A ninth grade teacher learned how to do more with the resources he already had. He did field work in the Galapagos, Alaska, Finland, Namibia, the United Arab Emirates, Costa Rica, the Pacific Ocean and the high Arctic, with outside organizations paying his way. He published in peer-reviewed journals, won grants from corporations and the National Geographic Society, and collaborated with organizations like NASA, the University of California and the National Park Service. His projects range from marine biology to high altitude gardening, to astrobiology, to archaeology. It took time for him to discover opportunities that are hiding in plain sight. One project would lead to another. Doing projects made him more creative. Along the way he met other people who use ordinary resources to do remarkable things. That teacher was me, and my life is richer now.
Where do I find the time? I can afford to move ahead slowly on the projects since they’re not my primary source of income. I spend only a couple of hours most weeks on all of these activities put together. Most of my time goes to my students and my family. My students participate in these extra-curricular projects, and as my own children get more involved in them, my family is starting to benefit too. But really I do them for my own personal satisfaction. I love coming to work in the morning.
It sounds like extra work for no pay, but besides the fun of doing them sometimes projects lead to extra earnings and opportunities. Once you become an expert on something, you can get hired for consulting services. You can teach a class. You may become eligible for free travel. You may write a book that makes money. I’ve met people who earn money in all of these ways, and so do I. Most years I supervise a class at my school for 11th and 12th graders called “independent science research” in addition to my full-time regular teaching, and I am paid extra for doing it. If you are a teacher you may want to look into this possibility with your district. I also get to travel for free to interesting places.
I’ve met other people who exemplify this lifestyle in different ways. A few are school teachers like me but there are also other working professionals, retirees, and stay-at-home parents. Their areas of expertise include the natural sciences, anthropology, history, and the arts. What they all have in common is projects that started small but got traction. The payoffs were life-altering. They have ongoing projects, institutional affiliations, and collaborators. They apply for grants and apply to participate in programs. They travel with professional purpose and often they get someone else to pay for it. They mentor others and publish their results for posterity. You can do these things too.
How I Got Started:
A few years ago I was one of two dozen teachers from across the United States to participate in a study tour of the Galapagos Islands through the Toyota International Teacher Program. We saw the famous wildlife that helped Charles Darwin form his ideas about evolution, visited local schools, and studied the archipelago’s efforts to accommodate a growing population. The experience made me a better teacher of evolution and I had ideas while on the trip that are still paying dividends today. It was totally free. Toyota Motor Sales paid for everything including our substitute teachers back home; they even gave us some spending money.
There are over three million teachers in America. Most meet Toyota’s eligibility requirements. The program was open to full time teachers, public and private, in all subject areas and all grades. However, even though the program offered a free trip to the Galapagos and some high quality professional development, only a few hundred teachers across the United States applied. That’s about 1/100th of 1% of all eligible teachers.
Why so few? Most of those millions of teachers had never heard of the program. Some knew about it but weren’t interested. Maybe some thought they couldn’t leave their families for two weeks, or that their principals wouldn’t support them, or that their students couldn’t learn anything from a substitute teacher. Most of the rest must have thought “That sounds great but writing essays and getting letters of recommendation is a lot of work and I don’t have the time. I’ll never get it anyway; there must be thousands of people applying.”
I had all those thoughts too, but something made me sit down and hammer out an application. The Galapagos are an expensive place to travel; I wasn’t going to get there any other way. I had been teaching for eight years. I felt I had mostly mastered the job but was concerned about getting too static. My children were old enough to live without me for two weeks. Also, since I teach in a 9th and 10th grade blended academy at my school, I thought that our style of collaborative teaching and learning might get my application noticed a bit more than that of a typical teacher who works alone. I read the application forms carefully, and tried to offer Toyota the outcomes it wanted. Anyway, the small risk I took (of wasted time and disappointment) paid off.
The two dozen teachers were all from different states. As we started to travel together around the islands I noticed that some of them knew each other already. Each time I asked how this was, and I would get an answer like “Oh, we were together two years ago in Korea.” “We were in the same program three years ago in Saudi Arabia.” I realized with a shock that there are other programs that send teachers on overseas trips for free, and that the same few teachers apply to all of them. I became one of those few.
That was my big break. It was in the Galapagos that the idea came to me for our high altitude garden in the White Mountains, and I don’t think I would have had it at home. The high altitude garden lead me to the bristlecone pines project and the artificial hypoliths project. Without the Galapagos experience I wouldn’t have heard of the National Science Foundation – sponsored PolarTREC program that sent me to Finland, and I probably wouldn’t have been accepted by this program without the high altitude garden project to write about on my application. The Finland expedition, in turn, lead to my work on the Point Reyes stone line.
Applying for grants, programs and contests is like buying a lottery ticket except with better odds. Millions of people in my state buy lottery tickets for which the odds of winning anything life-changing are virtually zero. Participation in these lotteries soars whenever the jackpot gets especially high. What people are really buying for their couple of bucks is the right to daydream. In the window of time between purchasing the ticket and finding out that you didn’t win you can fantasize about what you would do with the money. But when you apply for programs and grants that you are eligible for, and that seem like a good fit with your interests and experience, the odds are not one in a million. I get about a third of the things I apply for. It helps that I have a record of past achievements, and that I teach in an academy, and that I know how to read the application materials and figure out what they want, and that my school administrators support me. But my best asset is the taste of success. Having scored big with the Toyota program, no other application form seems onerous to me. I know how to submit a successful application, and that applying for things pays off even though I strike out sometimes. While I wait for the decision I get to daydream like any lottery ticket holder, except I know the odds are pretty good.
Michael Wing was born in Boston and grew up in Newton, Massachusetts. He attended the University of Chicago where he earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. He earned a PhD in earth sciences at the University of California at San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography. He is the author of over a dozen papers published in peer-reviewed scientific journals on topics in geochemistry, oceanography, limnology, biology, archaeology and planetary science. Five Drake High School students have been co-authors with him, as has the late astronomer Carl Sagan.
Since 1998 he has taught at Sir Francis Drake High School in San Anselmo, California. Most of that teaching has been in the ROCK program, an academy within Drake High consisting of four teachers and one hundred 9th and 10th graders. Dr. Wing was hired into the program by accident but he has grown to love it. Here’s why: In traditional school you can get straight-A’s merely by doing what you’re told and having a good work ethic. You could be passive and self-centered but still have the work you turn in be graded as “excellent.” The real world (and ROCK) rewards initiative, creativity, engagement, teamwork, and coping with ambiguity.
Dr. Wing lives in Kentfield. He is married and has two children. Dr. Wing’s brother is the screenwriter George Wing and his sister Monica Wing is an artist. His family likes to hike, camp, go to the beach, travel, write and make things. He also has a small classic sailboat called an O’Day Daysailer. He sails it on Tomales Bay, and keeps it at the Inverness Yacht Club.