Prairie and Native Plant Careers

Erica Ballard

Sixth Grade Teacher
Covenant Christian School
St. Louis, MO

Where did you study and what was your major field of study?
“BS Business Administration and Applied Biology, University of Evansville (Indiana)
MA Elementary Education, Washington University in St. Louis (Missouri)”

Briefly describe your current job.
I teach sixth grade at a private Christian school. We are purposefully a small, relationship-centered school, so I teach all classroom subjects (math, science, history, literature, etc.) The sixth grade program is also very experiential and focuses on “place-based education.” Thus, I usually take my class on a field trip every week to learn about local history or ecology.

How do you use your native plant and/or prairie knowledge in your career today?
There are so many ways to integrate native plants and prairie into my place-based curriculum! (I have the added advantage that my school has a prairie planting on its grounds).

One of my favorite activities is to have my students make life-size prairie posters. Since we include the roots of the plants, these are often 25 feet long and take up the entire hallway! We use this project when learning about the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. We consider how planting row crops to replace prairie plants (which are uniquely adapted to live in their environment) caused terrible erosion and an ecological disaster.

I also take my students hiking or on outdoor adventures throughout the year. On these excursions, we’ve tasted pawpaws, smelled spicebush, and used watercolors to illustrate some of the plants that we have come across. As a teacher, being an expert (well, at least compared to a sixth grader) on native plants has enabled me to share some of this knowledge with my students.

What is the most satisfying aspect of your current work?
While knowledge and academics are crucial at school, so is having children spending time in nature. Even though my school places a big emphasis on getting kids outside into nature, I still find that among our student body there are often traces of “Nature Deficit Disorder.” Every time one of my students has a positive experience while enjoying the great outdoors is a huge win in my opinion. At the Christian school I work at, we consider spending time in God’s Creation as an imperative component to educating the whole child. Jumping in puddles is a positive memory, climbing trees is a skill, and a first campout is life-changing. These children will one day be consumers, lawmakers, and world-changers, and at some point they are going to have to decide how much value the natural world has for them. If they don’t learn about nature now, when will they?

What native plant/prairie classes or trainings were especially important to your career?
My biology professors at the University of Evansville (UE) were outstanding! During college, I took several outdoor courses that helped me learn to better identify plants. For example, I took a ten-day long course in the Rocky Mountains that enabled me to identify most plants to botanical family, a huge help! (I was actually UE’s Grand Kinnikinnick Award Winner of 2009 for being able to identify the most plants by the end of the week.)

Don’t tell my students this, but I often teach them the basics I learned from biology and chemistry courses in college. For example we study population dynamics when considering niches. We also talk about riffles and benthic habits and learn basic molecular chemistry. (This just goes to show that children are often much more capable than we give them credit for!)

After college I found locally organized plant walks to be extremely helpful in expanding my knowledge. After attending many guided hikes by Dr. James Trager at Shaw Nature Reserve, I finally felt like I could identify the majority of the plants I would see out in the field (or at least have a reasonable guess). My students are always amazed when I can tell them what plant they are looking at on a field trip.

What other subjects have you studies that have been important to your career?
Besides my education classes at Washington University, believe it or not, art history has probably been the most helpful subject for teaching such a well-rounded curriculum. I took several courses in this area during my undergraduate career. Not only has this allowed me to teach about different art movements and various cultures in my classroom, it has also enabled me to become more observant and a better critical thinker. I also took a class in statistics which has been invaluable for understanding student data and teaching probability.

Please describe volunteer or field work that was formative to your education and career.
My junior and senior year of high school I volunteered at the Missouri Botanical Garden Herbarium. These volunteer hours weren’t required by my school, I simply wanted to learn more about the botanical field since it was something that I was interested in. It was fascinating! Not only did I learn how a world class herbarium operates, I also was introduced to the Linnaean classification system and botanical plant families. (I also got to see some really awesome specimens, such as plants collected by Darwin!)

After completing my undergraduate degree, interned for a year in the education department at Shaw Nature Reserve (Gray Summit, MO) learning how to be an environmental educator- a truly invaluable experience! This opportunity helped me learn how to get children excited about nature and to keep them engaged for several hours at a time! I still use many of the skills I learned as an environmental educator when I teach outdoor lessons.

What materials and technology are must-haves for your field?
I love to bring in local conservation issues into my classroom. Consequently, I try to stay as up-to-date as possible by listening to the news and talking with leaders in our community. Networking has been crucial, and I have had many local experts talk to my students about topics such as local endangered species conservation, watershed health, etc.

I have also gained many great ideas for teaching environmental lessons at various conferences. A great yearly event is the Missouri Environmental Educator Association Conference. I have applied dozens of ideas from this conference in my classroom!

What advice would you give students or others wanting to go into your field?
First, don’t feel confined to teaching in a public school setting. (I went to public school my entire life and am still shocked that I ended up teaching in private school!) One of the benefits of teaching at a private school is I have less constraints on my time and don’t have to worry about state testing. Thus, my students have more opportunities to spend time outside learning about nature, and I have more freedom in the lessons I choose to teach. You can also consider informal education as well.

Second, take the initiative to keep learning after you graduate! I would say that at least 70% of the knowledge I use to teach my curriculum has been acquired outside of traditional college courses. Look for the opportunity to learn from local experts and for free resources like those offered through your local library, Grow Native!, and the Missouri Department of Conservation. Be a lifelong learner! It will help you be a better role model for your students and will deepen your knowledge of the information you are teaching.