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A Curiosity for the World

Alum Caleb Clark shares his story and the impact his degree in geography from UT has on his life, his experiences, and his teaching.

When I first stepped onto the campus at the University of Tennessee, I arrived with a worldview and passions that had been honed through a tremendous upbringing. A variety of life experiences had helped to shape a curiosity for the world around me, especially for how we came to live in the world we see around us today. A central question was forming in my life, “How do people’s experience shape the way they see and interact with the world?” I transferred to Tennessee after spending a summer teaching conversational English in Shashi, China. My time there showed me where my passion and talents aligned – being in the classroom and teaching. Choosing to major in history and minor in geography allowed me to pursue that same central question.

After graduating from UT, I spent the next eight years teaching at West High School, an international baccalaureate (IB) school in Knoxville, before moving to an IB School in Louisiana. In that time, I have taught everything from IB Theory of Knowledge, AP Human Geography, AP US History to World Geography and Ancient History. I would not be the teacher I am today without the inspiration from many of my professors in the UT Department of Geography.

As a student in the geography department, I immediately connected with professors who shared my passions for understanding the world around them and challenging long standing cultural assumptions. My first class was with Professor Kalafsky and, after a brief aside on where to find good ethnic food in Knoxville, he launched into a lecture that opened the first door on my journey to answering my central question. A passion for teaching could always be felt in his classes and that energy was infectious amongst his students. I learned one of the greatest lessons about teaching from him in that first class and in the three more I took over the following years: building a good rapport with your students begins with authenticity. There is no substitute for a humble approach to learning with a genuine thirst for inquiry. Teaching in high school has its challenges, but if students recognize that you are there to learn alongside them, they are willing to go the extra mile for you. Professor Kalafsky embodied that authenticity and inspired me to take that risk with my students every day in the classroom.

Another one of my favorite professors was the late Professor Rehder. I am reminded of him as I drive through sugarcane fields in southern Louisiana. His ability to use story and narrative as a vehicle to deliver subject matter was impeccable. It was in his courses, among others, that I learned the value of a good story. We all find ourselves somewhere along a journey and our experiences do shape how we view the world around us. My professors at UT met me where I was and spoke into my story. They helped shape the narrative and projection of my central question. It was especially my geography courses that I learned how to use the power of story in education. In any story, context is everything. My geography courses provided me with the tools to develop context for any subject by looking at it through multiple perspectives and lenses. That experience of looking at a question from multiple perspectives has become central to my teaching philosophy. In all of the classes that I teach, I ask students to approach each subject from a variety of perspectives, thus providing them greater context. Looking at issues from multiple angles provides new solutions and chances for them to hone their creative problem solving skills.

I still feel my central question driving my purpose in education. Each day I attempt to take a humble and authentic approach to learning. I strive to use story as a vehicle to meet my students where they are. Our experiences do shape how we view the world around us, and my experience at the University of Tennessee became one of the most important ones of my life. I am especially indebted and deeply grateful for the tremendous impact the professors in the geography department had on my story.

–Submitted by Caleb Clark