The buzz

Meet a Naturalist: Brittany Schaller, at home in the outdoors

A person standing next to a large tree trunk in a forest.
(Photo by Anthony Schalk)

Brittany Schaller is about as outdoorsy as it gets. She camps, she hikes, she fishes, and it’s been like that for as long as she can remember.

“I have pictures of me in a stroller holding a fishing pole,” she said.

Now that she works as an interpretive naturalist at the Forest Preserve’s Hidden Oaks Nature Center, all those leisurely pursuits are part of the job, and she’s enjoying mixing business and pleasure.

“What I do for fun is this,” she said of her job. “On my days off, you might find me in the forest preserves.”

She’s been a regular in the Will County forest preserves since 2011, when her and her husband learned about the annual Woods Walk fall hiking challenge when visiting the Forest Preserve’s booth at an outreach event. They decided to give Woods Walk a try, and the two have been doing it ever since. She even has a banner with all the commemorative Woods Walk pins she has collected through the years.

Schaller started working at the Forest Preserve in fall 2022, first as a part-time interpretive naturalist and now in the role full time. Before joining the District, she worked as a middle school science teacher for nine years and prior to that taught at a daycare. She appreciates that her work as a naturalist still allows her to teach, just to a different audience in a different kind of classroom.

In fact, while interviewing for her job at the Forest Preserve, she said she was apprehensive to be leaving the classroom after so many years and was relieved to be told, “You are not leaving teaching. Your new classroom is just in the woods,” she explained.

“It put a huge smile on my face, and I felt reassured that I was making a great decision.”

Teaching is still something she enjoys and is one of the things that drew her to her role. Since joining the Forest Preserve she has even had something of a full-circle moment when she led an in-school field trip in the very classroom that was once hers.

Working as a naturalist opens up topics she can explore and present programs on, which is something she has been relishing. “(As a teacher), I was always squeezing in all these things I am interested in, and now all those things that I’m trying to squeeze in is all I get to teach,” she said.

And a wide breadth of topics is available to her now that all of Will County is her classroom. “There’s so many more opportunities to find new things to discover,” she said.

When she left the classroom, she knew she would miss her students and the bonds she formed with them, but she’s also found that this new role is about building relationships too.

“One of things I miss most is making those deeper connections with students, but being at the Forest Preserve also allows opportunities to build relationships with the public,” she said, adding that program attendees and visitor center visitors sometimes become regulars.

Initially, Schaller thought she might find it intimidating working with adults after so many years teaching kids, but she’s been pleasantly surprised at the experiences she’s had so far.

“If they are at a program, they are just as interested in learning as any of the kids,” she said. “They had the choice to come to the program. They’re interested, they want to learn.”

That curiosity and willingness to learn about something new is refreshing to Schaller.

“You can see that and feel that — the excitement and enthusiasm. The level of engagement, they want to be there,” she said.

One of her goals is to create a welcoming atmosphere for anyone who enters the nature center or visits the preserves. She has been to many places in her own travels where she didn’t feel welcome or even wondered if she was allowed to be there, and that’s not an experience she wants people to have in Will County. She wants Forest Preserve visitors to know they are always welcome and she and other staff are available to assist them.

“I want to make sure they know they can come ask me absolutely anything,” she said.

Feeling welcome is a good starting point for making people comfortable and wanting to experience more of what the Forest Preserve has to offer, she said. Schaller wants visitors to not just want to come back to the nature center but also to want to explore more of what the Forest Preserve has to offer.

“I love pulling out the Forest Preserve's map and guide and telling people, ‘Look at all these cool places we have,’” she said, adding that she herself keeps the map and guide in her backpack and it looks worse for the wear because of how often she uses it.

Whether Schaller meets visitors in a nature center or along a trail, she hopes people take the time to notice all the amazing things in the world around them and it sparks a curiosity to learn something new.

“In nature, we are constantly surrounded by small wonders," she said. "We are doing a disservice to ourselves if we do not take the time to notice and appreciate the little things.”

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