A Wayfinder Schools Interview with Alex Koch
|WS: Tell me about your role here:
AK: I’m Lead Overnight Staff at the New Gloucester campus, working the Sunday and Monday night shift. In addition to that, I’m the Ecology Teacher. I spend a lot of time working with the kids in the natural world. I try to instill in them a feeling of respect for nature and science.
WS: How did you get interested in ecology?
AK: It’s always been a part of me. Ever since I can remember, I’ve spent time in the woods. It’s been one of my favorite things to do, explore in nature. As a child I didn’t really watch a lot of TV. I can remember my mom trying to get me to watch Sesame Street, but I just wanted to be in the woods, tracking squirrels and looking at leaves and all that stuff.
WS: Tell me about a recent ecology project:
AK: We’re conducting a forest inventory growth plot, so we’ve been measuring the diameter base height of trees in the plot. We’ll be using that data to learn a little bit more about our forest.
WS: What did you want to be when you grew up and why?
AK: It has changed a lot over the years but one of the things I remember most was ducking through all the tide pools out at Prouts Neck in Scarborough and climbing around on the Cliff Walk. A friend and I had big dreams of becoming marine biologists. I wrote a poem about that. I write a lot of nature-based poetry.
WS: Where did you grow up and what was unique about it?
AK: I was born in central Maine, moved to the midcoast, and then at 7 moved to southern Maine. I grew up by the ocean, and the mud and salt. I could go down across the street, through my grandparents’ yard, and down to the mud flats and catch horseshoe crabs. Like I said, my grandparents were across the street, I had an uncle next door, and my grandfather’s brother up the street. There was a lot of family around, and I think that was both unique and important for my development. There was also this wonderful, old white ash tree out back of our house, it was probably a sapling during the Civil War. That was pretty important to my development, also. Lots of memories.
WS: Where did you go to school and what did you like best about it?
AK: I went a lot of places but spent the most time at Unity College. I liked the small size and the focus on the environment and the outdoors.
WS: What’s your favorite part of your job?
AK: My favorite part is seeing the growth in the students throughout the year, seeing them open up more and more. To see them when they graduate, how far they’ve come since September, it’s a really special experience.
WS: What would you say is the biggest challenge?
AK: One of the biggest challenges this year has been a sense of being the new teacher. It’s all new for me and learning the ins and outs of that process, and keeping the students engaged.
WS: What would you say one of their favorite ecology projects has been?
AK: They’ve enjoyed when we’ve done research presentations. They researched land mammals that live in Maine and had to write a one-page paper and present it to the rest of the class. They liked doing that.
WS: Tell me about your first job:
AK: My very first job was working for my uncle and my grandfather at the horse stable, mucking out stalls, painting, mowing, and assisting in training the race horses.
WS: What’s been one of your favorite travel adventures with the Wayfinder kids?
AK: I think my favorite every year is the solos at Cobscook Community Learning Center. We go up to Washington County, spend a few days in the woods, it’s a good bonding experience as we’re preparing for graduation, a really amazing experience for students and staff.
WS: What’s one of your own favorite travel adventures?
AK: Every year I do a bird watching survey for high elevation songbirds about 20 miles north of Rangley up on the Canadian border. This past year I was camping out on the side of this logging road and I woke up to something rustling my tent, a lot of noise. It was a huge cow moose. I got up, and unzipped my tent, and there’s no light pollution up there, just stars lighting up the sky and the ground, and there she was licking the windshield of my car. A giant cow moose, licking my car.
WS: Who was your favorite teacher growing up and why?
AK: One of my favorite teachers was a teacher in high school, a fellow named Ben. He wasn’t much older than I was at that point, he was just out of college. He was a History & Philosophy teacher. I took History of Islam with him, amongst many other classes. He was a really interesting guy, still is, I run into him from time to time in Portland. He was fascinating. He would go to Turkey to the bazaars and buy rugs and bring them back here. He would listen to this weird electronic music. Cool guy.
WS: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from your students?
AK: I think that they’ve reinforced my patience, and believing that things will work out, and letting the process happen.
WS: What does your perfect day off look like?
AK: I would say my perfect day off is most days off. Not that my days at work are bad, I love it. But I buy and sell antique tools, my other job. Today I went to a barn in York County, dug through stuff and loaded up a bunch into my truck. I got an ax made in Oakland, Maine, an old coal shovel from South Portland, a couple of folding chairs from The Paris Manufacturing Co. in South Paris. I stopped at the antique mall that I sell at in central Maine and put a few things in the booth. A lot of my time is spent on antique tools and restoring them.
WS: What’s your favorite Maine museum?
AK: I’m actually working to open a museum. I’m working with a group in Waldo County. We recently acquired an historic grist mill in Thorndike and we’ll be restoring the building and possibly housing a store, studio space, community space, but also, my hope is to open a museum of Maine made edge tools. I hope it happens there, but even if it doesn’t I still intend to open that museum somewhere here in Central Maine.
WS: How did you come to Wayfinder Schools?
AK: I had the benefit of my mother who was already involved with the school as a board member. I was living out in Seattle and I decided to come back and visit for a few months. At that time Wayfinder needed an overnight support staff, so I thought I’d fill in for a few months. I took a red eye flight, had an interview, and started that weekend on our trip to Acadia. I worked until December that year, but then I was diagnosed with Lymphoma. I really came to love the school and I started thinking about not going back to Seattle. I was healthy enough by spring to go on the Lubec trip, so I asked Joseph if I could stay on and I’ve been here since.
WS: What is your all-time favorite Wayfinder Schools moment?
AK: It was that first year, and when the students come out of the woods from solos they have a big circle and we talk to each of the students. One specific student and I bonded a lot and I got up to talk to him and we both started bawling and we gave each other a big hug. That exemplifies the care and bond that we form with each other, our students with us and we with them.
WS: What would you like people to know about Wayfinder Schools?
AK: I would like people to know that Wayfinder Schools is a really formative place, and a really special opportunity for both the staff and the students to be involved in.
Fifteen facts about you:
Favorite bird: Raven
Favorite Maine hike: Number 4 Mountain in Frenchtown Township
Favorite hobby or thing to do in your spare time: All things tool related
Something new you’d like to try: Kayaking
Favorite breakfast spot in Maine: Crosstrax in Unity
Favorite home cooked meal: Mashed potatoes
Someplace new you’d like to travel to: I’ve always really wanted to go to Suriname
Favorite TV show: I’ve never owned a TV
Camping or luxury hotel? Camping
Bike or car? Car, because I travel such long distances. My 1.5 hour drive to work would be much longer on a bicycle!
Favorite book you’ve read recently: The Maritime History of Maine by William Hutchinson Rowe
Favorite children’s book: Blueberries for Sal
What would you tell your teenage self? Trust your gut
One of your favorite possessions: All the fishing gear I inherited from my father when he passed away
The one thing you’re most passionate about: Life
WS: Anything else you’d like to add?
AK: I think just that I would tell–not only my students–but everyone, to follow your passions and do what feels right for you in life. Don’t get stuck doing things that you think you’re supposed to do because others expect you to.