| Teagan Papke

Wild Winds, Wise Staff, and Hot Tub Support: Why Cottonwood Rocks!

How a Focus on Employee Wellness is Setting This Environmental Education Nonprofit Apart. Written by Cottonwood Instructor Alo McGarigal.

Cottonwood staff and instructors posing as a group at spring trainingAs a new field instructor for Cottonwood Institute this spring, April has been a whirlwind of onboarding, training, and getting acquainted with the incredible team. Having worked for various environmental education non-profits, I’ve seen a range of new educator trainings. What sets Cottonwood apart is its unwavering commitment to employee wellness and support, a rare and invaluable trait in our sector. This, coupled with our dedication to providing top-notch education services to the community, truly sets us up for growth and sustainability in our field.

A white board with instruction best practices at spring trainingCottonwood sets the stage for success by assembling a team of seasoned and capable educators, each bringing unique skills and experiences to the table. This team brings so much to the table, from emergency medicine to social work and from nature connection to flyfishing. The organization’s leadership team is excited to elevate that knowledge and celebrate its employees’ diversity of skills and experiences.

The atmosphere blended light-hearted humor and serious discussions during our staff training weekend. We joked about the windspeed that could peel human skin off (we were experiencing gale-force winds that weekend in the front range) and delved into the important topic of supporting students using trauma-informed teaching strategies. One of the most valuable training exercises was a scenario-based discussion in pairs, where we shared and analyzed real behavior scenarios from past Cottonwood trips. This exercise sparked insightful discussions about providing our students with the best social-emotional support, mental health first aid, and trauma-informed teaching.

Cottonwood staff and instructors play a teambuilding game at spring trainingAnother notable part of the training was our focus on getting the team up to speed on Cottonwood’s new risk management protocol. Our risk management leader, Sadie, has been overhauling our policies, practices, and manuals to provide us with tools to manage risk and respond to incidents with precision and support. I have never seen such a comprehensive and user-friendly organization-wide risk management plan. Because I am new to Cottonwood, I was privileged to spend almost a full day of training focused on learning their system. I am confident that I have the skills to implement the plan, identify problems as they arise, and reach out to our on-call, sitting in a hot tub drinking hot chocolate, when I need that cup of calm and support.

Sadie teaching risk management protocols at spring trainingLast week, those of us who are teaching our popular watershed program got to go on a field trip training to scope out the site where we base camp in Leadville, CO. This year, we are running three five-day watershed programs this summer for high school-aged youth out of the Colorado Outward Bound campus. Students will be exploring important and urgent issues of water scarcity and pollution facing Colorado’s growing population, as well as creating personal water connections through flyfishing and whitewater rafting. The program was developed and piloted last summer with such great success that we have more program requests than funding for programs this summer. I am looking forward to leading two of these programs this season!

Looking forward, as I continue to engage with Cottonwood Institute, I am inspired by how the organization is designed and managed. I believe that Cottonwood is a leader in the environmental education field in its dedication to building a strong, resilient, and resourced community equipped with the tools to inspire shifts in the way we humans relate to the more-than-human world.

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