Beyond the Classroom Walls

by Anna Bird

The desk is scattered with loose papers, binders, and diagrams. On a top shelf are two large stuffed salmon. These are not the stuffed salmon you might see on the wall of a proud fisherman, or the animated mounts that sing, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” These salmon would most likely be found in a child’s toy chest—if they would fit, as they are about three feet long. It is safe to assume that Tim Whitley, energy and water specialist for the EWEB Education Partnership, might use these stuffed salmon in his classroom presentations on how to raise salmon. 

Tim Whitley looks like a biology teacher. His sandy blond hair has grayed slightly around his temples, and his facial hair has formed into a prominent, but un-groomed goatee. Subtle, thin-rimmed glasses hang from his collared t-shirt, easily accessible for reading. His sneakers have small traces of mud along the worn soles.

Growing up with a love for the outdoors, Whitley always wanted to be a geologist. Teaching was never the goal, until he graduated from the University of Oregon with a Bachelors in Geology and found that over a thousand field researchers had just been laid off. He was then forced to consider a different course of action.  He ended up going back to get a teaching certificate in general science, which would really come in handy over the next 30 years.

Whitley started off teaching biology in Cottage Grove just like any other biology teacher might—using standard textbooks in which kids would learn the definitions of the world through diagrams and flow charts, gathering samples from nature to examine under microscopes, and giving them worksheets to demonstrate their newly gained knowledge. He quickly learned that while these standard methods of teaching could be effective to a certain degree, there was a vital piece of education missing.

In 1995 when Whitley began teaching biology at Sheldon High School, he asked his students to recall the last time they had gone outside for a class project or on an education field trip. Slightly confused, they all agreed it hadn’t been since middle school. And that’s when it became clear—the physicality of nature was the missing component. His students needed to go outside.

Throughout his teaching career, taking students on field trips and providing opportunities beyond the classroom walls became his main priority. He would often partner with local businesses or organizations and have his students collect water quality data, do restoration projects, and plant trees. “It’s much more real, and they learn more when they feel like they’re doing stuff for a purpose and not just a grade,” Whitley says.

It was because of his proactive teaching techniques that he was hired at Churchill High School to start a program designed for alternative education in natural resources. Along with a woman named Helen Haberman, Whitley formed the Rachel Carson Center for Natural Resources. They would take students on five to nine day field trips to different places in Central Oregon and Northern California, going caving, birding, white water rafting, and hiking. Whitley’s upbeat and energetic attitude toward teaching inspired Haberman, making for a playful and fun work environment.

“Tim is clearly energized by working with young people,” Haberman says. “He even led several Spring Break hiking trips with students in Canyonlands National Park in Utah on his own time—just for fun.”

His voice elevates and his speech quickens in enthusiasm when he begins to describe the different projects and excursions he went on with his classes. Some of his fondest memories of teaching were sitting around campfires with his students and challenging them to push their own comfort levels while hiking in the woods.

Whitley loved his job at Churchill, but after 13 years he went to work for the EWEB Education Partnership, which is a grant program set up to educate students in the Eugene 4J School District about energy and water conservation. As a Teacher on Special Assignment, Whitley spends only a few days a week in his office at the old Bailey Hill Elementary School. Most of his time is dedicated to running teacher workshops on how to make wind turbines out of recycled material, teaching kids how to raise salmon in classroom tanks to later release in the Willamette River, and building solar panel cars with students to race against each other.

If he had it his way, he would spend all his time outside with students, but admits that after 27 years in education, he finds solace in having a job outside of the classroom setting. He gets nostalgic about his days as a full-time teacher from time to time, but knew that if he didn’t quit while he still loved it, he would become burnt out, and didn’t want that to happen. “I didn’t want to still be there as, ya know, a crappy old teacher who does worksheets.”

About Anna Bird

Journalism student at the University of Oregon. Writer and Assistant Editor for The Siren. Designer for Ethos Magazine.
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