that is as complex as it is simple. I really appreciate you joining us and sharing with us your, your own experience and you know, at, at points, identifying your own privilege. And, you know, it, it really warms my heart to hear you talk about education with so much passion and I've been a student of yours, so I've seen it demonstrated in class as well. Um, and so, yeah, I definitely thank you from the bottom of my heart.JOHN ZABER: [:
Thank you Nakasi, you coming from you that means a lot. And I have great respect for you.DAKOTA LACROIX: [:
Well, again, thank you so much for joining us today, John. It was a real pleasure.JOHN ZABER: [:
Yeah, you are welcome.NAKASI FORTUNE: [:
Definitely and happy, retirement.JOHN ZABER: [:
Yeah, I have a suspicion that I'll be back, but not in a full-time capacity.NAKASI FORTUNE: [:
Ah!CLOSING CREDITS: [:
If you enjoyed this conversation, do come back for the commendation. We'll spend a few more minutes with our most recent guests identifying the specific works that inspire them, so you can root further, draw new sources of nourishment and connect to the emergence of vital possibilities.
Before we come to a close Sterling, acknowledges that the land on which we gather, places now known as Vermont and Kentucky as a traditional and unceded territories of several indigenous peoples. The Abenaki in the North and the Shawnee Cherokee, Chickasaw and Osage people to the South. We also learn in, and from a range of landscapes that belong to other indigenous peoples and more than human kin. As we seek deep reciprocal relationships with nature, we respect and honor the place-based and cultural wisdom of indigenous ancestors and contemporaries. Words of acknowledgement and intention, are just a first step. We must match them with acts of respect and repair.
Thanks so much for listening, you can subscribe to Emergency, to Emergence wherever you listen to podcasts. And a very special thanks to Sterling alum, Fern Maddie, for her musical creations. For more information on how Sterling is advancing ecological thinking and action, Visit www.sterlingcollege.edu. If listening has prompted something new to emerge, we invite you to share your thoughts as a written message or voice recording, which you can send to [email protected]
Until next time, this is the Emergency to Emergence.