Educator Spotlight: What Happens When Educators See Themselves as Explorers?

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The following post was written by 2017 Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Jennifer Burgin following her expedition to the Galápagos. The Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Program is a professional development opportunity made possible by a partnership between Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic Education. A version of this post previously appeared on the blog of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

Jennifer Burgin, NBCT, is an elementary educator at Oakridge Elementary in Arlington, Virginia, a part of Arlington Public Schools. She was named Arlington Teacher of the Year in 2016 and has co-authored a nonfiction children’s ABC book, A is for Arlington. For more from Jennifer, follow her on Twitter @MrsJBurgin or on her blog, Educator Explorer.

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Jennifer Burgin teaches at Oakridge Elementary in Arlington, Virginia. Photo by Nadia Lutz

“I’m about to say something that requires you to be mature. Can you handle it? I know you can.”

“I saw a blue-footed booby!” I proclaimed. “It did a special dance to show off its blue feet to a potential mate as if to say, ‘Hey there, I have bright blue feet, which means I’m very healthy and we should lay eggs together!’ Then it pushed back its tush, raised up its sweet head, and honked as a sign of interest!”

The rising 1st- and 2nd-graders all burst into contained giggles, attempting to keep the promise of maturity.

My annual summer ritual is teaching at a geo-literacy enrichment program called Global Village Summit through my school district. Each year I teach the littlest of littles about the culture of another place around the world. This summer, I chose Ecuador as my focus because I had recently explored the Galápagos Islands and the opportunity to share about my expedition was something I dared not squander.

Waved Albatross Sword Dance
Waved albatrosses engage in their courtship display. Photo by Jennifer Burgin

My expedition to the Galápagos was made possible by the Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Program through National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions. Throughout this year, 35 carefully selected educators travel to some of the most remote and pristine parts of our globe. Some of us travel to Arctic and Antarctic regions, while others sail toward Coastal Alaska. Our unifying goal is to impart what we experience through storytelling, professional development, and teaching to the communities we’re a part of.

This is a profoundly different type of professional development than many educators encounter, and it sets a paradigm for what teachers can be inspired to do for their students through exploration. It is rigorous, life-changing, and meaningful.

So what about the educators who are not currently packing their bags for a remote part of the globe? Through one of the National Board’s Five Core Propositions, I’ll explain how I believe exploration of any kind impacts us as educators.

Core Proposition 2 is titled “Teachers Generate Multiple Paths to Knowledge.” This may sound philosophical, but I take it literally. Thanks to the opportunities I have been given, I have literally spent time on unfamiliar paths—soaking in what it feels like to be a novice, treading to places I have never been, and learning from experience.

The Zodiac carries passengers to shore. Photo by Jennifer Burgin

On the Galápagos island of Española, I took the first hike of my week-long expedition. I had been told it could be strenuous due to the rock scrambling we would do, so I borrowed a walking stick.

As I clumsily entered the Zodiac, an inflatable motor-powered boat that took the guests from our ship to the islands, I realized how foreign everything was to me. I was unpracticed with riding in Zodiacs, unable to get into one without the support and coaching of the driver, and filled with embarrassment as I almost stabbed the side of the inflatable boat with my walking stick.

The hike had not even begun and Española was in the distance, but here I began to feel the shock of being a novice. I realized that my experience is not that different from a child’s first day of school. Learning where the cubbies or lockers are, wondering where this day would take you, curious if those around you see how novice you are in your new settings and if they would accept you… I shared those feelings of being outside my comfort zone.

A few days after my near-Zodiac stabbing incident, one of my new friends aboard the ship showed me an image on her iPhone. It was of a circle with the words “comfort zone” written inside and the words “where the magic happens” on the outside. How did the iPhone prophesy what Galápagos would be for me?!

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Where the magic happens. Photo by Jennifer Burgin

Let’s go back to Española, post Zodiac ride.

I exited the Zodiac, getting slightly stronger using the mariners’ grip to exit the boat with the help of the driver. I started to see that everyone was learning the best way to exit and enter a Zodiac gracefully. I wasn’t alone in acquiring sea legs.

On the shore, I watched young sea lion pups play in the waves while older sea lions dried their fur on the sunshine-drenched beach. Marine iguanas watched me and smiled with their sage little faces as they searched for the best sunning rock. A young guest wielded his fidget spinner and set it on a rock while an Española mockingbird watched nearby; it flew over and pecked at the spinner while the young guest recorded it with shock on his GoPro. After hiking inland a bit as the sun said farewell, we watched waved albatross couples “sword dance” in the last golden dapples of the day. (Google it—it’s magical!)

After losing myself in taking photo after photo, one of our naturalists said, “Jennifer, you won’t need this walking stick again. I haven’t seen you use it once!” I started to realize I had yet to use my walking stick. I did not need it.

Getting back to the Zodiac over the rocks was less intimidating and I jaunted onto the boat just a little easier this time, connecting my eyes with the driver as he gave me his arm for the mariners’ grip that would safely take me to my seat.

With time, I found my own path to understanding exploration in Galápagos. Day after day, I became a stronger hiker, Zodiac rider, and connector of things I experienced. Like the flora and fauna of my beloved islands, I was growing and thriving and—gasp!—evolving.

From “Teachers Generate Multiple Paths to Knowledge,” Core Proposition 2 of What Teachers Should Know and Be Able To Do:

Accomplished educators model those processes for students, showing them how to pose problems and work through alternative solutions, as well as how to examine the answers that others have found to similar problems.

Educators can be mistaken for the kings and queens of knowledge, disseminating intelligence and praise to our students. I propose that instead we model being explorers and take risks with problem solving and inquiry to benefit our learners.

Sunning sea lion
A sea lion suns itself. Photo by Jennifer Burgin

By the end of Global Village Summit, I had recounted many of my expedition stories to the rising 1st- and 2nd-graders. One of our culminating experiences was to explore “Darwin’s finches” and predict future adaptations of their bodies. Some were silly—finches that eat school buildings! Others were slightly more predictable—finches that eat fish as well as insects! It was incredible and inspiring to hear about their thought processes and the follow-up questions they asked themselves. None of these 6- and 7-year-olds had visited Galápagos, yet they were connecting to my stories of exploration, excitement for Darwin’s finches, and risk-taking!

I realize that while my goal was to expose the learners to the idea of evolution and what role the Galápagos played in the development of this scientific theory, I also introduced the learners to problem-solving, thinking ahead, and seeing themselves as explorers. All of them—despite gender, race, class, religion, age, etc.—were engaged in taking their own path to understanding.

This paradigm shift from disseminating information to students towards leading children to explore different paths to understanding manifested at Global Village Summit, but it began when I left my comfort zone in the Galápagos.

Educators: See yourselves as explorers.

Perhaps your first adventure is laying down the false label of “not-outdoorsy” like I did and applying for the Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship. Maybe you take your students on a nature walk or plan an afternoon for yourself at a state park. Whether you leave your city limits or your time zone, go somewhere new… because this is where the magic happens.

Jennifer the explorer
Jennifer Burgin explores the Galápagos. Photo courtesy Jennifer Burgin


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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.

2 thoughts on “Educator Spotlight: What Happens When Educators See Themselves as Explorers?

  1. Excellent advice, Ms. Burgin. Congrats on your accolades and accomplishments. IMO a time will come when educators at all levels, including HS and college, will feel comfortable with your approach. There are so many paths to learning, and students should not feel constrained by their teachers’ styles.

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