Scott Emerick on Chuck Stone and Glacier National Park

Noodle Expert Scott Emerick discusses how a focus on education opened up career paths outside of public schools, why he'd send students to national parks, and why it's important to take your work (but not yourself) seriously.

Who would you pick, alive or dead, to be your teacher for a year? What would you want to learn?

No matter how amazing someone’s intellect, passion, or accomplishments, you never know if someone has the talent to teach well. So I would pick one of the very best educators from whom I have learned. At the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Journalism, I took censorship and ethics from Professor Chuck Stone who passed away last year. Stone was a newspaper editor, columnist, Tuskegee Airman, and civil rights leader. I learned about censorship and ethics from a journalist who made history denouncing racism, political corruption, and police brutality. Stone once lost a newspaper job for refusing to limit his attacks on a powerful mayor. He preached his four fundamentals of journalism: fairness, evenhandedness, accuracy, and thoroughness (FEAT). And Stone taught us that if your mother told you she loved you; you better fact-check it.

And I would want to learn the same thing that I learned then — truth-telling matters most for any story. And more courage is needed to change the way media tells the stories of people of color.

What is one small piece of advice that has had a big impact on your life?

Early in my career, a colleague said that the most important piece of professional advice she received was that it is always most fun to work with people who take their work very seriously and never take themselves too seriously. The point was a simple but important. The work of supporting and empowering low-income learners is critical and incredibly serious on every level. However, many professionals make important accomplishments, painful failures, and pressing arguments more about themselves and less about current and future learners. Very few educators will be remembered for individual accomplishments, but all will have a profound collective influence on the future of learners.

Where would you send a student who hasn't traveled before?

This is a difficult question because of learner variability. I hope that I would know students well enough to recommend a different place to send every learner in my classroom/school based on their histories, interests, and goals. For any student who is not living in the community from which their family came, I believe there is tremendous value in visiting the places where parents, grandparents, and great-parents started families. If pushed for an actual location, Glacier National Park in Montana and Acadia National Park in Maine are my two favorite national parks. Our schools run mental toughness orientation programs for incoming and outgoing students, and I would love to take young people to Glacier or Acadia for the experience.

When was a time that you failed academically, and what did you learn from the experience?

My graduate school experience was somewhat successful academically in terms of learning education theory. However, I failed on most every level to authentically connect the learning from my coursework and my writing to the schools and community-based organizations in my neighborhood. Thinking, researching, and writing about education reform without connecting it to actual learners and practitioners in my community felt like a failure. I learned that there is no such thing as strong education theory or research disconnected from practice in real schools and actual communities.

Why did you go into your field, and how is it different from what you expected?

My mother, aunt, and sister are all current or previous educators, so dinner conversations in our family often focused on education. Education was the key to economic mobility for my late father and much of our family. So I always expected to work on education on some level. However, until 10 years ago, I had no idea that an entire field of alternative education, vocational education, leadership, and community service experiences for out-of-school youth even existed. There are more than 6 million young people, ages 16–24, not connected to work or school. I did not realize there was a career in education waiting that would have very little to do with public schools, but everything to do with learning and leadership for young people who most deserve second chances to change their lives and their communities.

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