Transforming Education from the Inside-Out

Post written by Jenny Friar, Director of Development for St. Joseph’s Villa

Jenny Friar

Jenny Friar

While I am not a teacher, I have the honor of working alongside them every day in my role as Director of Development at St. Joseph’s Villa.  I have seen first-hand the magical partnerships that can develop between children and the adults who are professionally charged with helping, healing, and educating them.  As the parent of a toddler, I am growing more aware each day that our daughter will soon begin her educational journey in Richmond – one that will likely take her through more than 2,000 days of public school and more than 12,000 classroom hours before she graduates from high school.  I am excited, terrified, and deeply curious about what that journey will look like.   Most of all, I am hopeful.

In November 2012, Tom Shields wrote to Style Weekly (When Tests Fail: Why our Public Education System Needs to Rethink Standardized Testing) about his recent trip to Finland to observe the national teaching styles and educational model that has enabled its students to far surpass the U.S. in international testing.  My immediate selfish maternal thought upon reading his account was – I hope my child’s future teachers were on that trip! I realize, however, that the likelihood of this is slim.  I was struck by his assertion that the world has changed, but our schools have not, leaving us faced with pedagogical obsolesce.  I think it bears putting a finer point – if we say that “schools” are obsolete, then what lies at the heart of this statement, and indeed at the heart of the schools themselves, is the teachers. Many of these teachers have years of their career ahead of them. If their curriculum, classroom style, and methodologies are obsolete and are failing to prepare students to be the global citizenry and workforce of the future, it begs the questions – what are we, as a community, doing about it?

How can we give all of our teachers the inspirational and informational equivalent of a trip to Finland? Certainly international exchanges are powerful, but there are also more accessible ways to expand the pedagogical dialogue through continuing education, conferences and symposia, even through remote observation and digital exchange.  These opportunities continue to emerge, but their potential impact is wasted unless we give our teachers the space, time, and freedom to participate, engage, and experiment if we truly want our schools to evolve and keep up.  Like students, teachers must also be encouraged to think critically, take risks, and problem solve.

This March, the Villa is partnering with Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden and the Virginia Association of Science Teachers, Region 1 to host the educators’ conference Natural Connections: Place-based Strategies for Teaching and Learning.  Scholars and experts on outdoor education and therapy from around the country will come to Richmond and lead our teachers in workshops and discussions on the importance of nature-based education and play.  Experiential, inquiry-based learning are proven ways for children to develop important skills for academic and life success, such as problem solving, critical thinking, cooperative social interaction, and confidence. As I polled teachers about their areas of interest, the most discouraging comment I heard was, “That sounds absolutely fascinating, but I only have time to attend something that focuses on the SOLs.”  The frequency of this feedback helped me to understand that it’s not just the growth of students that is being hampered by a culture of high-stakes standardized testing, it is also the growth of teachers, and therefore of our schools themselves that is suffering.

My hope for the future of education in our community is greater trust – trusting the inherent curiosity and creativity in students, and trusting the ingenuity and instinct of our teachers and administrators.

Natural Connections

Conference details:

Natural Connections: Place-Based Strategies for Teaching and Learning

This two-day collaborative conference provides valuable professional development opportunities for Richmond-area science educators and administrators, and members of the community of therapists and clinicians who work with children with special needs.  Participants are eligible to earn up to 8.0 CEUs.

Friday, March 15, 12:30-6:30 p.m. at St. Joseph’s Villa (8000 Brook Road, Richmond, VA)

Saturday, March 16, 8:30 a.m.-4:00 p.m.  at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden (1800 Lakeside Avenue, Richmond, VA)

Keynote Speakers: David Sobel (author of seven books and more than 60 articles focused on children and nature) and Ginny Sullivan (co-author of Lens on Outdoor Learning)

Details and registration are online at

Space is limited; advance registration is required.

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