Jason Verhaeghe, this week’s Educator of the Week, is developing the next generation of stewards for national parks. Jason is the education specialist at the Klondike Gold Rush National Park in Skagway, Alaska.
What does it mean to be education specialist at the Klondike Gold Rush National Park, and what inspires you to do that work?
It’s my responsibility to oversee youth education programs, so during the summertime, I often work with cruise-ship passenger youth and in the winter, I’m often in the classrooms of local schools teaching about biodiversity or about local history.
As far as what inspires me…it’s a cheesy story, but I like it. When I was eight years old, I went to Yellowstone National Park with my family and I earned my first-ever Junior Ranger badge. I very vividly remember the ranger telling me, “Someday, you too can be a ranger.” Maybe it was a throwaway line for that ranger, maybe it wasn’t, but it certainly stuck with me.
So there was one powerful moment when you started to see yourself as a park ranger. When did you decide you wanted to be an educator as well?
I don’t think I could come up with a moment when I decided to become an educator. I think I’ve always been an educator; it just took me a while to realize it. I enjoy seeing that “a-ha” moment on someone’s face when they realize they understand something new.
And I love swearing in Junior Rangers, hoping that at least one of them will have the same moment that I did—that even one will realize that they, too, can be the next generation of stewards.
Tell me more about that mission of developing the next generation of stewards.
I’m a firm believer that the national parks are truly our best idea. Everyone deserves to have public land. It’s not mine, it’s not yours—it’s both of ours, it’s all of ours. To ensure the longevity of that idea, we need to let the youth discover its power for themselves.
I’m a firm believer that the national parks are truly our best idea…To ensure the longevity of that idea, we need to let the youth discover its power for themselves.
You recently participated in National Geographic’s national BioBlitz initiative. What was that experience like?
We had three teams going to collect aquatic invertebrates. Some were searching in the park unit of Dyea, which was a neighboring community during the gold rush but is now an empty river valley and a pristine wilderness. At the same time, others were looking for species in the town of Skagway and along the Chilkoot Trail.
It was our first event of this kind, and we’re hoping to use the data we collected on species as a baseline set. That way, every year we’ll be able to repeat the process and start creating more and more information. The more we know about these habitats, the more efficiently we’ll be able to protect them.
Do you have advice for educators who want to teach kids about the outdoors but don’t know where to begin?
Use the National Park Service as a resource. Every national park has a website with a tab called, “For Teachers.” We want to be available, but we often need the teachers to start that conversation so we can give them what they need. Reach out, because we’re waiting for that phone call.
As an educator myself, the advice I would give is, don’t forget to have fun. Oftentimes, we put so much on our shoulders to make sure that these kids succeed that we forget why we do it in the first place: to have moments of joy seeing those kids learn.
Do you know a great educator who teaches about our world? Nominate a colleague or yourself as the next Educator of the Week!
The Educator Spotlight series features inspiring activities and lessons that educators are implementing with their students that connect them to the world in bold and exciting ways.