Thomas Jefferson

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TJ’s Environment is Changing

Posted 05/15/2024 by Jesse Smith

Mr. Butera’s class is filled with chemistry, psychics, APES information, and paintings by past students of the environments. photo by Emanuel Morales-Gomez

Mr. Butera, science teacher at TJ, is going half-time, meaning APES classes will be taking a hit. 

AP Environmental Science, also known as APES, is one of the many Advanced Placement (AP) classes offered at Thomas Jefferson and is also a student favorite. For years, Brett Butera has taught both APES and regular environmental science classes. However, he has made the decision to go half-time during the 2024-2025 school year, meaning that APES will no longer be offered to students. 

Butera made the decision to go half-time because of his young daughter, who will be starting Kindergarten next fall. With the new schedule that TJ is following next year, he and his wife knew that one of them would have to make a sacrifice in order to be there to pick up their daughter, meaning that he can no longer fit full-time teaching and the related stress into his schedule. While he loves teaching APES, he expressed how stressful it is compared to his other classes, mostly due to the 99 topics that they have to learn before the AP exam in May. 

Butera has always been interested in environmental sciences and science in general and he had the goal to become a park ranger after high school. He decided to go to Hocking College, a two-year college in Ohio. Hocking is a Natural Resources school that gives out degrees that can certify someone to become a park ranger. Butera participated in a lot of activities at Hocking – his classes would often consist of hiking into the woods and identifying the various structures and living organisms the class could find. “That has even more meaning and value to me than my bachelors degree and master’s degree,” he emphasized. Butera continued to study biological anthropology and became an environmental teacher at camps for ten years before pursuing an educational license. He traveled across the country, teaching, rock climbing, and working for camps during this time. After settling in Colorado he made the decision to become a teacher. He had always wanted to be a park ranger but after conducting a water ecology program at a camp a colleague told him he should get a license to teach, saying he had a talent for teaching, which gave him direction and sent him towards Thomas Jefferson, where Sharon Colbath hired him. 

Now, 19 years later, he is faced with the challenge of mismatched schedules with his child. His journey of being a teacher has continued to fulfill his passion for nature and environmental sustainability. “It was a confusing decision,” Butera stated. It was a while until he and his wife came to an agreement. “I was listening to NPR on the way home from work and there was a story about a middle school… and they had this model they adopted post-pandemic to help kids deal with issues and anxiety and it was let go and move on.” The school created this motto in hopes to help kids push through their struggles and not dwell on the past but look forward to the future instead. This reminded him of Buddhist philosophies that discuss the concept of not attaching our egos to something, the kind of mindset that “I’am this or that,” as Butera says. For him, this was the thought that he was attached to being an APES teacher.

 Another idea was impermanence, which is the thought of something or being around for a limited time. Butera said, “Things change man, maybe you were that, but it’s okay if you’re not that. I have other things that have come up that are important… being clinged to or attached to this idea that I am this or I am that is really just holding back.” Though he is not religious, he has read numerous books about Buddhist ideologies, and connecting the NPR story to the idea of impermanence helped him realize that while APES may have been one of the most important things in his life, that does not mean he has to stay devoted to it, as other things now trump the attachment that he has formed with the class. 

Butera has been teaching at Thomas Jefferson for 19 years and, while he knows he will not miss the stress of it, he will miss a lot of things. One of those is the field trip the class takes to Rocky Mountain National Park. For five or six years before COVID, the classes would go to Rocky Mountain and get to do forest inventory and work with the parks service. He even got to publish an article in the National Science Teachers Journal, “A Forest in Motion,” which talks about the field trip and how the trees change with the mountain’s climate. This will always be a high point of his career, as he described. 

Another part of being an APES teacher that he will miss is the many connections he has made with students. “I have had science students that have contacted me, and this is my tenth year teaching APES, so I’ve had students that have taken the classes and have become marine biologists and became environmental consultants, and years later they still reach out.” APES is a class that can help a lot of students realize the passion they have for environmental sciences and even help them decide what major or field they want to go into in the future. Butera has had a student go into mining because of his class, which goes into great depth on the effect of mines and acid mine drainage. 

Although he will miss a lot about APES, Butera knows not to dwell on it and instead continue his passion for environmental sciences. In the future he hopes that TJ might adopt an inclusive environmental science class. He envisions a non-AP class, one that is community, project, and activist based, a class that could have a strong community devoted to the class, one that could even be interdisciplinary. He hopes for a class that can include all – seniors, freshmen, students with special needs, advanced – all students. He knows to move on and focus on the future of his daughter and family instead.