Vicki Phillips is an educational consultant dedicated to engaging and amplifying educator voices. She has held leadership positions across the country—at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Pennsylvania Department of Education, and Portland (Oregon) Public Schools.
Phillips was recently a keynote speaker at the National Geographic Education Summit, where we had a chance to speak with her.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Before we dig deeper into your take on the “explorer mindset” and the Geo-Inquiry Process, we’d love to get blue-sky ideas about what you think are the most important issues in current conversations about education in the U.S.
I continue to think that one of the biggest issues is that we’re still not bringing teachers to the table enough. We’re still not networking them in the most powerful ways—giving them access to each other, helping them be problem-solvers.
I think many teachers in this country continue to want to be leaders, want to be learners, want to be respected as professionals, and that they don’t always get all of those opportunities reflected in today’s education environment.
How is National Geographic poised to address those issues?
From my perspective, National Geographic has extraordinary resources and can lend itself to all of those things. But, I think … far too many teachers and kids across the country don’t know that, and those resources remain unknown.
Why do you think it’s important for educators to take the time to convene like this? Why is it important to get educators in the same room as industry thought leaders?
We don’t listen to teachers enough. Teachers have a lot to say about professional learning—what works and what doesn’t, about the kinds of resources that really work for them in the classroom or don’t, about the kind of digital technology that works for them, about the features of networking that do or do not draw them in.
I think there is always a lot of benefit for convening groups like [the National Geographic Education Summit], both for feedback on the work that National Geographic or any other entity is doing, and then there’s also huge value in connecting teachers to each other.
There’s this power of teachers networking and coming together and sharing and feeding ideas off each other. The experts that teachers trust most are other teachers. And why wouldn’t they? No one knows teaching like teachers.
In your career, you’ve had four discrete roles in the education sphere: teacher, administrator, government official, and leader in an educational nonprofit. Can you speak to the differences (and maybe misconceptions) about each of those roles?
I’ve made it a practice, in my career—in all those roles—to never forget who I was trying to impact. I think it’s very easy, sometimes, as you move from role to role … to lose sight that what you’re trying to do on a daily basis is impact teachers and kids.
The biggest impact you can have in schools occurs in the classrooms, in the magic of that experience that teachers and kids have together. When you forget that your job as an administrator is to power that connection (that magic, if you will), then, I think, you do fall into all other kinds of pitfalls. You allow work to get siloed, you allow teachers to feel unappreciated, you get so involved in the administration of your job that you don’t pay attention to the core substance, and all of those things can happen in variation as you move across roles.
The further you go into any of those roles, the more political they become … and you can spend your time on things that matter far less than the impact you should be having on kids. The distractions get greater, the complexities get larger, the demands for accountability get stronger.
You have to really keep your line of sight—figure out how you’re going to power what happens in the classroom in ways that allow kids to accelerate in their learning, teachers to grow in their practice, and everybody to be in an environment where teaching and learning can thrive.
At this point, you’re familiar with the educational arms of nonprofits such as the Gates Foundation and the National Geographic Society. What similarities do these large nonprofits share?
If your goal is impact, then the decisions you make become really critical in staying focused on driving that impact. You can be at a large foundation with a lot of resources, and you can try to be everything to everybody—but that rarely results in impact of a magnitude that adds up to something really special for kids.
I think that is a common issue in every organization I’ve worked in: How do you take the resources that you have, decide what impact you want, and then how do you relentlessly (in a good way!) pursue that, and aim everything you have at it?
What do you think most distinguishes National Geographic Education from the projects, programs, and resources offered by other nonprofits?
I think what draws, and will continue to draw, teachers in initially is just the bold, beautiful, powerful richness of the resources. National Geographic knows how to do that.
The second thing is that teachers instinctively trust the brand. The more time you spend with National Geographic, the more you trust it. Even if you’re a teacher that hasn’t been that affiliated, you sort of inherently know National Geographic, and that it does good work in the world and that you feel ‘If I explore, I’m not going to be taken down any wrong path.’
The next iteration of the work is to build even more content around that … how teachers can pull [resources] into their ongoing curriculum and strategy. The art of using [resources] in an ongoing way is where National Geographic aims, and I think that’s a fantastic aim, so that teachers can make more use of that 130 years of glorious work and extraordinary resources.
Vicki Phillips was a featured speaker at the 2018 National Geographic Education Summit. Catch her and all other speakers in our archived livestream video of the event.