Kenan Fellowship helps Eaton continue lifelong drive to learn

Even with 30 years in the classroom, Polk County Middle School social studies teacher Eric Eaton still considers himself a learner.

Eaton recently completed a year-long fellowship with the Kenan Fellows Program for Teacher Leadership, part of the Kenan Institute for Engineering, Technology and Science at North Carolina State University. Teachers are selected from across the state each year for immersive experiences with businesses, industries and nonprofits to help teachers build networks with industries, institutions and individuals to advance learning in the classroom.

Eaton was one of 38 teachers from across North Carolina selected for the 2023-2024 cohort to connect with other teachers and institutions across the state for their fellowship year. After an application and interview process, Eaton was selected and partnered with the Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards (SAWS) and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund to learn about land stewardship efforts and the work of SAWS, an organization based in Asheville that helps maintain designated wilderness areas in North Carolina and the Southeast.

As part of the fellowship, Eaton developed learning guides and educational materials for SAWS to use with other teachers across the state to encourage student engagement in outdoor recreation, land stewardship and related careers, especially underrepresented groups.

“I have a great interest in getting our students outdoors and beyond the four walls of a classroom,” Eaton said. “There are many ways we can integrate history and science with the great outdoors, all while helping students develop new skills.

“The outdoors offers so many opportunities for learning, improvement of physical and mental health, and career paths as well. Our state and federal lands, along with the outdoor recreation industry in Western North Carolina, are an important economic driver of our region. Our students need to be made aware of the great potential of these opportunities even in middle school.”

Eaton hopes to continue to integrate outdoor learning into his history classes in the coming year with various projects thanks to the training and networking offered through the Kenan Fellows Program.

“In my 30 years of teaching in Polk County, my fellowship in the Kenan Fellows Program has, by far, been my most rewarding professional experience,” he said. “I want to encourage other teachers to consider becoming a part of this amazing program to help our students be successful in North Carolina’s future.”

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