Darrell Bley, curator and horticulture instructor at the Niagara Parks School of Horticulture, received more than 16 letters of recommendation from former students, colleagues, and industry leaders for the title of Outstanding Educator of the Year for 2020.
In those letters, there were many reoccurring statements, including the fact Bley is the first to arrive on campus and the last to leave, that he is committed to leading extra-curricular activities and that he cares deeply about his students. Bley is characterized as kind, patient, dedicated and the students’ biggest supporter.
“My class, the class of 2020, was truly brought closer together because of Darrell,” one letter of recommendation reads. “He has put in hours well above and beyond his contract to: help us study, help us plan our annual study tours (three in total) and with planning fun activities for the school community like the school musical band and the NCLC competition.”
Bley has been described as “the educator you always wanted, and after dozens of teachers coming and going you never thought would actually exist.” He makes a point to continue to learn for himself. If there is any question a student asks that he does not have the answer to, he will respond “Let me look into it” followed by a well-researched response a few days later.
“Darrell Bley is the true embodiment of what it means to be an instructor,” another letter reads. “He has an unbelievable amount of passion for sharing what he knows and wants to help you to know what he knows. I have the utmost respect for this man, and always will, and I believe that every person at my school, will stand behind that statement.”
While this award is traditionally presented at the National Collegiate Landscape Competition, due to the pandemic Bley’s recognition was delayed. He was recently presented his award in an outside ceremony attended by students and staff. NALP caught up with Bley to learn more about his career.
When were you first attracted to horticulture?
I grew up in a rural area and I grew up with working on a farm for vegetable production. We did greenhouses and annual bedding and cut flowers so I always interested in that aspect of growing plants and so forth. Now I think horticulture just kind of came along for the ride and I started to go outside of working on the farm and looking for summer work.
How did you end up an educator yourself?
When I left school, I had my own company, and I was on the Faculty Advisory Committee for Niagara College where I’d gone to school. And I returned home one evening and my wife had talked to the program coordinator and they needed a teacher for soils. So, she said, “Darrell would love to teach.”
How long have you been teaching?
I taught at Niagara College for 28 years, but I’ve been full-time here as a teacher at Niagara Parks for 25 years.
How did you settle on woody plants as your specialty?
I have loved trees since I was a little kid. When I was taking horticulture that was one of my most favorite topics. And as I proceeded to this place where I’m teaching, there was an opening, a retirement, that provided the opening for the position that involved woody plants and those types of things. So I just progressed right into exactly where I wanted to be. So, it’s really a nice transition and the door that was open was the perfect door.
What is the No. 1 lesson you hope students take away from your class?
There’s a few. Definitely I always think that students have to push themselves to learn more. I think the classroom is just the gateway that opens the opportunity to learn more on that subject matter. So I really hope the students push themselves.
The other thing I always think is really important is for the students to connect the dots from one course to the next because there’s a lot of interconnection between topic matters. Then they get the sense of what the whole picture is so that’s what I really hope the students take away from the class.
What is your biggest challenge as an educator?
I think one of the biggest challenges is one simple word and that is time. I think if you want to teach some course material and you want to teach at a bit of a higher level, I always think that there’s that aspect of time that you never seem to have enough time. We have a busy program here and the days just fly by.
What do you think is a significant barrier preventing young people from being interested in the landscape industry?
I think they look at horticulture as hardworking, and I think it takes a certain person to say, “You know what I’m interested in working in elements, throughout the seasons.” I think definitely the aspect of physical work, you have to have a love and a passion for doing that.
And I think also there’s a concept that it’s seasonal in nature and it really isn’t. If you do a good job and start to rise very quickly so you can be employed 12 months a year full time. I don’t think it’s promoted enough at the high school level. There are some high school programs that focus on horticulture now as a skilled trade, which is perfect. I think we need a lot more of that.
Who is your mentor?
My mentor would be one teacher that I had at Niagara College. His name was Peter Mansfield. Peter was a real top-notch teacher. He was tough. He made you learn. When I first started teaching woody plants, I was maybe 25 and I remember trying to think I’m going to emulate how he talks.
What I’ve always tried to do if I see somebody who I really admire who they are, their traits, maybe their work ethic, it can be a number of things, but I always try to say I like that aspect of that individual. And I try to bring that forward. I think about that quite a bit. I usually make a list of certain attributes I see in other people and I remind myself quite often and I try to bring those aspects forward. It becomes more automatic the longer you do it. I think he influenced my passion and my love for woody plants.
What does it mean to you to be named the Outstanding Educator of the Year?
It was a really nice surprise. It really makes me very proud of the students I’ve taught. It’s very satisfying to be recognized for the fact that you’ve influenced a lot of kids and helped to build their character towards the future and find their passion and field they want to go into.
I really think that’s satisfying and what I really love to see. I have a very good rapport with a lot of graduates. I keep in touch with a lot of graduates. On a very personal level, that means a lot to me after they graduate and go forward with their career path. I’m really excited with where they end up in a short amount of time. They end up in some great, beautiful places, some very beautiful jobs all around this planet.
In five years where do you see horticulture education? Where will you be?
Personally, I’m going to be at a crossroads. I’m going to be 65 in five years and I’m not sure if retirement is going to sit well with me. I really love what I do every day. I love coming to work and I think I’m going to love it as much in five years. I’m going to stay busy whether retired or not. I’m going to definitely stay on the teaching side of things and I can hopefully visit a lot of the botanical gardens around this world.
In the industry, I see where some of the community colleges are starting to do a lot more online teaching. I think it should be classroom teaching. I really hope where it goes is the more practical-based programs you have, the better.
What advice would you give to other horticulture educators trying to get young people interested in the landscaping field?
It’s important to push the boundaries of the students. Don’t keep it generic. I think you really need to push them forward and you can take all students whether they’re strong, weak or in the middle of the class, you can push them forward. In order to do that, you need to keep it fun in the classroom. I think there’s a lot of room for stories. I think as an educator, you need to be extremely professional. That’s important to set that higher level of professionalism.
It doesn’t matter who you are in the class, I take equal time to teach you. I really make sure I equalize my opportunities amongst every single student in there. I think it’s important to stay current, and one of my mottos, something I have written down on a piece of paper is I want to learn something every day. I stay current. I do a lot of reading, trying to really push my boundaries of interest well outside of horticulture.
Want to nominate an Oustanding Educator for 2021? Click here to submit an application.
This article was published in the Sept/Oct issue of the magazine.