Today I am joined by Liz Seubert, a teacher at the teacher run and operated school, Wildlands in Fall Creek, Wisconsin. Wildlands is a small, tuition free 7-12 public charter school, which is affiliated with the Teacher Powered Schools movement. Liz, along with her coworkers, operate the entire school without an administrative body.
In this podcast, we will delve into the operation of Wildlands, how it was founded, and what teachers can do to become involved in Teacher Powered Schools. If you're listening to this podcast before April 29th, make sure you sign up for our Summit with Liz and two other experts from Teacher Powered. There, they'll be able to answer your questions and start your own journey to a grassroots revolution in education. In our opinion, teachers being treated as professionals, and being able to connect with students in small school environments, is a realistic and pragmatic way to organize progressive education for all students.
I highly recommend you visit Teacher Powered Schools at teacherpowered.org. Their network supplies a ridiculous amount of resources, materials, and help channels to help teachers navigate starting their own school.
Liz Seubert, co-founding teacher at Wildlands School, a 2016 Teacher Ambassador for the Teacher Powered Schools Initiative, and co-author of An Improbable School: Transforming how Teachers Teach & Students Learn.
Chris McNutt: Hello, before we get started, I wanted to let you know that this podcast is brought to you by Human Restoration Project's fantastic patrons. All of our work, which includes free resources, materials, and this podcast are available for free due to our Patreon supporters, three of whom are Connie Fletcher, Tim Fawkes, and Mary Walls. Thank you for your ongoing support. You can learn more about the Human Restoration Project on our website, humanrestorationproject.org, or find us on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. Hello, and welcome to Season 3, Episode 26 of Things Fall Apart, our podcast of the Human Restoration Project. My name is Chris McNutt, and I'm a high school digital media instructor from Ohio. Today, I am joined by Liz Seubert, a teacher at a teacher-run and operated school, Wildlands, in Fall Creek, Wisconsin. Wildlands is a small, tuition-free 7-12 public charter school, which is affiliated with the Teacher Powered Schools movement. Liz, along with her coworkers, operate the entire school without an administrative body. In this podcast, we will delve into the operation of Wildlands, how it was founded, and what teachers can do to become involved in the Teacher Powered Schools movement. If you're listening to this podcast before April 29th, be sure that you sign up for our summit with Liz and two other experts from Teacher Powered Schools. There, they'll be able to answer your questions, and you'll be able to start your journey to a grassroots revolution in education. In our opinion, teachers being treated as professionals and being able to connect with students in small school environments is a realistic and pragmatic way to organize progressive education for all students. I highly recommend that you visit Teacher Powered Schools at teacherpowered.org. Their network supplies a ridiculous amount of resources, materials, and help channels to help teachers navigate starting their own school.
Liz Seubert: Hello from western Wisconsin, northwestern Wisconsin. I'm Liz Seubert. I am a mother of two that's currently been in my house for three weeks because of COVID-19, but we're making do, and co-founder of Wildlands Science Research School, which is located in Power Creek, Wisconsin, but it's in a partnership with the Augusta School District and Beaver Creek Reserve, which is a nature reserve that's located in Power Creek.
CM: First off, thank you for coming on. I appreciate it.
LS: Well, thanks for having me.
CM: Let's talk about how you got involved with starting a whole new school that not only is just a new school, but it's also in partnership with a public school district.
LS: Wildlands opened its doors back in 2005, and to be very honest with you, I graduated from college in December of 2004, so the inner workings of this school and the behind the scenes in terms of grant writing and the idea for doing a school differently, taking a nature program that was happening over the summer and making it a full-time school and utilizing some grant funds to try something different, to meet different needs for kids, a lot of that was kind of already happening in the background with my co-founders, Paul Tweed and Jeff Hadorn, and I ended up student teaching with Jeff for a semester, and they asked if I wanted to be a part of the school, and being young and naive and just graduating from college, I was like, yeah, this sounds like a great opportunity, so I really had no idea what I was getting into, but on the flip side of that, now looking back 15 years later, I think it was a huge blessing in disguise because not knowing a ton about traditional teaching has actually played into my favor. Back then, grant funds weren't actually distributed until October or November of the school year, so when we started our school year with 40 kids, we had nothing. We had what they brought with them, and so it was a really great opportunity for our staff to get together with the kids and say, look, you have all been a part of traditional education for lots of years. We have 7th through 12th graders that were sitting in front of us, and it was this opportunity to have a conversation and say, what do you want school to look like? And it really came down to the basics of, can we just act like humans? Can we get along? What if we explore things that we're interested in as students, you know, as our teachers, will you help us put some things together so that we can explore our passions? And that really was the idea behind the school, but having the students realize and understand that I think was incredibly important and valuable to making the school happen.
