I have always had a fascination with places large and small, wondering why that place was there and how those folks shaped where they lived. I was fortunate to have been raised in Ohio by parents who carried on Hungarian and German traditions, my father emigrating as a young man to the states. It was that global perspective and curiosity about others that was instilled in my soul everyday by the food we ate and the language that was spoken at home. In a sense, we lived geography, even though I didn’t think of it that way at the time. Through my family I realized how important a global perspective is. Global understanding and how we connect with our world is the mindset that all students must have. It is so vital to all of us. This is a huge reason why I teach.
Quite a few professional folks have inspired me. My public school teaching debut was through substitute teaching as I was finishing up my bachelors and pursuing a Master’s Degree in Human Relations at the University of Oklahoma. It was in my master’s program that I was introduced to Leonard Cayton, as we were both assigned a “buddy” class project. As it turned out, Cayton was looking for teachers that were willing to teach at an all-African American high school (this was prior to desegregation in the Oklahoma City area). He was the chosen principal assigned to “straighten out the school”. Soon thereafter I signed my first teaching contract. Needless to say, I was hooked on teaching and quickly developed a toolbox of strategies for the classroom. Later I followed Dr. Cayton to teach in another at-risk middle school in Oklahoma City.
It was during those formative times that I made my “official” debut as an aspiring geographer at a local babysitting co-op outing. At this picnic, I was encouraged to join OKAGE (the Oklahoma Alliance for Geographic Education), our state’s fledgling alliance by Lee Williams, a close friend of Jim Goodman who was Alliance Coordinator and Geography Department Chair at the University of Oklahoma. At the time, I was inspiring middle school students to think about the world around them through the lens of geography. As the years progressed, both Jim and Lee became friends and mentors, eventually nudging me toward a doctorate. Being a member of our Alliance and joining NCGE have afforded me the professional content, tools and networking opportunities that gave me the confidence and validity for what I believed in.
I’ll never forget my first NCGE conference in Williamsburg, Virginia which seemed like a total blur, as it flew by in the blink of an eye. I recall being so concerned about my presentation, but it was so invigorating connecting with folks that believed in what I believed in…energetic folks with great ideas. I still value the vibrancy, comradery and fantastic teaching ideas I get every year attending the National Conference on Geography Education I strongly encourage you to attend. With tight budgets I know how difficult it is, however, attending an NCGE conference is more than worthwhile.
Vibrant and engaging classrooms with hands on meaningful activities that connect to our local, state and dynamic world, is a must for our 21st century adventure. Teaching students the beauty of academic interactions, decision making, discussions with guest speakers, and personal involvement with various community activities is important. Let your students know that they are participants in an ever changing global village, not just observers. If possible, let them experience out of class field observation. Help them understand the power of listening to others and understanding their heritage and circumstances. This is what my involvement in our alliance and NCGE has taught me.
I’ve recently labored over the phrase “invest in the future.” I hear this a lot. What does it really mean? Personally, it’s supporting what I truly believe in. May I suggest that if you are considering supporting ANY organization now or in the future, you choose an organization that you feel will help you grow philosophically and professionally, and will leave a better place for those that follow. I choose to support NCGE, as it is the organization that provides me with the resources, opportunities, and community that continues to foster my professional growth.
As your new NCGE President, let me or your central office staff (Zach Dulli, Shana Gruenberg and Melissa Lepak) know your thoughts. We are truly a membership driven organization and rely on your membership input and involvement! In future blogs, you’ll hear about new programs, NCGE events and content relevant information. Stay tuned.
In closing, truly cherish those teaching moments as you enter this new year. You do make a difference!
Gary Gress, 2017 NCGE President