Mountain School Reflections: “Teaching is a Two-way Street”

Mountain School is a 3-day 2-night program environmental education program based at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center located in North Cascades National Park. Mountain School students come to the North Cascades with their school class, teacher and chaperones to learn about the ecosystems and natural and cultural history of the mountains. Mountain School gives young people an experience they will remember forever!

Guest post by Mountain School instructor Al Kahn reflecting on their first week of teaching with North Cascades Institute

Excited. Nervous. Fresh faced and wide awake. Terrified, but beyond ready. 

These are just a few of the emotions that I like to imagine were felt equally between myself and the incoming Methow Valley Elementary 5th grade class as we stood in the parking lot, awaiting the official beginning of Mountain School. After all, none of us had ever done this before.

Unbeknownst to my students, it was my very first season as an educator with the North Cascades Institute and I had been to Mountain School just as many times as they had. In the weeks leading up to this moment, I had spent countless hours in training; studying up and trying my best to accumulate as many tools and resources as I could so that my Mountain School session would go off without a hitch. I was as ready as I could be. 

But, as is the case for many situations in life, preparedness is nice but flexibility is crucial. This would come to be one of many things my students would teach me over our collective first Mountain School experience. 

We split into our trail groups and I got to meet the 15 students I’d spend the next few days with. Within the first hour, it was apparent that any of the seriousness I wear to navigate the adult world was not going to do me any good here, and everyone would all have a much better time without it. 

Nothing over the next few days would go according to the plan I’d made, but it was certainly never boring. A quiet sit spot on the trail turned into a jam session with instruments made from what we could assemble in the woods. There were log and rock drums, and shakers made from dried leaves tied up with grass. I was seriously impressed, and the students couldn’t have been more excited. 

Mountain School lessons on Diablo Lake beneath moody skies

From there, exploring became the name of the game. We would wander the trails of the Environmental Learning Center campus and I would create lessons and learning moments based on what we found. We’d learn about decomposition after finding Artist Conk mushrooms and leopard slugs, or discuss local wildlife after uncovering a Northwestern Salamander by the creek. Whatever the group got excited about was what we were going to investigate.

Suddenly, our three days together have passed and it is time for them to head back home. A student and I do our secret handshake one last time, and I fist-bump the rest of my trail group goodbye as they settle into the amphitheater to await the arrival of their bus. I feel a mix of sadness and relief as I begin to unpack the whirlwind we all just went through together. 

My students had me on my toes, using every educational resource I had to keep them engaged. I could share a hundred more examples of how their enthusiasm and energy shifted my own perspective, and I worry for a second about how much more I feel like I learned than I taught. 

The truth is, though, that learning and teaching is a two-way street. I shared all I knew about local geology and rock formations, predator and prey species interactions, and aquatic macroinvertebrates. They shared their wonder and curiosity and excitement. We all learned something, and I like to think it was a fair trade. 

So ultimately, I’m left with two lessons to guide me the rest of the season:

The best teachers are going to be the most engaged learners, and the greatest teaching experiences are also the greatest learning experiences.


Sometimes the best thing you can do with a plan is throw it away!



  1. Jodi Broughton

    Thank you, Alexandra, for sharing your reflections and I can’t wait to hear how more stories at the end of your season!

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