How I Became a Nature Preschool Teacher


Notes: While I was applying to college, I didn’t have the slightest idea that I would end up being a nature preschool teacher. I realized as I sat down to write this blog, that I first had a story to tell about how I came to this career. This first entry should be thought of as preface to future entries about my preschool and the work I do each week. I felt that this was an integral part of my journey to adulthood through my years at Wheelock College.

Hilary Johansen at Nature CenterMy name is Hilary Johansen. I attended Wheelock College from 2008-2012. I declared my major right off the bat: Visual Arts and Special Education. I wanted to be an art teacher or art therapist, or something similar. I wasn’t 100% sure yet, but I figured this was a good place to start. I set a goal for myself that I would register for my CORE classes and my GEN-EDs each semester, while still leaving myself space for one “just for me” class.  So, I took my education courses and I took my art classes, but I also took “Improvisation”, and “Introduction to Plants and Animals.”   I was enjoying my courses, especially “Plants and Animals,” but was not feeling fulfilled overall. I chalked it up to the stress of school, and continued with the path I had set for myself.

By the time I began my first education practicum, I felt burnt out. I was not in love with the work I was doing in the classroom. I often found myself staring out the window, just wishing I was outside. I imagined showing the students how to look for bugs and worms, and helping them crack open acorns like I did as a kid.  I imagined teaching them how to identify birds and trees too. I expressed my interest in teaching more science lessons to my mentor teacher. She was supportive and had me write a lesson on worms. I was excited for the opportunity, but it was a short term fix.

In the spring of my junior year, in the midst of my practicum, I lost my grandmother, whom I had lived with my whole life. She had been a third parent to me. I spent about a month at home with my family while she was in and out of the hospital, and then in hospice care where she later passed. The Wheelock staff and my mentor teacher were generously accommodating of my needs. The Residence Life staff helped cover my RA duties while I was away too.  I felt incredibly supported.

Experiencing that loss was devastating and emotionally draining. It was life altering. I recall this “ah ha” moment when I returned to my student teaching practicum and finally realized why I wasn’t in love with it. I just plain didn’t want to do it.  After watching someone I love pass on helped me realize just how short life is. I knew that I couldn’t continue my education on the path I was on, because it was not making me happy. Why do anything if it doesn’t make you happy?

Soon after I returned to campus, I met with my academic advisors and they helped me tweak my major. I dropped to an education minor, and picked up a life science minor. I had decided I wanted to take as many science courses as possible before I graduated. It was this new path that led me to my passion for natural history. I quickly adopted Professor Sara Levine as my mentor. I took just about every class she offered, and even created an independent study under her tutelage. I was finally feeling challenged, driven, and fulfilled the way I hoped I would be.

I graduated with a new career path.  That summer, I started working as a teacher naturalist for Hale Reservation in Westwood, MA. I worked there seasonally for three years, while simultaneously working as a full time nanny.  One day I was checking out the Mass Audubon job listings, as I did from time to time, and there was an opening for a Nature Preschool teacher at the Boston Nature Center in Mattapan, MA.

The description hit every criteria that I was looking for in a job. Writing science-based curriculum, working with children outdoors, and taking daily nature walks! I immediately applied for the job and was lucky enough to be hired within 2 days of interviewing. I am now in my third year of teaching and I feel so lucky that I have a job I love. I am able to teach what I’m passionate about to the next generation of great minds.

I cannot help but smile when my students get excited about things such as composting, fungus, finding scat, or holding creepy crawlies. I feel so proud when the children are identifying plants, birds, and animal tracks on the trail. I get to teach about these topics every day! Sometimes I still can’t believe it.