Lessons in Leadership: Sandy Vander Velden

“Too many of us are waiting around for someone else to implement a magic bullet solution.  The change we need and want is going to come down to hard work and having the will and determination to do it.” –Sandy Vander Velden

Recognizing the critical role of leaders in advancing education for environmental literacy and sustainability, the Wisconsin Environmental Education Foundation(WEEF) has been working to highlight individuals that are leading the way in Wisconsin.  Recently, Sandy Vander Velden agreed to speak with WEEF Program Director, Jesse Haney, about her role as an environmental education leader in Wisconsin.

Sandy Vander Velden is passionate about teaching and learning. Her experiences and research as a teacher in the Appleton Area School indicated that student understanding of concepts was enhanced by the integration of subjects into thematic units and the use of hands-on, real world experiences. For these reasons, Sandy co-founded Fox River Academy, an environmental charter school.  Just a few months ago (April 2012), Sandy was honored with the Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators (PIAEE) for her work at Fox River Academy. This award is given by the White House Council on Environmental Quality and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Sandy received her undergraduate degree in Elementary Education from University of Wisconsin-Madison and her Master’s Degree in Reading Education from University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. She is a licensed reading specialist, a member of the Wisconsin Association for Environmental Education Board, and serves as Past President of the Wisconsin State Reading Association. Sandy is also actively involved with the Wisconsin Green Schools Network and the Wisconsin Innovative Schools Network.

Q: Do you consider yourself a leader?

Yes, I do consider myself a leader.  Not necessarily because I have such a ‘followership’ of people, but because I like working with people when we have a common goal. I am good at seeing what needs to be done, recognizing talents in the people I’m working with, and encouraging them to apply their talents and stretch themselves (and myself) to try something new.

I still feel like I am constantly learning.  When the day comes that I feel like I know it all, it will be time to leave.  Of course, that is just not possible.  There are so many exciting things to learn, especially right now in environmental education.

Q: Why do you think others consider you a leader?

My humorous response is because I can’t say no.  If I’m in a meeting and something needs to get done, I am very willing to jump in and do it; whether it’s a small task or larger commitment.  I also think I reflect other people well.  People can see themselves in me and so find it easy to relate to me.  I’m also honest and am willing to admit it if I make a mistake.  I know I am one of many.

Q:  What is the change or difference you are working towards?  What is your ultimate goal?

My ultimate goal is that the students and community members I work with really start to have a relationship with the land and nature that generations prior to ours had; their lives and survival necessitated it.  We’ve become so removed from the fact that every decision we make not only impacts our environment, but each other.  I want us all to be mindful that things aren’t just happening, we’re steering the ship.  If we can work together and have a comprehensive approach to ensuring we have a strong community with clean air, water, soils, and food systems, then it is possible.  But, it won’t happen in a vacuum.  I want to empower people I work with to have the knowledge and skills to make the changes they want to see happen.

Q: What are the greatest challenges you see in getting to that goal?

Honestly, I believe it is a lack of will.  We can point fingers and give excuses about why things aren’t happening quickly. We can make a lot of excuses. But it boils down to people being really committed and doing what we say we’re going to do rather than looking around and waiting for someone else to do it. Too many of us are waiting around for someone else to implement a magic bullet solution.  The change we need and want is going to come down to hard work and having the will and determination to do it.

Q: How do other people help?

A lot of people have helped along the way.  If you want to be successful, you need to surround yourself with other successful people.  I choose not to spend a lot of time with the “hand-wringers.”  I surround myself with the people looking at the bigger picture, working towards big goals, and not getting wrapped up in minutia.

For example, the Wisconsin Green Schools Network (WGSN) is a big idea; schools across the state having a strong network to communicate, share ideas, pool resources, apply for grants together, and provide an outstanding learning environment for students.  The Wisconsin Center for Environmental Education (WCEE) is another big idea.  We are so fortunate to have these networks; connecting all the pieces is brilliant.

Other people and organizations have also helped by communicating where I can get help, offering assistance, and being mentors.  I can’t tell you how many people I’ve had the privilege to learn from who are doing great things I’ve never thought of, and now I’ve been able to get their great ideas incorporated into my own practice.  For example, the WGSN’s field biologist program has revolutionized my teaching.  Through this program, I have experienced how to make a local difference and connect it to high quality learning experiences.

Having the environmental education consultant back at Department of Public Instruction has been beneficial too.  Having Victoria [Rydberg] there has helped to bring environmental education standards off the shelf and helped to demonstrate how environmental education can be incorporated across curricula rather than as an add-on.  Education for sustainability is a great new development that helps to make this work even more relevant.  It helps us focus on environmental, economic, social, and economic systems statewide.  I am really excited to see this work continue to grow.

Last but not least, my students, by far, have been the most helpful. It is their interest, curiosity and needs that guide my work.

Q: How do you wish other people would help?

 Lucille Ball said, “If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it.  The more you do, the more you can do.” That’s how I live my life.  Say yes; step a little outside your comfort zone.  You can do it.  Your reward is that you become more skillful, competent, and empowered each time.  Knowledge is power.  Skill and knowledge together will make you more confident.  No one will be able to come into your classroom or place of work and intimidate you.  By volunteering to step up, you’ll grow your capacity to help and to lead.  Someone is looking to you to step up right now whether you know it or not.


Q: Do you have any advice for how others could be better leaders or ‘followers’?

Just surround yourself with people you feel are good leaders.  Learn from their successes and mistakes.  Keep an open dialogue.  Have a professional and personal network of other leaders.

There are days when you will feel like the cards are stacked against you, and your network provides a sounding board or link to someone that been through a similar situation you can ask for advice.  These people can also ask questions you can’t, see contacts you ought to make, and help you to move forward when you feel stuck.

Q:  What vision do you have for education in the future?

In the future, I would like to see learning be project-based.  Students would not always be reporting and spending an entire day with a teacher and class. They would spend more time in apprenticeship programs; for short periods in elementary grades and expanding to more in-depth experiences in later grades.  These apprenticeships and project-based experiences would provide a place to apply what they learn in a setting where they have interest.  Students would learn the basics in class, but then would really apply and learn in the field.  Likewise, for teachers, I would like to see student teacher practicums happening earlier.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share or would like people to know?

I didn’t come out of college thinking I’d be really involved in environmental education.  Actually, it never entered my mind.  I graduated from UW-Madison with an elementary teaching degree.  It was a strong general teaching program.  I began working in Appleton and became a licensed reading specialist.  I didn’t have an environmental science background.  My expertise grew out of interest.  I was able to take classes at UW-Stevens Point in PLT and Project WET, LEAF courses, and then much later, had opportunity to start Fox River Academy.  But there are still times I am truly learning along with the students.  Their questions cause me to do further research.  I have learned to be comfortable saying, “I don’t know, let’s find out together.”  I think that ability makes a good leader, but also a good teacher.

For more Lessons in Leadership from Wisconsin environmental educators, visit the Wisconsin Association for Environmental Education blog and look for WEEF’s guest blogger entries!  Do you know a leader in Wisconsin EE we should talk to?  Contact Jesse Haney at jehaney@uwsp.edu with your ideas.

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