By Chris Mannara
Education can often take on a traditional meaning of students sitting down, reading a book and taking a test. For Pagosa Peak Open School (PPOS) Director Angela Crossland, education means so much more than that.
“I think of education as an opportunity for both the students within our building and within our community,” she said in a recent interview.
Those opportunities do not just start and end with the students, Crossland noted, but also carry over to PPOS’s staff.
“We are very different from that,” Crossland said of the traditional thought on education. “It’s an opportunity to, yes, read a book, but it often isn’t a text book. It’s an informational text, it’s a website, it’s a fictional text that we can learn from.”
In a classroom, a student has the opportunity, with multiple sources, to create their own opinion on any given subject, Crossland noted.
Crossland began her role as PPOS school director in the fall of 2019, taking over for former school director James Lewicki.
Previously, Crossland served as the instructional guide, grant coordinator and assessment coordinator for Mountain Middle School in Durango.
Growing up, Crossland explained that she never thought she would want to be a classroom teacher; however, a mentor at a Girl Scout camp where Crossland was working gave her a new perspective on her future career.
Crossland explained that she worked at this camp as early as 16 years old, and that mentor was getting a degree in environmental education.
“I thought to myself, I can get paid to play in the dirt with kids?” Crossland said. “That’s what kind of struck my desire to be able to move forward and look at it.”
Originally, Crossland got her bachelor’s degree in environmental education and natural resource management in hopes of running youth programs at environmental centers.
“I did that for a few years before somebody asked me to come to the classroom,” Crossland said, noting that it was a long-term substitute position for about two months.
What Crossland liked about that time in her life was having the same students over and over again in a class and watching them grow.
“That was really important to me to know that kids were developing relationships that were healthy with adults related to education,” she said.
However, as a student, Crossland explained that she struggled herself.
“If you would have talked to most of my elementary and middle school teachers, they would be surprised I became an educator because of those struggles,” she said. “I think my struggles in school, at a younger age, I think always made me a better educator because I could relate to the kids that were struggling.”
That perspective allowed Crossland to put herself in the students’ shoes and understand what they were going through.
“Often my students would say, ‘This comes easy to you,’ and so, I do tell my students about my struggles and I think they’re often surprised that I struggled in reading or that I struggled in math,” she said.
Those struggles, as well as having to overcome those hurdles, gave Crossland a growth mindset, she noted, adding that those are important things to teach the kids.
The transition and the future
The decision to take the position of PPOS school director was one that was based in a need to be challenged, Crossland explained.
In her last position, Crossland explained that she found a lot of reward in helping a school to build systems and structures that will last for a long time.
“I got to a point where maybe that challenge wasn’t there anymore,” she said. “I wanted to go back to that challenge of a young school that is needing some support.”
With PPOS still being a relatively young school, having opened its doors in September of 2017, Crossland explained that she understood there would be challenges.
What comes with those challenges is the ongoing effort to increase test scores at PPOS, she explained.
PPOS’s work plan was an important thing to develop early on to get all the stakeholders in the school on the same page, she explained.
PPOS also is working on being able to support its teachers with professional development, Crossland added later.
“The standards are the beginning points for our projects this year,” she said.
Importance of it all
Crossland noted that she understands how important teachers and educational leaders are to students in all forms of education.
“I think that I can look back on my education and I can pinpoint a couple of teachers that really affected me,” she said. “I look back at the qualities that they have and want to be able to instill some of those things in myself as well as educators around me.”
About three months into her first teaching position, Crossland explained that she went to her mom to get the contact information for her former first-grade teacher.
The reason behind this was so that Crossland could send her a thank you note for the compassion and kindness she showed Crossland when she was a student.
“I think all kids should have those teachers that they look back at,” she said. “But I don’t believe that teacher that they look back at is their best friend. I think of it as somebody who created boundaries for them, that helped support them, that believed in them.”
Some of her most rewarding experiences as an educator involved taking students outside of the classroom walls and learning through experiences, she noted.
Those experiences included backpacking, traveling to Australia, New Zealand and other places across the world on educational trips.
“I think for kids to learn through those types of experiences has been a phenomenal part of my education career,” she said.
Pagosa Springs as a community does well in providing some of those experiences to students in regard to project-based learning, she explained.
“It seems like so many people are willing to get involved,” she said. “We’ve found some great fieldwork to be able to go out.”
Local PPOS elementary students have shown Crossland a new energy and imagination to learning.
“That’s been great to come and see,” she said. “Some of that is partially the kids in Pagosa. They have this energy and enlightenment and they want to share and they’re very open to new people.”