Jennifer Burgin was one of the educators who joined us at the 2018 Explorers Festival. Jennifer is an 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 book, A is for Arlington. As a 2017 Grosvenor Teacher Fellow, Jennifer shared her experiences over the last year, her work after completing an expedition to the Galápagos Islands, and her plans for future exploration. For more from Jennifer, follow her on Twitter @MrsJBurgin or on her blog, Educator Explorer.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Tell us a little bit about yourself, your background in education and what makes you passionate about your work.
It’s funny because I never thought I would be an educator. I had these other plans, but people in my life kept encouraging me to look at education. Not realizing that something was already part of my identity and part of who I am in my strengths was a really interesting experience for me.
Fast-forward a little bit in my career, and the next step was becoming a teacher-leader. I always thought that as an educator, that’s all you did: you taught children. But here I was given the opportunity to lead educators, so there was another thing that I thought I’d never end up doing.
I think the most recent thing that’s been a surprise for me has been being an educator-explorer. I always joke with people at National Geographic that I was a self-proclaimed indoor cat. I spent a lot of time playing inside and working inside. Right now, my identity as an educator is shifting as I work to get children to think not only outside the classroom but to go virtually or through literature and online platforms to explore other places and to think of themselves as people who go further.
How did you incorporate lessons from your Galápagos expedition back into the classroom?
I had this great plan for my second-grade classroom heading into the Galápagos expedition. I gathered what I needed for my plan, and when I came back, my principal sat me down and said, “I have this vision of you in kindergarten, will you go?”
I said yes! I was excited about it, but then I thought about all my plans. How am I supposed to share Galápagos now? I had a little bit of a shame period where I was unsure about what I was going to do. So I wrote to people on the National Geographic Educator Community because I was stuck. I didn’t know how to do this with kindergarteners. Even though it’s only a two-year difference, they are very different people; this is the foundation of their educational path.
After some time, I put the shame aside. I had to push forward, go through my certification and tell my story—and my children deserve that story!
It just so happened that we were given the opportunity to adopt a 25-year-old aquatic turtle named Rocky, and the children were so fascinated by her. Just the simplicity of her walking, climbing or eating fascinated them, and I realized that she was my gateway.
I decided I was going to connect the children to Galápagos through Rocky. So I began a unit on living things, and the lens was turtles and tortoises. We took field notes on Rocky, we imitated turtles, tortoises, and sea turtles with our bodies, and the unit ended with the children doing a research project. They got to pick a tortoise, a turtle, or a sea turtle, and illustrate their knowledge and why they care about the creature. It was really beautiful.
At first, I was really ashamed because I thought I didn’t have anything—and it turns out I had everything, I just needed to be comfortable shifting.
You’ve written a blog post for us in the past, and in it, you described how exploring beyond your comfort zone is “where the magic happens.” What topic do you want to explore next?
I am putting together a TED Talk with a good friend of mine who is the Virginia teacher of the year. I’m not sure if I’ll ever get to do the TED Talk but it’s all about identity and how when you think you’re one thing it can be really hard to change that. It is especially difficult when you’re known for being good at one thing. I earned the Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship as a second-grade teacher and the year before that my county awarded me teacher of the year as a second-grade teacher. I dealt with a lot of identity-shifting where I asked myself, if I’m not a second-grade teacher, what’s my value? Do I still have a place? Am I still good enough? It was a really vulnerable place so that’s why I am exploring identity right now.
In the same blog post, you also encourage educators to see themselves as explorers. How would you advise educators to encourage their students to do the same?
I think mentoring with someone who is an explorer. For example, the Explorer Classroom program—I think that’s a great gateway to connecting students with experts in their fields. Also asking to be partnered with someone either through National Geographic or even someone in your community who can contribute to the learning experience in your classroom. Finding people who can be experts and asking them to come in and participate.
Children love meeting people who do something specific, something that they’ve mastered and have become experts in. When children are able to mimic those experts, it inspires them to put the same amount of dedication into their work.