CM: Yeah, and it sounds like it's a really cool place to be and a cool place to teach. Do you want to dive into a little bit about the pedagogy and what Wildlands really is on a day-to-day basis?
LS: Currently, we have 72 students that are in grades 7 through 12. We have kind of a middle school cohort and then a high school cohort. But really, I mean, if you think kind of one room schoolhouse from way back when, that's really the idea and the inspiration behind it is a community of learners working together in the natural world. Students are in the driver's seat. We strive to have a place where students want to go to school. It's not a place that they have to be, it's a place that they want to be. We don't look at students as a list of standards and things that they need to check off and complete. It really is the entire human and how can we absolutely pull their strengths out, how can we challenge them, and how can we have honest conversations with them about how they're learning, what they're learning, what it means to them, and what it means to being a citizen in the real world. Day-to-day operations of Wildlands are very much students come. We have kind of a morning meeting where everyone sits together, we kind of talk about the day, and then the only other constant is lunch and then the end of the day. Every day is a little bit different. We try really hard. Our school is obviously very student-centered and we utilize project-based learning to meet the needs of our learners. That's kind of the vehicle that we utilize, but we also try to be incredibly experiential-based. So getting students out into the community, taking field trips all the time, whether they're in our local community or expanding that race a little bit more. We've got lots of students that end up on, not end up, but get to go on trips that are camping or we've done some large-scale trips to Washington, D.C., or the Gulf down in Florida. We were in Pensacola for a week. So really just a variety of ways to see that learning happens anywhere and everywhere and getting our students involved in the community is really important to us as well.
CM: I mean, I appreciate the fact that it's a true, it's not totally public, but it's free tuition as a magnet school. So the ability to offer an alternative style of education to those that want it without it only being for the privileged, which I think is huge. And something else that makes your school really unique, which is something that we were very interested in, was this idea of it's teacher-powered. There's no technically not an administrator, right?
LS: Correct. So actually when we started, we didn't realize what teacher-powered was. We just knew that we were a group of teachers that were given an opportunity to start a school and we were told, figure it out. And so all of our decisions were done collectively as a staff and we didn't have a principal in the building. Our superintendent was offsite. So we just started the school and then come to find out years later that there was a term for that. And so being teacher-powered, we're now up to eight staff members, which is a far cry from the three that we started with. So it gets to be a little bit more interesting because we do value all of the opinions and input from all of the staff members. But obviously listening to eight is more than listening to three. So staff meetings can sometimes take a little bit longer or to come to a conclusion or consensus on something. The discussions maybe go a little bit longer, but it's been incredibly valuable to see a group of people that really buy in because you feel like you are the owners of this school and you are the owners of this company and you want it to be successful and your clients are your students. And the way in which you meet their needs on a daily basis, it are decisions that you get to make. So curriculum and full schedule and where we're going, how we're spending money in the budget, even the hiring of new staff as we needed to do that, but the teacher group that was there, we were the ones that did all the hiring and all the interviewing and whatnot. And then our recommendation would go to our school board and our governance board. And because the recommendation came from us, that's who they were hiring. And it's been a wonderful, not only an opportunity for someone like myself who started as a really young staff member to feel valued immediately as part of that staff, but it's been a really great challenge for me to grow as an educator and a professional over 15 years to just really see all of the integral workings of school and what it can be for kids and not this one size fits all factory model where I have to turn in lesson plans and like the prescription for a teacher power school and our school is very much what we feel is necessary as teachers to do what's right for our students. And so that's been really empowering.
CM: It seems like progressive ed lends itself to having a small number of people because you can keep it community focused, you can keep the autonomy, you can keep the students very much involved in day to day interaction with each other. And I think that's really important when it comes to that local partnership.
LS: You know, I met and worked with a bunch of teacher powered schools across the country and because of the spectrum, you know, teacher power is really a spectrum when it comes to collective decision making and autonomies. So really, we're very far in one end of the spectrum in terms of being autonomous regarding so many different aspects of our school, but it really is fun to see the schools that do have the staff members in the 40s or 50s or hundreds, you know, that are working together to make collective decisions and in seeing the changes that are happening in education for kids because teachers voices are being heard.
