When Elizabeth “Libby” McCann, PhD was asked to explain her vision for environmental education at Antioch New England, she faced a dilemma. “I knew that any vision I would create would be a collective one. I’m a process person, and I would go about it through a participatory process. But there I was, in the front of the room, and I was the only one talking,” she said.
Clearly, Dr. McCann faced an unfamiliar situation, in more ways than one. She knew little about New England, had never been asked to present a vision, and had never seen a more exciting position than the one described by Antioch in its search for a Director of Environmental Education. But McCann thrives on unfamiliarity. After growing up on a farm in Kentucky, she has been a newcomer in New Jersey, New Zealand, San Francisco, places rural and urban, Seattle and Wisconsin. She sees engagement in a community as part of her passion for learning. Given her doctoral dissertation, Passion and Persistence: A Study of Communities of Practice in Schools, McCann notices passion. She heard it in the voices gathered before her on the morning of her presentation.
She made the most of her discomfort. “I find passion to be constantly evolving, lending itself to learning, making me willing to take risks, to challenge myself, and to feel a little uncomfortable…. [The presentation] turned out to be a great exercise. We should all have to think about our vision.”
McCann’s biggest surprise, though, came when she entered the room that morning. For her, that moment has distinguished Antioch students from others she has taught in the past two decades. “It was seven-thirty in the morning, and I walked in to see a full turnout of students! I mean, that was very impressive. That students would show up at that hour, just to meet a candidate, speaks to their interest and self-direction. They seem to go above and beyond. As a teacher that really gets me excited. It’s fantastic. We can learn together. Just fantastic.”
Sensing the students’ engagement, she seized upon it, asking them to draw a picture of their vision and list qualities that could contribute to it. Later, she said, “I do that kind of stuff all the time, and I get lots of questions— ‘well, what do you mean exactly?’ or ‘how should we be doing this?’ But, at Antioch, it was clearly old hat. I thought, ‘Wow! This is significantly easier.’ I felt very welcome.”
When McCann assumes her responsibilities on July 1, she will dive into “a great adventure,” in her words, “a chance to teach adults and environmental education, which is rare, and to do some work around the future direction for environmental education, the larger mission of Antioch and the department.” She brings deep experience in teaching educators and designing curricula that connect children to the land, especially through schoolyard habitat restoration. Most recently, she served as the director of the non-profit Earth Partnership for Schools Program, a national environmental education initiative, headquartered at the University of Wisconsin’s Madison Arboretum.
Her close ties with farming have rooted McCann to earth with a force she feels “very lucky and privileged to have.” She said, “I hear about ‘nature deficit disorder’ and the like among kids, and I’m so happy that being part of the natural world was just a given when I was a kid.” In New Zealand, she worked on organic farms for several months while traveling alone by bicycle. And she remains an avid cyclist.
“Like New Zealand, New Hampshire looks pretty hilly,” she says, with little trepidation. “That’s good, much more interesting biking than Wisconsin. I’ve heard rave reviews about how beautiful New England is, so I’m looking forward to getting out there.” A woman who embraces challenge, Libby McCann will throw herself into the hills and valleys of her new surroundings. And, from every indication, open arms will greet her.