Spotlight

Justin Smith and Melissa Amacher

Smith: Cred. ’14, MA ’15, Amacher: Cred. ’15, MA ’16

Tiny House, Big Lives: We asked the two married alumni to tell
 us how they balance their passions for teaching and travel—and how their very small house makes it all possible.

How did you meet?

MELISSA: We were teaching at Outdoor Ed, a weeklong residential outdoor science camp for fth graders and their teachers. Justin subbed for us one spring and I thought “Oh boy, there’s going to be trouble!” and here we are today.

JUSTIN: Outdoor Ed is phenomenal for students, but with only four days there isn’t time to build meaningful relationships with the students. So we left Outdoor Ed and went on some very big adventures across the world together and then came back to California to go to grad school.

Why did you transition to teaching?

JUSTIN: I’d been leading 20-day canoe trips in Florida with Outward Bound.
I thought I’d go into wilderness therapy. But being in Outdoor Ed made me realize I wanted to be a teacher.

MELISSA: I was on a medical school path—after Outdoor Ed I started a pre- med surgery internship at UC Davis and got a job as a substitute teacher in Dixon. That’s when I realized how much I loved teaching. Justin started the teaching credential program at UC Davis, and a year later I started there too. I absolutely fell in love. There’s just a magic with teaching. There’s such a beauty to it, in how you can present and play with the material—lesson planning is my absolute favorite. Grading on the other hand…

Where are you teaching now?

MELISSA: We’re both single subject science, and we both teach in middle schools. I teach eighth grade and Justin teaches seventh and eighth grades. But we’re in two very different worlds. I teach in El Dorado Hills. It’s very af uent.

JUSTIN: I teach in Rancho Cordova. We have 26 languages spoken at our school, we’re a Title I school, very low socio- economic status. Some of my students are facing things every day in their personal lives that I can hardly fathom. I want my science class to be a place for expression, creativity, problem-solving—the Next Gen Science Standards way of guring things out. I also believe I can’t teach kids unless I’ve built relationships with them, so I keep snacks in my classroom, and I have kids who show up to watch me teach basketball at 6:45 each morning, then come to my classroom to have breakfast and hang out.

MELISSA: Justin started a bike club and over 45 students are participating. The police department donated bicycles.

JUSTIN: I want to make learning fun. When they get excited about something, they’re all in. In Bicycle Club, we spend three hours and ride 15 miles down the trail by the river. We have a 27-kid pileup when they see a deer. Our school is a half-mile from the bike trail, and some of these kids have never been on it. It blows me away. Last year I did a STEM camp and took 60 kids to the mountains. Melissa was one of the chaperones.

MELISSA: At my school, I did astronomy night last year, and I have a mountain bike club, a garden club and an adventure club. I try to get the kids outside to connect to things they don’t have experience with. I’m battling a lot of mental health issues with my students. They can feel alone and separated and unable to connect.

Why did you start InspireOut?

MELISSA: We’ve run a backpacking program called InspireOut since 2010, when we hiked from Mexico to Canada on the Paci c Crest Trail and raised $5,000 so low-income kids could attend Outdoor Ed. It was an absolutely amazing, life-changing experience. I’d do it again in a heartbeat. We decided to keep going with InspireOut and use it to get kids into the backcountry. What they get out of the backcountry experience they bring to the front country, and it’s great to see the passion and con dence that stay with them. I say it’s like a trophy in their heart.

What’s the connection between a tiny house and big summer adventures?

MELISSA: We’d always wanted to build a yurt—we still probably will one day—and I had asked Justin what he thought about having a house that’s moveable, since we don’t know where we’ll end up teaching. We applied to be on Tiny House Nation and, a year later, when we were both in school, we built our 180-square-foot home with the show in eight days. We absolutely love living tiny. We say, for us, this is a mansion because for the rst years of our life together we lived out of our backpacks exploring the world. It works for us.

JUSTIN: It’s in line with our value of having a small carbon footprint, and we get so much freedom that I’ve embraced it completely. We don’t have a mortgage. We just bought tickets to Sweden and Norway for a kayaking trip next summer. Last summer we went to the Himalayas.

MELISSA: We rode our bicycles to Alaska the summer before that. We can continue doing the big adventures we love to do. My mother is a corporate lawyer, and she can’t leave her clients to do this stuff. We have our “clients” for 180 days during the school year and then have time to reset.

What do you wish people knew about teaching?


MELISSA: Society has no idea how much teachers do. The amount of multitasking you train your brain to do is astronomical. When I was new, I was just exhausted by how many quick decisions I had to make all day.

What did you love about your School of Education teaching programs?

MELISSA: Number one, we both love Rick Pomeroy.

JUSTIN: I did a good amount of
research before I chose UC Davis for my credential. The thought that went into the philosophy of the School of Education was so attractive. The time that Rick puts into making perfect placements for his teachers based on personality and t with school cultures is so wonderful. Both of our student teaching placements were stellar. I’m de nitely proud to say I did my credential and master’s at UC Davis. Everyone in the education arena knows what it means. 

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