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John Buford Wants To Keep On Teaching, Learning-Brevard NC


Last updated 5/13/2020 at 4:20pm

The last time Brevard College professor John Buford retired, he had no plans of slowing down.

The same thing can be said for his second time around as he says goodbye to 11 years of teaching at the school. Buford spent 20 years in the Marine Corps before he began his career as a Wilderness Leadership and Experiential Education (WLEE) professor at Brevard College, and now he's moving on to a third career as an author and leadership coach.

Buford grew up in a small farming town in central Illinois and referred to himself as a "flatlander," but said he now thinks of the mountains as his home. He loves Brevard and plans on staying here in retirement and even dying here, though not anytime soon, he adds.

"I've always been an outdoor kind of guy – whitewater paddling and Hiking and climbing, (but) really the big thing was leadership development," Buford said. "I've always been interested in leadership development. (I) had a lot of experience training in the Marines, and then was drawn to teaching. I did a lot of teaching in the Marines and it really seemed like a good fit. Even though being a college professor is about teaching, I really consider it about leadership development. That's really what drew me to the WLEE program."

Along with Buford, fellow WLEE professor and WLEE program founder Clyde Carter is also retiring from a long career at the college.

Buford believes the program will thrive with the infusion of new professors.

"Clyde and I are leaving but that's the natural progression of things, and I think really it's well timed," he said. "We're both in a good place, and they're getting a new faculty, new facility, new students. A new freshman class coming in and the new faculty they're looking at are going to be outstanding. I know it has room for growth. It's one of the biggest programs, and I just think it's timeless. Developing leadership and developing teachers are's part of the identity of the college."

Coming from carrying out missions all over the world in the military, to settling with his family in small-town Brevard was quite a transition for him, but Buford said his colleagues made his new job particularly enjoyable.

"I really feel blessed to have worked with many colleagues, but in particular I would just like to note my WLEE colleagues, Dr. Jennifer Kafsky, Robert Dye and, of course, Clyde Carter," he said. "I could not have asked for a better cohort of teammates for the last 10 years – incredible teachers and mentors – and I learned so much from them. It was quite a culture shock to go from a Marine Corps infantry to a small liberal arts college. So, they certainly helped me make the transition."

Buford believes strongly in the philosophy of service-based leadership. He's not interested in whether a student is extroverted or introverted, or how physically strong they are or how smart they may be.

The most important question he wants his students to ask themselves in a team setting is, "What is their best and highest role. How can I best serve my teammates in pursuit of a mission?"

And it's clear, like the program's core philosophy of learning by doing, Buford teaches this concept by embodying it.

Buford has always been dedicated to his students' success.

"That's how I measure my performance, is student outcomes," he said. "I think the only success I've had is expressed in the learning and development of my students. That's the one thing. Once in a while you get the teacher of the year or some kind of acknowledgment. It's not about me or anything. I got lots of medals and ribbons and those types of things from the military but, you know, the trophy on the wall isn't something that excites me too much. Any success I've had I just measure through student development."

Buford said he's had several students go on to serve in the military, and others have gone on to work in local camps, wilderness therapy and in Forest Service or Park Service jobs.

Regardless of where the student ends up, though, Buford said the lessons of learning how to contribute to a team and how to lead a team are valuable in any profession.

Buford wants to continue to develop leaders outside of academia. He is writing a book about how to lead authentically and is starting a leadership coaching business with his childhood friend. But, he said, he will certainly miss his students.

"I love my students," he said. "I love that I can have a small part in their character development. I really value my long-term relationships I have with them.

"A lot of them, I go to their weddings. (I give) job references 10 years later. Some have stayed at my house in between jobs. I share a cup of coffee when they're in town."

When asked about any specific stories from students that stood out to him, Buford said, in the end, he always heard students say the same thing over and over.

A large part of the WLEE program is dedicated to reflection, and in speaking with students, they always said they were surprised at how much they were capable of.

"There's no particular story, but I think that a reoccurring story is students realize that there's much more in them than they know," he said. "And that's really a common theme over and over and over for students to overcome self-limiting beliefs and realize that they have the ability and the power to control their own destiny and become the leader they want to be. That is the thing that really I've seen in every group of WLEE students I take out. I see that over and over and over, and to me that is the one thing they'll always remember and cherish about this program."

One big reason Buford believes so many students are able to come to that realization is because the wilderness forces students out of their comfort zone, no matter who they are.

"What we do out there is real," he said. "It's not contrived. It's not set up...I think that when students are in a position where they have to step out of their comfort zone and do something they really didn't think they could do, that's really a breakthrough moment. A lot of times in the classroom, we can, if there's safety nets, you know, you can always just quit or stop or take the easy road. But in the wilderness...things happen, and they're happening for real. And so students don't have the luxury of remaining in their safe space.

"They've got to step out of their comfort zone, physically, mentally or emotionally. And once they do that and they realize that they can succeed and they can overcome their self limiting beliefs. That's where I really see the 'aha' moments."

One might think that for a wilderness program, virtual teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic would be impossible.

But Buford said the pandemic, like any other unplanned difficulty, simply allowed him to teach his students about the power of pushing through adversity.

"One of my favorite books is by Stephen Ambrose called 'Undaunted Courage,' and it's about the Lewis and Clark expedition," he said. "One of the terms that Meriwether Lewis, one of the leaders, always said, was 'proceed on.' And students kind of took that on as their quip – proceed on. You can't stop when faced with adversity; you've got to keep going. We did it. We did a 21-day wilderness expedition on Zoom." He said the students still planned their trip as if they were going through with it, and the class still taught their lessons to each other, discussed wilderness first aid and practiced scenarios virtually.

Buford said he's just finished meeting with his immersion students to have an hour-long, one-on-one feedback session, and one of the things that struck him about his career in teaching, is how it is a "two-way street."

"I'm 58 years old, and I've got a lot of feedback in my life," he said. "What I relearned over the last few days is to listen intently and take action on the feedback that you get. And they gave me such honest, authentic feedback. A lot of it was, 'you are great' and 'thank you' and those types of things. But they gave me some really constructive feedback. And what I continually relearned from my students is that education goes both ways between the teacher and the students. And I constantly learn from them, where I can improve and try to take action on that.

"That's probably the biggest thing I learn from them is you're only old when you quit learning. You've got to be able to accept feedback objectively, reflect on it and take action on it. And that's probably the biggest thing I've learned from my students."

Now as Buford begins his third career, he plans to continue learning, as well as teaching others.


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