Interview with Terry Porter, Olympian, Intrepid Observer of the Natural World and Teacher of Critical Thinking, Sustainable Business Practices
Dr. Terry Porter has taught in the UMaine Hutchinson Center’s professional development program since 2019. Her current offerings are Engaging Your Critical Thinking Skills and Going Green: Sustainability in Business.
Where are you based and what can you see out your window(s) today?
I’m at my home in Topsham, Maine. I moved here in 2019 when I retired from teaching at the University of Maine in Orono. Outside my window, I see some beautiful birch trees, as well as daffodils, lupines and lilacs.
Tell us a little bit about you and your background.
I’ve done a lot of different things in life. I started in sports as a young person, then got into sports administration, working in city parks, etc. I got a master’s degree in psychology and was a therapist for a while. After that, I went back to school again, got a Ph.D. and ended up teaching at the Maine Business School for thirteen years. I’ve always cared about the environment, studying natural history as an undergrad.
I love the outdoors, gardening, and working with my hands. Right now, I’m really excited about planting my garden. I couldn’t find any aspens at any nurseries in Maine so I recently liberated some aspen saplings from a nearby field and am trying to see if they’ll grow on my land.
How long have you been offering professional development and continuing education opportunities and how did you get into it?
Though I retired from UMaine in 2019 I knew I wanted to continue teaching. I met with some people from the UMaine Hutchinson Center, along with the dean of the Maine Business School and together, we collaborated to create the critical thinking program I now teach through the Hutchinson Center. I had taught some critical thinking to undergraduates but wanted to pursue it further so I did a lot of research and read up on it. I put together an approach that developed into the workshop I now teach.
I’d never worked with non-matriculated adult learners before and it was a really nice transition from leaving full-time academia to coming to this. I love working with adults who are so eager to learn, it’s fantastic.
Tell us a bit more about the critical thinking program you teach at the UMaine Hutchinson Center.
To me, critical thinking is a holistic field. It’s not just learning about how to solve problems, it’s learning more about yourself.
One of the biggest reasons why I wanted to learn about critical thinking is that I never thought I had any biases or patterned ways of reacting to situations—I was blind to my blindness. It took a long time for me to realize that what I thought was a shared reality was really just my reality or my perception of it.
I realized that if I was always looking at things through the lens of my own perceptions it would color my perspective on conflict, in that I’d always be trying to get the answers I wanted. I wanted to break that down and look at it from a personal perspective. How did my way of thinking develop? Could I change it, become more aware of it? I realized that without that awareness, I’d always be trying to judge someone else and trying to make them see it from my side, not being able to go beyond my own way of thinking.
Then comes problem-solving, which is about surfacing alternatives, brainstorming, reasoning, logically breaking problems down and coming up with alternatives and solutions. If we’re able to take on that personal part first, then, when problem-solving comes up, we’re able to be more open-minded and involved, to engage and find a solution that is win-win, not win-lose.
A lot of critical thinking is interpreted as learning how to be right. I don’t see it that way, I believe that through self-awareness and communication, we can come to an answer that’s mutually beneficial.
Many people are mystified or frightened by critical thinking. This workshop tries to demystify the intellectualizing of critical thinking. It’s not an intellectual thing, it’s a whole person thing. The word critical sometimes gets interpreted as “Uh-oh, I’m going to be criticized!” It’s not about criticism, it’s about unpacking the thinking process. Anybody can do it.
Tell us a bit more about sustainability in business you teach at the UMaine Hutchinson Center
If there’s one thing I’m passionate about, it’s sustainability. When I was teaching at UMaine Orono, I tried to integrate sustainability into everything I did. In business, these two things are not always connected but I was always trying to find ways to get it in there.
When I retired from UMaine, I realized that I had a lot of background knowledge in both business and sustainability. I wanted to put it in a format that adults and people anywhere could have access to, a basic literacy: what is sustainability? How do people in business think about sustainability? What are the problems associated with it, the opportunities? I developed this workshop as a way to do that. Again, trying to demystify and provide background information about sustainability and greening in businesses.
