Mountain School Reflections #1: John Lahey

John Lahey is a 5th Grade Teacher at Centennial Elementary in Mt. Vernon, WA. He shared these reflections with us as part of our Celebration of 30 Years of Mountain School.

Q: Tell us about your Mountain School experience.

For me, Mountain School is a passion. My background is in environmental education so teaching 5th grade is a great opportunity for me to get students into the mountains. I have brought students up to Mountain School for the past 20 years, going back to the days of “Big Green.” Some may wonder if going to Mountain School for so long has started to get old for me. Fortunately I love being in the North Cascades so it never gets old! Ultimately, though, Mountain School is not about me. Mountain School is about the students. It may be my fifth, tenth, twentieth (or someday my thirtieth) time at Mountain School, but it is the student’s first. Every year I take my class to Mountain School, it is their first time. 

Q: Can you share a favorite Mountain School memory?

One of my favorite memories was in April 2013. Students, as often is the case, were excited yet nervous about wildlife they might see while at Mountain School. In the 20 years I have attended Mountain School, this was the first time that I would see a bear with a group of students. As expected, they were a bit nervous at first. That nervousness soon turned to a calm excitement when they realized they were not in any danger. 

We watched the bear in the field for about 15-20 minutes before heading back to the trail. Some of the students were in disbelief that they had just seen a bear and realized just how lucky they were to see such an amazing animal in its natural habitat – its “living room.” 

At this point some of the students realized that the best way to get over their fears is to learn about them and experience them first-hand. They also connected their bear experience to their “being in wilderness” experience.  

Q: Why do you think Mountain School is important?

For many students, Mountain School builds confidence in a safe environment. Many students have not had the opportunity to spend time in the mountains and especially doing so without their family. There is usually a bit of apprehension about “being in the wilderness” and away from family. This experience can be challenging on many levels for most students. Usually after the first night their confidence has increased at least to a comfortable level. By the last day, even though they look forward to seeing their family, many students want to stay at Mountain School longer!

As a teacher, this is always great to hear. At this point they are hooked! Once they have gained confidence and are comfortable in their surroundings, they can really learn. 

Once they start learning about the systems of life within a forest ecosystem, they start making connections to their own personal lives. This is where the true learning begins. 

Students begin to find their sense of place and realize how their choices and actions (both positive and negative) can affect the world in which they live. 

Q: How did you incorporate Mountain School back in your classroom?

Once we are back in the classroom, we do the academics that reinforce what they learned at Mountain School but this isn’t what really gets the students excited. What gets the students excited is talking about their Mountain School experiences. Of course many want to get back up to the North Cascades as soon as possible so that they can share their experience with their families. This is my opportunity to remind students that getting out in nature is an important way to stay connected to the environment.

I also remind them that even though we all would love to get back to the mountains, nature is right outside their front door. They can visit the local parks, many of which have trails through forested areas. The last few years we have been lucky enough to have had the Mount Vernon Parks Foundation support this connection. The MVPF has organized an educational outreach program that sends Mount Vernon 5th grade students to Little Mountain Park for a day of hiking and appreciation of our local forest lands. This is a great opportunity to show students they can find nature right in their own town. What a great way for students, or anyone, to find a sense of place.


Getting young people outside to learn, play, discover, reflect, and share is at the heart of a healthy life. Make a gift today!

We want to hear YOUR stories! Students and teachers: Please share your favorite Mountain School memories with us at


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