CM: I'm going to loop back around to kind of the challenges that you might have faced and some of the things that happen day to day doing this role. But if someone's listening to this and they're like, wow, that sounds really cool. What a great opportunity. How do they even get started? Like where would they even look to know what a teacher powered school is or how they themselves could then start a school?
CM: Well, back in 2005 there in in Wisconsin, there were not a lot of charter schools for progressive education. It was more so a charter school for what maybe students would be labeled like the bad kids. And so we were fighting a lot of stereotypes initially. And that was hard because people didn't know or understand or think to ask questions about what was the mission and vision behind Wildlands and the fact that, you know, we were trying to do something so different that people were not used to in terms of putting students in charge and, you know, making it very student centered. That was unheard of. Now it's becoming a little bit more common and there are schools popping up all over the country and or changing the ways in which they're educating children and really making a difference. So I think in terms of, you know, kind of paving the way, if you will, in some regard, we have done or felt like we have done a really nice job of making sure that people that are starting schools understand how important it is to get the word out of what you're doing versus the surprise, here's what's happening and then people not really knowing what's going on. So, you know, organizations like the Teacher Powered Schools Network, which you can find their website is teacherpowered.org. You can visit there. They have tons and tons of resources that are great for people that are interested in either learning more about what a teacher powered school is, maybe even how to start one. There is a guide on how to start a school, which I think is really cool. It takes you through different steps. You can kind of identify where you're at in your journey if you're first learning about it or maybe you're at a school that has already started and you're realizing, okay, we're teacher powered, or maybe you intended to start as a teacher powered school. You know, are you kind of storming through what's happening? Are you transitioning and transforming? So there's lots of different categories that you can find yourself in, resources to go along with it. There are also a number of discussion starters and guides for all stakeholders. So governance board members, administrators, principals, you know, some teacher powered schools, just the way in which school systems are organized. You do have a little bit of a hierarchy that happens in school districts. We do too. We report to our superintendent, that's not going away. You know, we're not saying by any means that we don't like principals, we love principals. They are heart and souls of schools, they do an amazing job. It's just our structure doesn't require one. Some teacher powered schools do have a principal. So what does their role look like in a teacher powered school and how can they facilitate a group of teachers to make collective decisions in a way that's really powerful? So lots of resources for all stakeholders, parents that are curious, community members, all found on the website. Right now, visiting schools is really valuable if you're thinking about starting a school and I highly recommend that. Find schools in your area or there are even schools that have done virtual tours and things that are posted on YouTube, just start digging and looking into schools and opportunities that are happening around the country because you might find little bits and pieces of 15 different schools that you like to make your own and that's what it should be. It should be a school that you are interested in, that values things that you want for your students in your community, if you're going to build a school, that's what it should be. It doesn't have to be like everything that's happening in your area already. And so I highly recommend that and teacher powered has put together an amazing school visit guide that you can kind of look at as like, okay, where do I even start? How do I go through this? And it's something that I love to refer to when people come and visit wild lands, you know, here's some questions to be thinking about. Here's conversations that you should have on the car ride home, those kinds of things that are happening. And then the other really cool thing I want to mention that teacher powered is starting is they're starting some cohorts around the country that people can get involved in. So you have like minded people that are either already in teacher powered schools or thinking about starting a school, you can join a cohort either in your area or based on the type of school that you're a part of or you want to start. And it's really just meant to be a small group of people where you can get together, have conversations, ask questions, work together on finding resources, and just really kind of building a community through intentional relationships and working through whatever it is that you need as an educator or someone who's interested in something different either for your student, like as a parent or students in your community, whatever it may be. So that would be my recommendation on how to get started.
CM:..We want to let everyone know that we see you and the work that you're doing during COVID-19. Although we appreciate all the continued support that we receive on Patreon, we recognize that in these uneasy times that both Nick and I are privileged to work in salaried, stabled positions. On our website at humanrestorationproject.org slash COVID-19, you will find a list of helpful resources and if possible, a list of organizations that need our help during these troubled yet hopeful times…So it's a huge deal. I mean, once you start a school, that's no joke. And that website, I mean seriously, TeacherPowered offers a ton of resources. The toolkit that has step-by-step broken down alone has, it seems like, 100 resources alone. And when it comes to day-to-day operation, while you were talking, I was thinking about what our administrators do at our building. So like financial stuff, licensing stuff, all like those administrative tasks that are, they seem to me to be quite complicated. Is that something that teachers at your school are managing day-to-day?
