Learning to teach through the "what if…?s"

ice cream
On my first teaching day of fall Mountain School I was terrified. I was completely smitten with the amazing North Cascades ecosystem I’d just spent all summer learning about. However, at that moment, there was nothing more terrifying than a group of wiggly 5th graders. “What if…?s” buzzed around me and wouldn’t let go. The teaching part of it seemed scary, even if I thought it was critically important to saving the environment. I seriously doubted if I would be any good at teaching.
Almost five years later there’s a lot less fear in my life. While the “What if…?s” aren’t gone, they are much quieter now and easier to ignore. So much of what I’m doing now with my life is thanks to the confidence that I gained through my Master of Environmental Education classes and my wonderful residency experience at the Learning Center. The coursework and teaching experience gave me an amazing toolbox that I still draw on today; for both teaching in the classroom and for launching my own ice cream business. I am very grateful for the confidence I developed while I was in graduate school.
After  graduating I moved back down to Seattle and sought out environmental education jobs. I ended up at the amazing Mercer Slough Environmental Education Center as a teacher for their school programs and summer camps. My canoeing experience from living on Diablo Lake was invaluable. I loved expanding my nature knowledge from the Cascades down to lowland wetlands. I even capitalized on the activities and facts that I learned during my natural history project on the nocturnal world by leading Night Walks at the Slough in the fall and spring.

During the almost two years of working there,  I had only one lament: if only I could spend more time with each kid. Even during Mountain School it felt like you would barely get to know a student before they were gone. When the opportunity arose to work in a classroom, as an Instructional Assistant at the Open Window School, I thought “ah ha! Here is what I have been looking for!” I wondered, though, could a nature-girl like myself survive being stuck in a classroom for eight hours a day? Getting to visit Open Window School’s lovely campus on Cougar Mountain soon calmed that worry. When we had a laid-back coyote wander through the wooded area outside our classroom window on the first day of school I knew things would be okay. I never once doubted that I could teach.

showing frog to studentsThe author, showing off a Pacific Treefrog to her students. Photo by Kerrin Scott

This past school year there were certainly days when it was tougher than others. I don’t think I’ll ever love being indoors all day. I also don’t think I’ll ever stop growing as a teacher. While my path is veering slightly away from environmental education, those causes are always going to be important to me. My strong beliefs on sustainability, natural history and community-building are as much a part of my classroom teaching as they were part of my trail teaching.

My deskMy desk in our classroom, complete with banana slug. Photo by the author

My love of the environment is also reflected in my desire to create an ice cream company that can change the world. So last fall I started Cosmic Creamery Handcrafted Ice Cream. I make out of this world flavors with ingredients from the many impressive farms and dairies in Washington.  Living at the Learning Center and getting to eat so many amazing local foods gave me a really strong appreciation for knowing where your food comes from, and the power of buying local. I will always be delighted and grateful for all that I learned during my graduate adventures.

Leading photo: Popcorn Ice Cream. Photo by Sandra Buskirk

Kelly  Berger graduated from the North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s Master of Environmental Education program in 2010. During the summer she creates and sells unique ice creams and sorbets. During the fall, winter and spring she teaches precocious, curious, and gifted 4th graders. When not in the classroom or kitchen she likes to birdwatch, paint, read poetry, and go camping.


  1. Saul Weisberg

    Kelly – great essay and wonderful to see how things continue to grow with your teaching. Thanks so much for sharing your story. And thank you for all the good work you are doing. – Saul

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