A Curious Path

This post was written by Jenn Gilgan. Read our Educator Spotlight on Jenn here.

During Tampa Bay’s Startup Week opening presentation, the speaker suggested that instead of following your passion, you should follow your curiosity. If you’re curious, you’re going to actively learn.

I love being curious. I love to figure out how and why things work. I love making connections between two seemingly unrelated topics, people, events, and ideas.

It was curiosity that brought me into the classroom as a teacher, and it’s also what prompted me to step out of the classroom for a sabbatical.

Too Curious to Decide

I always envied those kids who knew exactly what they wanted to be when they grew up. They seemed to have focus, ambition, and a plan to achieve their dreams. I had too many interests to focus on one.

In the eighth grade, my results from a career interests survey suggested my future vocation would be a priest, rabbi, or nun. My English teacher disagreed, so I had to retake the survey, which in the days of pencils-and-bubblesheets was time-consuming.

After the third try, the bubbles revealed that interior design was in my future.

My first 35mm camera (center) was a platform for curiosity. Photograph by Jenn Gilgan

A year later, after receiving my first 35mm camera, I set my sights on becoming a National Geographic photographer (no joke!).

At sixteen, I was going to be the business manager for my friend’s horse ranch in Colorado.

At eighteen, I couldn’t decide on anything.

This is just a selection of past company IDs and name badges.
Photograph by Jenn Gilgan

My actual career path is no different. I have flitted around, exploring various industries and company sizes.

I’m reminded of the way the author Elizabeth Gilbert compares people to jackhammers and hummingbirds. The jackhammers are those friends I envied—they know their path and focus on it. Hummingbirds flit and fly and hover, seemingly without a plan. According to Gilbert, it’s not until the hummingbirds look up and look back on our often-erratic flight path that we see our “purpose” and the good we’ve achieved.

In 2008, I stood lost at a metaphoric crossroad. I had tried corporate America. I had tried entrepreneurship. I had tried small business. Nothing fully satisfied my curiosity about people, their cultures, and the world in general. I reflected on my happiest career moments, those most satisfying—and those that I never wanted to repeat again. I reflected on my childhood: What inspired me? What did I enjoy doing? What did I dread?

My self-imposed reflective survey led me to education.

Sparking Student Curiosity

In 2010, I enrolled in the University of South Florida’s Master of Arts in Teaching program. I knew I wanted to serve the community. I knew a major influence in my life was living overseas. I knew my experiences traveling in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq had taught me more than any book or lecture could. I knew reading had opened my imagination and helped my understanding of others. In short, teaching Secondary English/Language Arts could help me bring the world, its cultures, and its beauty to 21st-century adolescents. I wanted to make sure the natural curiosity of their childhood continued to spark long after their graduation. Even if they never leave the Tampa Bay area, I want them to explore the globe via alternative means.

In the classroom, 2017.
Photograph by Jenn Gilgan

No lie: My first year was tough.

It always is, but even in that first year, a few students opened their minds to me. One freshman, who had never read a book, said he finished—and enjoyed—reading a graphic novel version of Romeo and Juliet. Juniors researched their dream jobs and created a future journal of their lives in those jobs. Several told me the project helped them build the confidence to pursue and achieve their dreams.

The subsequent years were always challenging, but not as daunting. I took on AP Language and Composition in my fourth and fifth year. In my sixth and seventh year, I helped establish the AP Capstone program for the school, the ultimate course for exploring ideas and issues.

All was not always rosy, though. In January 2016, my exhaustion and anxiety rose to levels previously unknown to me. Seeking professional guidance to manage the anxiety, I learned that my life-long “sensitive nature” is “a thing.” The counselor and I explored what it means to be a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) who works in an environment with three of her biggest triggers: cold, noise, and crowded space.

Even with better management of HSP triggers for two years, I was no longer the best teacher I could be. I had a decision to make. How could I be out of the classroom but still bring literature alive and spark students’ curiosity?

Curiosity-Inspired Dream Job

For the last eight months, I have explored education opportunities outside the everyday classroom environment.

I have kept one foot in the classroom, substitute teaching at a private school and a public charter school. Subbing has allowed me to experience different educational cultures and given me the pleasure of “teaching” content outside English/Language Arts. (I would not make a very good music teacher!)

I have finished a manuscript for young adult novel, which will be a complementary text to Romeo and Juliet.

The biggest project by far has been preparing for creating an educational resource website. I have been cultivating a seed of an idea: A Teacher Travels. What if I bring my love for writing, travel, photography, and education together?

Education technology offers possibilities for educators to reach a wider audience than one teacher can in a classroom with six classes per day.

In 2009, when I decided to apply to USF’s College of Education, I hoped I could take my students around the world in Emily Dickinson’s famous frigate. (Read “There is no Frigate like a Book.”) I needed my seven years “docked” in the classroom to prepare for the next big adventure.

Education in a digital world powers my dream to bring the world to students. A Teacher Travels brings me back to my original purpose: to bring characters and places alive to foster students’ curiosity about other cultures and our world.

Jenn Gilgan taught English/Language Arts and AP classes for seven years. She is also the founder of A Teacher Travels, a website dedicated to bringing the world to students through photographs, videos, and blogs featuring literary places, events, and fictional characters.

4 thoughts on “A Curious Path

  1. I love this! I too have been trying to share my love of learning in new ways outside of the classroom. Many ideas, but haven’t come up with a specific plan quite yet. Thanks for the inspiration!

  2. Oh wow in so many ways this is me. I currently write picture books about curiosity and love. I love being a sub because I see different groups. I would love to sub in the summer months and teach my love of art and writing. I once thought about getting a credential but I love subbing and it gives me a chance to work on my art. I would love to teach at a private school.

    1. I like working with different groups of students, too. I found the sub position at the private school near me by emailing the substitute coordinator. Sometimes sub positions turn into teaching positions.

      1. I will do this. I do need to take some courses but the experience I do have.

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