For many people, the phrase “living life on the wild side”
might mean taking an exotic vacation or spending money
on an extravagant gift. For Tara (McDunn) Johnson ’03,
it’s all about working with wolves at the International Wolf
Center in Ely, Minn.
Instead of utilizing her elementary education degree in a typical classroom setting, Johnson spends her days organizing and leading programs at the center, with workshops ranging from Pup 101 to Wolves and Humans, Wolf Communication and occasionally helping care for the wolves themselves.
“I get to teach people about an amazing animal by using a live pack of wolves in action,” Johnson says. “The wolves are the real teachers.”
The education grad credits Concordia with giving her the necessary tools and insight to teach hundreds of people from different demographics about wolves and society’s role in their survival.
“The professors in my department challenged us to put what we had learned and seen into action by doing methods courses and student teaching,” Johnson says. “This scaffolding was modeled well and is something I still use in my teaching today.”
Longtime mentor and friend Dr. Sue Ellingson, education chair and professor, says that even as an undergrad, Johnson was always ready for the next big adventure.
“Tara’s positive energy, enthusiasm and creative, collaborative teaching skills are definitely an asset to her new position,” Ellingson said after visiting Johnson in Ely during the summer.
For Johnson, teaching was an answer to a lifelong love of learning that stemmed from experiences cultivated by her time as a Cobber. One day, while checking her mail as a student, Johnson saw a booth advertising summer teaching opportunities in China.
“I remember thinking, ‘Wow! That would be amazing, but they would never choose someone like me with no teaching experience,’” recalls Johnson. “After talking with the representative and sitting through the information session, I knew it was for me. From that experience, I learned that I love to teach no matter what the age or background.”
Johnson brought the skills she learned in China with her to an inner-city art school in the Twin Cities, where only two of her students spoke English as their first language. There, she discovered the power of the outdoors in learning, an especially important element of her next job, working for the Appalachian Mountain Club in New Hampshire. She enjoyed showing students a real forest – for many it was the first time they’d seen one.
“I learned that I loved to help people experience nature,” she says.
Teaching at the wolf center is a dream come true – and she shares it with her best friend and husband, Peter, whom she met while working at the center in summer 2005.
“This place holds a lot of meaning for us and is a great fit for our lifestyle,” Johnson says.
The fast-paced lifestyle of teaching hundreds of people, all of various ages and backgrounds, definitely appeals to Johnson, who says her college experiences helped shape where she is now.
“I wouldn’t have been able to get here,” she says, “if it weren’t for people encouraging me to think outside the box and stretch myself.”