By Joyell Nevins
According to modern science, matter is no longer being created; the atoms are simply moving around and changing places in the universe.
“I tell my kids that means they are made of stardust,” Granger Junior High teacher Stuart Douglas said. “I tell them, ‘I can see you shine.’”
Douglas is one of five 2016-17 Teachers of the Year for San Diego County. He teaches science to ninth graders at the Sweetwater district school and just recently moved to a home in Spring Valley after spending over a decade residing throughout La Mesa.
The annual honor is pooled from 26,000 teachers in the county and was announced at a special event on Sept. 10. It is sponsored by the San Diego County Office of Education and the San Diego County Credit Union.
“It was a rush (hearing my name announced),” Douglas said. “I felt like I was back playing football and had just scored a touchdown. To be with my colleagues from my district who I so admire – wow, they’re amazing.”
Granger even held a special assembly the following Wednesday in honor of Douglas, with surprise guests Mayor Ron Morrison and Douglas’s family. The mayor actually issued a proclamation designating Sept. 14 “Stuart Douglas Day.”
Even though the Teacher of the Year award comes with a crystal apple trophy and plenty of clout, Douglas is quick to note that he isn’t teaching for a physical reward.
“I don’t do this job for trophies and awards; I do it for my kids,” Douglas said.
And don’t call his kids “students” – they are scholars.
“I tell them a scholar shows up ready to learn. A student just shows up,” Douglas explained.
Every student – scholar – gets that designation when they walk into his classroom. Douglas starts from the platform that kids are willing and able to learn. That they really can be anything they want to be. And that fact doesn’t change regardless of where they lay their head at night or what “concrete forest” they come from.
“You have to believe in them so they can believe in themselves,” Douglas said. “I tell them, ‘You’re not defined by your zip code; you’re defined by your dreams.’”
A surprise start
Although Douglas loves his vocation now, he didn’t start out on a teaching path. Douglas attended college for marine biology. He went to Alaska and studied salmon, planning to be a research scientist. Economy and life changes along the way plopped him in the Granger Junior High science department.
And then about 10 years ago, a surprising conversation completely shifted his focus and commitment.
It was during the time when the San Diego Natural History Museum was featuring an exhibit on Charles Darwin, which Douglas said he totally geeked out at. Douglas had gone to the museum and Balboa Park over the weekend with his preschool teacher wife, Cora, and young daughter (they now have two beautiful daughters).
Back at school, Douglas was having the generic “what’d you do over the weekend” conversation with his students. When he mentioned Balboa Park, one of the kids said, “Wow, your daughter’s so lucky.”
Douglas was taken aback – why? Because, the scholar explained, he had never been to the zoo or a museum.
“So I asked the whole class, ‘Who’s never been to the zoo? Who’s never been to the museum?’” Douglas recalled. “Hands kept going up.”
Douglas asked about other nature and science locales, and kept getting the same answer.
“Finally I said, ‘Who’s never made a s’more?’” Douglas said. “One kid raised his hand and asked, ‘What’s a s’more?’”
Douglas had already been reading “Last Child Left in the Woods” by Richard Louv and brewing on the disconnect between many modern children and nature. The s’more comment was the final clincher.
Douglas made a commitment then and there to take his class to the zoo. He ended up taking 60 kids to the Natural History Museum and the San Diego Zoo. And then he thought, “What else can I do?”
Douglas now averages eight field trips a year. His scholars have gone on a fishing boat expedition, visited San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and the Beckman Center for Conservation Research. They’ve traveled north to see the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, which even included a viewing of a scientific film on the museum’s IMAX screen.
A summer school group went to the Museum of Contemporary Art. One scholar group went out on a 60-foot research vessel and got to see a pod of 200 dolphins. And it’s not always a trip outside of National City. Granger has a school garden run by science classes and fruit trees planted by them as well.
“I’m always looking for opportunities for my kids,” Douglas said. “These opportunities, these experiences, they open doors. Doors of imagination and possibilities.”
He recalls one time on a modern art museum visit, a scholar was viewing a Degas and looked at him and said, “When I’m older, I think I’d like to travel and go to Europe.” This coming from someone who had barely been out of the 10-block radius of their neighborhood before. Douglas has had graduates come back and tell him about a field trip that made a shift in their school career.
“It’s those ‘a-ha’ moments I try to (foster),” Douglas said.
It has become an annual tradition now that the entire ninth grade spends a day at Balboa Park. They go to the zoo, see some of the museums, and have a big BBQ on the lawn. All of the ninth grade teachers come, and some scholars end up bringing their families, including Granger alumni.
Douglas notes that it takes a lot of extra time and work to contact all these places and set up pricing and logistics. And taking a large group of kids anywhere is no small feat.
“You’ve got to be committed,” Douglas said. “It’s a challenge, but it’s so worth it.”
Starting a conversation
Would you like to assist Douglas with his field trips? Do you have a connection you think could be helpful? Stuart says, “Let’s start a conversation.” He encourages anyone interested to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Freelance writer Joyell Nevins can be reached at email@example.com. You can also follow her blog Small World, Big God at swbgblog.wordpress.com.