LS: In a way, yes we are. We still utilize administrative support from our school. So we have like the administrative secretaries and things that are kind of keeping track of all of the boxes that need to be checked in terms of licensure and like budgetary, overall budget thing categories and whatnot that our superintendent would be in charge of. So all of the things, they're happening, but they're happening because we've paid attention to it at Wildlands or we have made the decision. So budget's a great example, right? There are obviously categories that need to be filled in immediately, you know, in terms of rent and supplies and making sure that we've got things met. But then, you know, we've got an area or category where we can purchase supplies for students to work on projects or we've got a category for fuel in our bus so we can make sure that we're going places with our kids. And those are decisions that are made by the teachers. We do have a lead teacher, so we had to appoint someone to be the conduit between our school and the administrator so he's not hearing from lots of people. So we do have a lead teacher and our lead teacher is in charge of kind of being that bridge and communicating back and forth. The day-to-day things are kind of broken up, honestly, between all the staff members. You look at what does it take to get the doors open and keep them open throughout the day and throughout the school year and then from there, we're utilizing all of our teachers' strengths. Okay, I'm really passionate about this or I've got knowledge in this area, I'll work on that. And then down to, okay, what's left, all right, I'll take that. It's really just kind of working together and working with, you know, administrative help that we have and making sure that we're doing things right too.
CM: I kind of want to push you from all different directions to see how this works. So when parents are sending their students to the school and they learn that's a teacher-powered school, what's their reaction typically?
LS: Typically, I think over the years, we've had a lot of parents that have done their research, if you will, and have decided that this is a place that they want their kids to go. And I think it's been incredibly positive. I won't speak, you know, across the board. There are obviously some times where parents are kind of wondering, okay, who do I really talk to? Because we have an open door policy, because we are upfront and honest with parents all the time, it's worked in our favor where they have like a direct line to us. They don't have to go through, you know, different channels or jump through hoops or whatever to kind of talk to whoever is working with their student on a daily basis and directly. They've got that right there because they can talk right to us. So I would say it's more positive than not.
CM: From a parent perspective, they look at your website, they see all the projects that you're doing, and I'm sure they're thrilled that there's a place that their sundered hour can go to that has all these really cool field experiences. They can do projects and they can be engaged and especially be, again, in that small school environment where they're actually known. People know who they are and they're just lost in the shuffle. And that kind of leads me to the last stakeholder that I would be concerned about if I were going to partake this, which would be the district, like the local school. I know our school catches some heat sometimes because we are a magnet school because it's seen as the taking of funds from the local school because you're taking away students, therefore you lose enrollment money. How does the local school district see your school?
LS: So I think because we are really small, it's been a really positive relationship. I won't say it necessarily started that way because I think there were unknowns. It wasn't necessarily a negative relationship. It was just a who are you and what are you doing kind of thing. But as time has gone on, and this is one thing, again, if you're just starting a school or you are thinking about starting a school or you've been in a school for a while, you need to be the ones to tell your story and what's happening in your school and what's going on so that people can't make things up. And so we made a point to communicate very heavily with our district and members of our community in our district about what our students were doing and getting involved. Because we're drawing students in from all over the Chippewa Valley, it's been a really positive thing for us, for our district, because open enrollment numbers are up and there's a place where kids can go that are looking for something different. And I think that's been the key thing for us to be able to say that we are not traditional education. Our district has a really great traditional ed program. We are different and we're different on purpose. And the students that choose to come to our school realize and understand that we are different than other schools because of the way in which we complete projects and the way in which students are learning on a daily basis and the roles that students have versus teachers have where the teacher is a little bit more of a guide on the side and the students are in the driver's seat and they're using platforms like Head Rush to manage their day and their projects and the time that they're spending on it and their task boards. And so that is very different. And it's not that we're necessarily better or worse, we're just different. We're an option. And I think that's really important for kids and families and parents to know across the United States that, you know, I think people are becoming more and more receptive to hearing about options for kids because we know not every child learns the same way. And so the more opportunities we can have for families to pick a school or a mode of education that makes the most sense for their kids is, I think, really, really important and powerful. And especially during this time in our country, we're realizing that education can happen anywhere. It's going to happen. But it also doesn't always have to be this tremendous list of standards that kids are checking on. Like there are some real world applications that need to happen for kids to learn how to be a productive member of society on a daily basis. And this is just, you know, Wildlands, I think, is a way of seeing that kids are capable and kids are incredibly valuable in our school. The way in which we've organized Wildlands, our kids run a good majority of the school because we hire them. So at the very beginning of the year, they're writing, we have a list of jobs that they can apply for at our school and they're writing cover letters and they're filling out resumes and they're conducting interviews with community members that are coming in. And then we've got people that are in charge of our newsletter. We've got a newsletter editor in chief and they're in charge of their team and their writers and their editors. And we've got people that are helping out with our lunch program that work directly with the staff in Augusta. And we've got so many different real world applications and opportunities for kids that are really making a difference in terms of seeing that education is more than just this.
