This summer marks the end of Clarke County Public Schools instructor Beth Novak’s 14 year career teaching horticulture to area students. Novak has introduced hundreds of students to the benefits and pleasures of local gardening while also providing her students with a vision for environmental sustainability on a global scale. In a very real sense, Novak’s career has sown the seeds for a better tomorrow in the garden of today’s youth. In recognition of her years of dedicated service to Clarke County students, Beth Novak in her own words:
CDN: How long have you taught at CCPS?
Novak: I’ve been teaching at CCHS for 14 years.
CDN: Where did you go to school and what degrees do you have?
Novak: I graduated with an Associate Degree in Horticulture from Lord Fairfax Community College. I am also licensed by the state of Virginia to teach horticulture on the high school level.
CDN: Do you plan to continue in education elsewhere?
Novak: I love teaching so I plan to continue sharing my horticultural knowledge on some level, but probably not in the public education venue.
CDN: Why are you leaving?
Novak: The administration and school board stated that there is less interest in horticulture classes so they cut my class schedule to one class. There was never a clear answer on why a new agriculture teacher was hired if numbers have decreased, or why I lost my position to her, perhaps the administration could answer that question for you.
CDN: What plans do you have career wise (or any other way that you’d like to respond)?
Novak: I had never planned to teach, but have spent 14 happy years doing that, so now I’ll take time to step back, and see where life takes me next.
CDN: What have been your greatest rewards/challenges from teaching?
Novak: As I said I’d never planned to teach, and certainly not in a high school setting because the teenage years can be challenging, but my life has been greatly enriched by the young people I’ve had the opportunity to work with. We’ve worked together to meet goals in our curriculum; we’ve worked with young people and older people in the community on outreach projects, and through it all I have been delighted by their charm, wit, dedication, and concern about the world around them. I’m a better person for having worked with them – who knew?
As far as challenges – it’s always a huge challenge to provide students with meaningful learning connections that are real to them. Fortunately for me, horticulture makes it easy by providing connections to their world that can be seen on a daily basis so opportunities for teaching were just outside the door – Mother Nature provides the chalkboard for learning.
CDN: Horticulture seems to be an important part of your life, is that true outside of school?
Novak: When we moved to Clarke County and purchased our property I realized I really didn’t know much about nature. I couldn’t identify the trees or plants in my yard, I was skittish about the insects and other critters I found on our property, so I decided I needed to be educated and started by taking classes in horticulture because that was what was available and the rest as they say is history.
My horticulture studies helped me to understand that we are all gardeners on this vegetative planet, so whether I have formal gardens, flower gardens, or grow all of my own food (which I don’t) is not the point, the point is we all need to know how it works and what our part is in keeping it sustainable. I’ve loved learning about it, I’ve loved sharing my passion with my students and I know I’ll continue to learn more throughout my life – it’s just that kind of subject!
CDN: Is horticulture education changing as people become more environmentally aware? If so how?
Novak: Environmental awareness has made more people realize what they don’t know about nature and what it has created is a need for education on the topic. I’ve often had adults express a desire to take my classes and many wished they had had the opportunity when they were in high school. So the desire for horticulture education exists, but opportunities are limited, partly, I think, because horticulture is often presented as just a “flowery” thing, not as serious agriculture, when the reality is that horticulture is everyman’s agriculture and everyone needs the knowledge so they can make wise choices and decisions throughout their lives.
CDN: Have the classes that you teach changed over the last few years? (i.e. different student makeup, different student career goals, etc?)
Novak: My classes have changed over the years in large part because of the information that’s become available about the environment. As I incorporated bits of that into the curriculum, the feedback from my students was very interesting; – they were curious about what was going on, they were angry at social injustices, they were concerned about their futures, they were dismayed at damage being done to the planet – mostly they wanted to know more, so for the past several years that has been a focal point in our learning experiences together.
Also, the population of my classes has been predominately female. They are drawn to the class by the idea of working with fresh flowers which they love, but they make the leap from flowers to sustainable gardening rather quickly and now I am seeing more students thinking about furthering their education in the horticulture field – with a focus on environmental and sustainable issues. I’ve always seen it as a way to get more girls involved in a field that they might otherwise ignore.
CDN: We live in an increasingly urban society. Is horticulture still relevant?
Novak: Urban society or rural society, my perception is that horticulture will always be relevant, because we live on a vegetative planet and we depend upon plants for our survival. When society was primarily rural it was easier to cede the responsibility to our farmers because they had the knowledge of the land, but now, as we lose more and more land to development, we must all step up to the plate and do our part.
CDN: Anything else that you would like to add?
Novak: I would just like to add that I was given the opportunity to teach at CCHS by Eleanor Smalley. She is a person of vision and she liked the horticulture program – it existed because she believed in it – so for that I am grateful. The fabric of my life has been enriched by my students and by all of the people in the community who have supported the program for all these years. So I’d like to thank them all – it’s been fun!