by Doug McClure
HARDWICK – Hazen Union Teacher Anja Pfeffer is the first Hazen Union teacher to be awarded a Rowland Fellowship. The prestigious program awards fellowships to up to ten Vermont secondary educators who believe that the path to students’ lifelong success is, according to its overview, initiatives that “will lead to systemic change in the school, particularly in its culture and climate.” The fellowship awardees are tasked with creating sustainable programs that are exportable to other schools and able to have a broad impact.
The program award is up to $100,000, with a first-year award of up to $50,000 for a fall semester sabbatical which, according to a brief on the program, “provides opportunity for travel, research, personal reflection and renewal, and for the development of an action plan to be implemented upon the Fellow’s return to his/her respective school in January.”
Pfeffer said the fellowship is a two-year process, and “fellows are encouraged to take a whole year sabbatical and use the second year as their implementation period.”
A key point of the sabbatical is that the Rowland Foundation recognizes its fellows need to focus only on the fellowship work, not teaching during that period, so the recipients must have total support from the school principal and administration.
Pfeffer said that Hazen Union principal Dr. Jason Di Giulio, former principal David Perrigo, and Orleans Southwest Supervisory Union (OSSU) superintendent Adam Rosenberg have been “very supportive.”
Rosenberg is a 2010 Rowland Fellow and said “Being a Rowland Fellow has been one of the most significant experiences in my professional career in education, and being part of the growing community of Rowland Fellows continues to impact me, both professionally and personally. I anticipate that Anja Pfeffer will have a similar opportunity to grow as a professional; she is extremely deserving of this honor and I know she’ll make the most of it. Hazen Union stands to benefit from her learning and transformative contributions.”
Principal Dr. Jason Di Giulio said that “the Rowland Fellowship program has been a phenomenal force in public education. It allows educators to plan, study, and do something that can change how we conduct school. One of the most precious things it offers is time.”
Pfeffer’s pilot program “Dare to Be Me” was what got the Rowland Fellowship’s attention. She said that the goals of the Rowland Foundation closely align with her own, with her specific focus being on students’ wellbeing first, so that they can learn in a manner that suits them. Pfeffer said she has long seen the problems with what she calls the traditional “linear” approach to education, which the Rowland Fellowship describes as “traditional norms for measuring school success: performance on national standardized tests, percentage of students enrolled in advanced placement classes, college acceptances, graduation rate and dropout rate.”
Pfeffer said “Communication with students to me is based on a relationship, and a relationship based on trust. How do you build trust in a system that is detrimental for almost everybody who’s in it? It keeps adults in a place of survival mode, getting from day to day, doing the best they possible can, and walking home every day knowing they could not do all they wanted to. And [it keeps] students in survival mode, just getting through school.”
When COVID hit, Pfeffer feared that would become an additional barrier to students gaining a successful high school education. Pfeffer said that at the beginning of last school year, she saw a year of linear learning with masks, “the nightmare of an educator of students.” Pfeffer said “I had been frustrated with the system as it was before, and this just took it to an extreme. So I sent an email to [Principal] David [Perrigo], and said, what if I build a program that takes students outside? And while we’re doing that, why not address learned helplessness? Why not address anxiety? Why not address communication? Why not address all of these things that have been going on? One of the biggest issues I have seen over and over and over is the ‘I can’t’ attitude from students, especially girls. Really, with all students with basic life skills: ‘I can’t, I won’t’ and they shut down.”
The 2020 pilot program for “Dare to Be Me” got students out on the Hardwick Trails behind Hazen Union for several hours for a process that at its core focuses on being outside, getting exercise, self-awareness, and journaling. Pfeffer said “Naturally, that leads to social and emotional learning, which leads to curiosity, then communication and writing.” Several subjects taught in a traditional classroom setting were covered, but in a way that had personal significance and relevance to students. Students also received an education on their own mental and emotional well-being through the journey.
Principal Di Giulio said of the program that “learning only happens when there is trust, as real learning risks failure. Learning requires that we try, often fail, and try some more, until we ‘get it.’ Anja Pfeffer saw that in her students, and created a space where they could explore themselves and develop a sense of trust among themselves.”
In early February, Pfeffer said she got a phone call from Rowland Fellowship’s then-Executive Director Chuck Scranton.
“[He] said, ‘I hope you realize how prestigious this fellowship is and what a big deal this is and how much we believe in your vision. And this vision goes way beyond Hazen.'”
Pfeffer said it was then that she realized this would be a very different experience for her.
“What does it mean to not be in the classroom, on sabbatical? The Rowland Foundation says not only do we want you to have the time to reflect on what your vision is and work towards it, but you need to be going out, visiting schools all over the country or even in different parts of the world.”
COVID is proving to be a major barrier to just how much of that exploration Pfeffer can safely do. She does not feel comfortable flying at present due to COVID, and some areas of the country with programs she is interested in looking into are COVID hotspots. With those constraints, Pfeffer said she plans to focus on locations within driving distance, including the Walden Project at Vergennes Union High School and Burr and Burton Academy’s Mountain Campus in Peru. Coincidentally, Scranton helped create the Burr and Burton Mountain Campus, said Pfeffer.
A second piece of the fellowship is for Pfeffer to assess what did and did not work in last year’s Dare to be Me program, how to improve it, and how to make it portable to other schools. Pfeffer said many more students need a program like it. She has formed a steering committee comprised of adults and students from the Hazen Union community that will be “integral in helping her with this goal.” At the same time, Pfeffer is offering a professional development course for educators on Dare to Be Me.
“With twenty years of being a teacher, I’m more worried about the students that smile and do everything we ask them to do. They’re too polite to ask for anything. And we [teachers] are so burned out that all we can do is put Band-Aids on the ones who are screaming for help. How many are we leaving behind? And aren’t the students who are working so hard every day to hold it together deserving of at least the same amount of connection, care, well-being, alternative options to sitting in the classroom? What kind of places could our schools be, for students and adults alike, if we were to put well-being, communication first? What kind of academic rigor and relevance could we achieve if it were to come from a place of “aliveness,” as well as a positive sense of self, belonging, and purpose?”
These are the questions Pfeffer will be trying to answer as she is workingworks on improving and strengthening Dare To Be Me with the support of the Rowland Foundation.