There’s a lot of jargon out there–even sustainability itself is a very jargony word. What does it really mean? How are businesses incorporating sustainability into their practices? How are business owners doing it? What resources are available in Maine for doing it?
The class is still fairly new. I’ve taught it once and it went really well. I’d like to continue to develop it and put it out there as I think it’s really important. I’m trying to spread the word about the workshop and get more people involved, engaged, thinking and talking about sustainable business practices and implementation.
The way things worked out, the first time I offered the course, a group of people from the procurement office at the August state office signed up. These folks are responsible for ordering everything from electric cars to trash bags. Their group has a lot of responsibility, they do a lot of purchasing. I like that this course is flexible enough that I can shift the emphasis depending on the participants.
That said, the general approach of the course is suitable for anyone from state governments to nonprofits to business owners to regular people/citizens. Anyone at any level taking the course can get some background, tools, and resources.
What would we be surprised to learn about you?
A million years ago, I was in the Olympics: the 1976 Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, for cross country skiing. I was 22. It was all downhill from there!
I also really enjoy swimming in the river. I’ve already been in a few times this year.
What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?
In terms of actual formalized career advice, the best steer I got that I can remember is that someone told me, “You should get a mentor.” I was in between jobs, thinking about shifting fields when someone told me this.
I asked a woman to be my mentor, I even paid her for a few sessions. She’s the one who put the idea of going back to school and getting a Ph.D. in my head. I didn’t think I could do it. I thought it was beyond what I was capable of. There was something powerful about her confidence and belief in me; she gave me the courage to try.
I did try and to my great surprise, I did just fine. I started back at graduate school in 1998, for my Ph.D. That opened up this whole career in academia. It’s been fantastic. I’ve loved it.
The biggest thing I’ve learned through all my career gyrations is to follow my heart–not to worry about what I think I’m supposed to do but what I want to do, what I’m drawn to do. Especially now. People starting out their career paths today are facing a daunting set of circumstances. The more we have people following what their hearts are telling them, the more of a positive outlook we can all have.
What are you reading/listening to/watching?
I’m not much of a media consumer, I’m afraid. What I recommend is going outside. Look and see what’s going on out there. I’ve been studying natural history. There are so many things I didn’t know. Little details. For example, there’s a big maple tree in my backyard. My house sits on a half-acre lot. If you could take all the leaves in the maple tree and spread them out, they would cover the whole half acre. If you stacked those same leaves in a pile, it would be as tall as a football field.
Another fascinating fact: chlorophyll and red blood cells are closely related. The molecule for chlorophyll is a complicated protein. There’s a magnesium atom in the middle with 136 atoms around it. If you took out the magnesium and substituted an atom of iron you’d have the molecule for a red blood cell.
Here’s another one: not all trees flower first–sometimes, the leaves come out first. If tree flowers are pollinated by wind, they come out early. If they are pollinated by insects, they come out later, because insects haven’t shown up yet. There’s a whole dance that happens based on the length of the day, all intricately connected with the way the pollination of flowers takes place.
We only know an itty bit about all of these things–there’s so much pleasure, joy and hope in the natural world–it’s all happening without us! We’re so in our own little heads that we don’t always see these things. Go outside and take a look.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
I’m grateful to be working with the Hutchinson Center. In my experience, the Hutchinson Center is a real resource and a wonderful way to build these knowledge-sharing opportunities and put people in touch with each other in really beautiful ways.
Porter received her Ph.D. degree from the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts, where her research focused on dynamic capabilities and strategic change in the case of corporate environmentalism. At the Maine Business School where she is now an associate professor emerita, Porter taught business strategy and sustainability for 13 years. She also initiated a sustainability track in the MaineMBA program and advised the student chapter of Net Impact, a leadership development program in sustainable business. Porter holds a master’s degree in clinical psychology, is a certified mental health counselor and a 2014 Fulbright Scholar. She has over 30 years of experience as a teacher, counselor, coach, guide and facilitator.