The discordant symphony of more than a dozen children’s voices fell silent as they all gathered around the homemade volcano. With hushed anticipation, they watched as a fellow classmate cautiously poured vinegar inside the artificial sierra.
In seconds, the vinegar reacted with the baking soda inside and produced a volley of fizzing water and carbon dioxide.
“Whoa, there it goes,” shouted Dr. Terry Emerson, in conjunction with the cheers of students. “Anything that explodes always gets a good crowd.” “Anything that explodes always gets a good crowd.”
It was May 20, and Emerson was enjoying his last science fair as principal of Alconbury Elementary School. After 42 years as a U.S. Department of Defense Education Activity teacher and administrator, he retired at the end of the school year.
“It feels like the blink of an eye,” Emerson said as he thought back on his time as an educator. “It is such a good job. For me, every day is different. There may be some similarities that occur, but truthfully it’s all different and new.”
He paused and smiled, gazing intently at a display of crystalized rock candy and letting his memory wander back to the day it all started, when a young, wide-eyed college graduate found himself in front of a class full of students in 1969.
“It was pure happenstance,” he said. “When I graduated from college, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. Fortunately, I was in a town where they needed a teacher. I thought, ‘Hey, I can do that.'”
Emerson admitted that it took some time for him to figure out exactly what an educator is supposed to do. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the art and science of teaching was still an undiscovered country. Teachers would instruct students in the same manner they had been taught, he said.
“Read the book, do the homework assignments, and we’ll talk about it,” he said in an emotionless, almost robotic demeanor, mimicking the stereotypical school teacher with horn-rimmed glasses .
Discovering he loved children motivated Emerson to break the mold of traditional teaching and pursue an advanced degree. Upon earning his Master of Science in education, Emerson found himself at a crossroads – should he continue down the path of public education, or deviate to serve military families overseas. To him, the choice was obvious.
“My dad was in the Marine Corps, so I was a military brat myself,” he said, placing a reassuring hand on the shoulder of a fellow military child. “I applied for a position teaching military kids in Germany. As soon as I arrived, I found myself in a great situation with a couple of colleagues who shared my belief that kids were the most important part about being an educator.”
Shifting his attention from the volcano to an “Egg Float” display, Emerson examines the various steps taken to determine how much salt must be added to a glass of water before an egg will float. The display’s architect, Philip Poff, admitted the experiment actually disproved his original hypothesis.
“That’s all right,” Emerson said reassuringly. “Sometimes we need to know where we’ve gone wrong in order to know how to succeed.”
Emerson said he felt the journey to success was one he experienced firsthand when working to teach his students as they grew in the ever-changing world of the 1970s.
“The kids were changing and knowledge was expanding more rapidly,” he said. “At the time, I had a very serious interest in ecology, which clashed with the way science was being taught in schools. You did the one experiment every two weeks and watched something happen as a result.”
Emerson believed there was something more to science. He wanted his students to become more scientifically literate and understand that science is everywhere, affecting a vast multitude of things in this world. This passion motivated Emerson to educate his students on how to look at a situation, identify facts and examine possible solutions.
“I developed a nine-week ecology class that allowed my students to do so many different things,” he said. “It was so much fun. We had a compost heap in the back of the classroom we used to monitor. We would take field trips outside and study limnology, which is the study of ponds.”
Emerson said this ecological adventure culminated every year in what he affectionately referred to as the “environmental campout.” Students and teachers would spend four days camping out and learning art, science and math, while practicing climbing, rappelling and orienteering.
“As I got into this campout, I could see the little light bulbs going off and the kids getting excited about something,” Emerson said. “And that’s truly what it’s all about — getting excited about learning.”
During the years Emerson taught, he became known as a hands-on, activity-oriented educator. While the satisfaction of making a difference with individual students was great, Emerson said he felt he could do more.
“I wanted to make a bigger difference by not just seeing my classes, but by focusing on an entire school,” he said. “That led me to administration. I became a principal in 1984 and have been ever since.”
From his first days as an administrator to his final days before retirement, Emerson has seen the rapid rise in technology influence the educational process on virtually every level.
“It’s faster,” he said. “Everything is faster. You can learn so much, so fast, about so many things. That’s both a good thing and a bad thing, because sometimes the things you get from the Internet aren’t exactly the truth. They can be slanted whichever way someone wants.”
Realizing science and technology are at the heart of the future of education, Emerson has made it a point to blend both into school curriculum.
“My philosophy has always been ‘kids first.’ I feel like they have to feel cared for, safe and nurtured in order to get them on the right track to begin to learn.”“We can’t do what we’ve been doing,” he said. “The world is shrinking so much that we need to focus on new skills as we transition into what is called 21st Century Learning.'”
Heralded as the means to bridge the gap between classroom learning and life skills, 21st Century Learning merges core subjects like English, math, science and civics with critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, creativity and innovation. It teaches students the value of learning from mistakes and failure to achieve ultimate success.
“In terms of our education, we need to be ready to fail. But at the same time, learn from that failure,” Emerson said. “Within the DODEA system I think we are getting ready to make that leap and move into 21st Century Learning.”
Emerson said even though he is ready to transition to his new life on the shores of Lake Huron, Fla., with his wife Lois, he is excited to see the future of the field he loves so dearly.
“The future is getting kids to problem solve and work together instead of competing to solve problems individually,” he said, with a glint in his eye. “That doesn’t work anymore; all of the things that worked in the past may not work now. We really have to figure out new things. It’s a very exciting time to be in education.”
As technology makes the world smaller and education evolves to stay on the cutting edge, Emerson said he tries to strike a harmonious balance between emerging trends and his core philosophy.
“My philosophy has always been ‘kids first,'” he said. “I feel like they have to feel cared for, safe and nurtured in order to get them on the right track to begin to learn.”
Through email and social media, Emerson has been able to tangibly experience the difference he has made during his 42 years as a DODEA educator.
“I get messages from kids saying ‘Thank you for caring, thank you for supporting me,'” Emerson said. “’I’m better now. I’m doing this. I’m doing that. If it wasn’t for you, I …’”
His voice trailed off. After a moment, he smiled again.
“As an educator, when you get those comments years later, it shows that you did something, you made a difference,” Emerson said. “It makes you feel really good.”
That good feeling did not disappear or even diminish during Emerson’s tenure. From the nervousness of his first day as a teacher to the moment he packed his office at Alconbury Elementary and said his final goodbye, Emerson proudly admits he never had a bad day at work.
“Every day is the best day for me,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad day. I’ve had days that have been better than others, but never a bad day. In terms of what I carried into the classroom or school, this has been the greatest job I’ve ever had.”
Emerson paused again, looking down the nearly empty halls as students scurried to clean up their science projects. He smiled broadly as his life’s ambition seemed to replay before his eyes.
“I stayed with it,” he said, triumphantly. “I liked what I did. Every single day I liked coming to work. Forty-two years, and it was all great. I feel like I’m going out happy. I’m going out healthy, and I’m ready and prepared to hand this all over to the future.”