CM: It really warms my heart to hear all of that because it reminds me of what I also see on a day to day basis, which is a lot of these students have been labeled or they've been judged and they think that just because they don't fit into the mold, that they're unworthy of anything that comes to them. And I see all the time students that traditionally struggled that maybe on IEPs or they can't sit still or, you know, the various other things that get you labeled in a traditional public education system. When you leave that environment and you're more focused on a one on one environment where people actually get to know you and you have an environment where you can move around, you strive and you can do a lot of really cool stuff. How does your environment switch with COVID-19?
LS: So I think one of the things that I'm learning is I knew kids are resilient and I knew that they're very adaptable to whatever is happening, but I have a new appreciation for our students and what's happening in the country and whatnot. And really, as a staff at Wildlands, we are more focused on are the kids OK? Are the families OK? A huge shout out to the Augusta School District in terms of making sure that all of our students across the district are getting the means to be connected. So whatever technology they need and Augusta is like a complete rural farm town with horrible Internet and they're doing an amazing job in terms of getting our students hotspots so that families can stay connected. And it's really just making sure that the family's OK right now and that like being connected and making sure that community is happening. And it's not about school right now. It's just about community. And so we're hosting some meetings in smaller groups right now. And like one of the first things we did was put together meetings for parents so that parents could hear from the staff members. Here's what's happening. Here's our approach to this. We know that you are probably wondering what your child should be doing, but right now that's not important. It is just making sure that everyone's OK and finding their passion again. And so like this is just a really cool opportunity for our kids to really explore their passions. You know, what are you learning? But but at the same time, like there is no rubric or outline or anything that the kids have been given. It's really just what are you doing? How are you spending your time? What are you learning? What can you share with others? And eventually we might change that. But we're kind of going through this on a day to day basis and just making sure that we're keeping the community connection alive is our number one priority.
CM: Yeah, that's been the major revelation for myself to just the idea that students feel like school is a great connector for them. It is the community that they go to. It's their third space as well as their second space is both being able to talk to their teachers or their friends or whatever is really what they're looking for. They're not necessarily looking for the content. Well, some of them are, I'm sure, but it's not the primary focus. The primary focus for most kids is I want to talk to my friends or I want to have a relationship with my teacher, etc. And the any way that we can use the digital world to make that connection, that's for the better. Is there anything else that you want to throw in? We're kind of running out of time, here surrounding teacher power or something that you would you would want to give a shout out to or really anything.
LS: You know, check out the teacher power website. I'm not sure how long covid-19 is happening, but we are planning a national conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the first weekend of November of this year. So fingers crossed we'll be able to do that. That's a great opportunity for a lot of like minded people to get together, experience either what teacher power looks like across the country or just kind of explore tons and tons of breakout sessions, great speakers, great opportunities. And Minneapolis is a pretty cool city. It's not too far from where I'm located. So it's a great, great time to get together and really just build the network. It's so incredibly important when you are venturing into something different, when you look at numbers across the country, even though it's growing, it's still a pretty small number that are involved in progressive education. And so the stronger you can build your network and rely on each other and know that you're not on an island, I think the more valuable it is. So I encourage everyone to get involved, your podcast and what you are doing through your project is obviously really important work, too. So just continuing to encourage people to get involved and stay involved and participate.
CM: Thank you again for listening to Things Fall Apart from the Human Restoration Project. I hope that this conversation leaves you inspired and ready to push the progressive envelope of education. You can learn more about progressive education, support our cause and stay tuned to this podcast and other updates on our website at humanrestorationproject.org.