Longtime Stone Valley Middle School teacher Teresa Butler-Doran is preparing to leave her familiar stomping grounds for an international trip and research project that she anticipates could lead to new strategies for her class and others in the San Ramon Valley School District by the next school year.
Butler-Doran is just one of two California teachers this year to be selected for a Fulbright Teacher Exchange award, which is set to offer the opportunity to bring her academic, career, and personal interests together via a trip to Finland where she aims to get hands-on research about the country's educational system, with a focus on how climate change is addressed and taught in Finnish schools.
The news came June 13 at 2:35 p.m., which Butler-Doran remembers vividly and said was one of the most exciting moments of her life. It was also potentially one of the most exciting scenes to ever unfold in the waiting room of the dental office where she was first notified.
"I look at the email and all I see in the details is 'congratulations,' and I just flip out," Butler-Doran said. "The receptionist said 'are you ok?'"
After assuring the concerned receptionist and making brief phone calls to key supporters, including Stone Valley principal Justin White and her husband, Butler-Doran had to wait just a little longer for further conversations and next steps.
"It was really difficult to sit for a dentist's appointment after that," Butler-Doran said.
Butler-Doran said that the award was entirely unexpected, with the application leading up to it being what she considered a final attempt to find a program that would allow her to accomplish a longtime goal of understanding the Finnish school system and bringing lessons from it back to her own classroom in Alamo.
It started when she read a 2013 USA Today article her mother handed her about the poor performance of U.S. public schools compared to those in other countries, particularly Finland.
"I just thought it would be really cool to go there and see what they're doing, and learn something, and bring it back," Butler-Doran said.
While she went on to look into opportunities that would provide the necessary funding and travel options – specifically PhD programs – she ultimately decided against trying to juggle an intensive graduate program while raising two children.
Before giving up on the idea entirely though, she decided to take a final shot last year, when she discovered and applied for the Fulbright award.
"Nothing was lining up, so last year in September I decided 'let's just look at it one more time,' so I typed in the search engine 'international teaching opportunities,' and one of the first things I saw was the Fulbright program," Butler-Doran said.
With Finland being among the countries available for proposed projects via the program, Butler-Doran solidified her decision to apply, and to prepare as much as possible for the application process.
"I thought 'I've got to go for it,' so I decided I was going to apply and I thought 'I need to prepare myself a little bit,'" Butler-Doran said.
As part of that process, Butler-Doran registered for and completed an online course via Fulbright on cultural competency and STEM education.
"I completely shifted my perspective for my career in the future," Butler-Doran said, "I had no idea that this class would be so amazing. I finished the course and just became really motivated with all kinds of things with global competency."
While Butler-Doran has been at her post teaching science at Stone Valley for 26 years now, she said that she's always had an appreciation for international travel, having been born to Polish immigrant parents and making trips to their home country throughout her childhood.
In the final application for the award, Butler-Doran decided to add another element that is increasingly and universally relevant to students across the globe.
"Climate change is so incredibly important, and I teach it in class, so I decided maybe if I linked all the stuff together it would be a really good idea," Butler-Doran said. "So I decided to propose that I would connect students there with students in our district."
Butler-Doran is continuing her regular duties at Stone Valley through the end of the fall semester before heading to Finland from January through June. While the outcome of her project is still tentative, pending her experiences on the ground, she said she has a vision so far of what she will be bringing back to the classroom upon her return next year.
"I anticipate that I will have a unit of lessons that I designed for specifically connecting kids here with students in Finland, and having them collaborate together on their climate effects in either country to share out stuff and to collaborate on what kind of action to take," Butler-Doran said.
She added that she had been in early talks with SRVUSD about rolling out the unit throughout the district.
"I expect that I will probably put this out district-wide, share out and hopefully support teachers with connecting more with other countries," Butler-Doran said.