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Robert McGee: Educator and Outdoorsman

Published Jan. 13, 2011

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If he hadn't gone on that bike trip, things might have turned out differently.
After college, Robert McGee set out with some friends to bike across the country. When they ran out of money, the trip was cut short and he answered an ad to lead a canoe trip in the Everglades. But when he showed up for the job, they asked him if he could teach.
And it turned out he could.
Today, Robert has been a teacher for more than three decades. He teaches math at Madison's Country School, at which he helped craft the mission statement and will mark his 30th anniversary next year. He helped found that institution's Outdoor Education program and advises grade 6 students.
"I have never observed faculty more dedicated to providing students with the confidence and self-esteem necessary to meet challenges and face adversity," says Martha Lord, head of school at The Country School.
"You wear a lot of hats and you do a lot of things," Robert says. "Teaching grades 5 to 8 is an incredible experience because I get to work with kids for three years in a row and there's quite a difference between grades 5 through 8."
Although Robert didn't plan to pursue teaching, he loves his job and has never looked back.
"I didn't necessarily train to be a teacher, but it's something that is very natural to me," he says. "I found out at the first school I was at, where it was so challenging, that I really care about the kids and helping them grow."
The first job he refers to was at East Haddam's Beckett Academy, the boarding school for troubled youth where Robert got his start and says he learned a lot about teaching.
"It was one of the most amazing teaching gigs I ever had," he says. "If you weren't open, honest, and being true, they would know it right away."
From there, Robert went on to join The Country School, which he says was "incredibly idealistic, in its infancy stages." The school was indeed a new place and just 25 years old at the time.
"One of the things I really liked being part of in the early years was writing the mission statement. I've stayed 30 years because I'm enamored of the goals and how it [the school] defines itself," he says.
Robert grew up in Woodstock, Vermont, a small town where he says he had an idyllic upbringing, during which he learned to love the outdoors.
"I had one of those childhoods where I was riding my bike every day with a baseball cap and a fishing pole," he says. "But my dad was in World War II and never wanted to sleep on the ground again, so we never had outdoor experiences."
Nevertheless, Robert loved hiking and camping and found a group of friends who would accompany him on trips, eventually bicycling through his native Vermont and Europe.
"I loved sleeping in the tents and being cold and waking up in the morning and the beauty and serenity of being outside," he says.
So, it was only natural that when he came to the Country School in 1981, he would be one of three teachers who created the outdoor program he now directs.
"It's really the heart and soul of what the school is about," Robert says of the outdoor program, which organizes field trips that take students to experience activities of varying levels of difficulty, from on-campus trails to Utah whitewater rafting journeys. The program, Robert says, is less about adventure than about "helping the kids grow as people and understand themselves…to learn how to be a part of something."
Although Robert says he won't take another cross-country cycling trip like the one he took in his youth, the outdoors is still a vital part of his life-in part, he says, because he is indoors, teaching, for much of the day, many days from 6:45 a.m. to 5 at night.
"[Being outdoors is] my chance to listen to the wind blow through the leaves," he says. "I still love to just walk in the woods," he says, and adds that he also enjoys kayaking and mountain biking or camping with his family.
"My wife will be the first to tell you I don't think we've ever stayed in a hotel," he says. "I've always taken my kids on outdoor trips for two weeks at a time."
Robert lives in Deep River with his wife Nancy, a special education teacher and former teacher of the year at Haddam-Killingworth High School. They have two children, Mary and Thomas, both graduates of The Country School. Mary currently studies at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania; Thomas is at the University of Connecticut, Storrs.
To nominate a person of the week, call 203-245-1877, ext. 6146 or email
Robert McGee invites prospective students and their parents to visit his classroom during the school's open house on Sunday, Jan. 30 from 1 to 3 p.m. at The Country School, 341 Opening Hill Road, Madison.

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