Photo credit: Tanya Sulikowski
By Steve Sears
Care, humility, knowledge, and hard work define Valleyview Middle School Science teacher Lydia Stiles, who was recently named Outstanding Environmental Educator 2019 by the ANJEE Excellence in Environmental Education Awards. She and other winners were honored on Friday, January 24, 2020.
Established in 1985, Alliance for New Jersey Environmental Education (ANJEE) provides a networking forum for New Jersey’s environmental educators. The organization consists of dedicated individuals whose time, energy, and resources are devoted to facilitating the advancement of environmental education locally, statewide, and globally.
Stiles, 45, who with her husband is a parent to a daughter Mackenzie, 18, and a son Nate, 16, was raised in suburban Maryland. “It was pretty much like this,” she says while waving out the window at the Denville environment. “That was my growing up. I always loved to be outside, never really wanted to be inside – and the family dynamics were a part of that – I was happiest outside. I think it’s about being healthy and maintaining happiness. It was all of that: that freedom for observation, and the excitement in the small discoveries.” She also says there’s a particular beauty, and it’s not only just in the colors of flowers and plants of wildlife. “There’s a beauty in being able to predict what’s going happen to that regular rhythm of nature, and also being able to notice the changes and the differences. Sometimes that’s disturbing and upsetting, but also kind of neat that you pick up on that kind of stuff.”
The award means much to Stiles. When it was first announced that she had won, she was surprised and was very grateful. She had been nominated by Tanya Sulikowski, a friend and an educator from Montclair State University, and as the selection process endured, she wondered if she was deserved of being named a winner. “It’s very humbling,” she states, “because I read about people all the time whose work I admire and the work and perseverance they put into environmental education. But it’s also a nice confidence booster. I think it’s pretty meaningful to have my administration and fellow teachers be supportive of what we’re taking on. That certainly means a lot. That aspect of it probably in a sense is the most significant, that little validation that ‘this is something we want you to continue doing and push for the good of our kids.’”
For Stiles, her next focus is more approach and sharing with kids that sustainability is a way of living. “It connects in so many places and so many different ways,” she says. “I’m a science teacher and it naturally fits with science, but it also naturally fits with Social Studies, naturally fits with Language Arts, and so many of our other subjects. It’s a big word, and I think for our children to really get it, it has to be woven into more places…we talk about recycling in science class, but it’s so much more than that. I would feel a tremendous sense of satisfaction, but really a tremendous sense of relief, if we got to the point where that was a reality. In Denville, I would very much like to have sustainability in our curriculum, have teachers prepared to teach that content, and likewise in New Jersey.”
Stiles, who has also taught at Stockton University in Pomona and School of St. Elizabeth in Bernardsville, currently serves as an instructor for the New Jersey Audubon’s Island Explorers Program and is also a Teacher Scholar with Montclair State University’s School of Conservation partnership with National Geographic. She is impressed with the state she now calls home. “For its dense population, our amount of open space – and I’ll always push for more open space – and publicly accessible land, is pretty remarkable. We’re so fortunate to be in a state where beauty isn’t valued by everyone, but it is an option for a lot of people.”
At a recent Denville Board of Education meeting, Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Steven Forte, said that both as a dad and Superintendent, he was happy his son had Stiles as a teacher. “I can’t say enough about her. She’s one of our best teachers, and she’s really dedicated to the environment.”
Visit www.anjee.org for more information.