A Year in Review: The 10 Good Things That Inspired Us in 2020

This post was written by Chief Education Officer Vicki Phillips.

This year was like nothing we’ve ever experienced before. Just as 2020 changed our world, it changed education as well. The global pandemic shut down schools prompting an enormous transition to remote and hybrid learning. Along the way, another epidemic continued—of violence against the Black community—sparking a long-overdue reckoning over racial injustice. For these reasons and more, 2020 challenged us all, and pushed us to our limits. Every step of the way, educators were on the frontlines—persevering in the face of tremendous disruption—to continue teaching the next generation of learners, leaders, and planetary stewards.

To say I’ve remained inspired by our educators and all they have achieved this year would be an understatement. We recognize just how much educators gave of themselves to ensure their students could continue learning and growing. It’s essential to us at National Geographic that we celebrate these moments: The bright spots, the victories (big and small), and the many defining milestones along the way. There were many accomplishments to choose from, but we managed to trim the list down to several standouts. 

These 10 Good Things shine a light on the truly motivating educators, movements, moments, and experiences that sparked inspiration and joy in education for us this year.

When the pandemic began prompting school closures in the spring, 4th grade Chicago teacher Dwayne Reed tweeted out a message of support to his fellow educators and encouraged them to stay #TeacherStrong. Over the next several months, thousands of educators joined the movement on social media, sharing stories and encouragement, and expressing solidarity in the face of enormous change and uncertainty. As Dwayne said, educators have always been “the piece that holds so many others together.” This year in particular, educators have demonstrated what it means to be #TeacherStrong.

This year, educators pioneered new ways to connect with their learners in a socially distant world. To equip educators with the support they needed to create innovative resources for their students, we launched an emergency fund and we were amazed with what they came up with! Sandra Turner designed a virtual, project-based curriculum to help her students understand climate change; Ryan Miller developed lesson plans using GIS software to investigate the spread of COVID-19; and in Peru, Bernardo Pereyra created a program aimed at helping local educators use his country’s natural protected areas as safe, open-air classrooms.

As one young leader recently said, “Young people are the Earth’s most untapped resource for hope,” and this year’s Young Explorers are a testament to the positive differences they can make in the world. Zoë Jenkins and Celestine Wenardy, are creating opportunities to lift up young voices while Peyton Klein is combating cultural intolerance and discrimination. Katie Stagliano and Kevin Patel are mobilizing communities to become planetary stewards while Richard Turere is helping to mitigate human-wildlife conflict. These are just a few of the changemakers that exemplify #GenGeo, a global community of young people with empathy, tenacity, unbridled passion, and an insatiable drive to seek solutions to build a sustainable future and thriving planet.

As schools across the globe shifted to remote and hybrid learning environments, our passionate and talented educator community swiftly responded. They helped develop the Learn Anywhere Family Guide, which connected parents and families with innovative resources and materials to keep young people engaged no matter where they were. The Learn Anywhere site continues to feature a wealth of free resources, developed by and for teachers, to inspire the Explorer in every learner.

In a year when technology connected us to each other and the world around us, our diligent team worked to provide high-quality educational content to support educators, families, and young people around the globe. Our National Geographic Resource Library won two Webby Awards, as a top Science website and for Best Editorial Writing. The awards are a testament to the dedication of the educators who helped develop and contribute to this compelling, standards-based collection of resources.

When the pandemic disrupted regular classroom routines, we expanded our Explorer Classroom YouTube live series, connecting more than 11,000 at-home learners with National Geographic Explorers. Young people had the opportunity to interact in real-time with our cutting-edge scientists, researchers, educators, and storytellers from around the globe. The experience inspired learners like Abby Howe Rogers to draw what she learned from baleen whales to arctic plant life. Her digital illustrations highlight exploration as a powerful tool that sparks curiosity, deepens understanding, and pushes learning even further.

Field trips may have looked different this year, but that doesn’t mean they were any less exciting! A new program, The WHY of WHERE, brought learners on a journey in and around Washington, D.C. The Society’s Geographer, Alex Tait, taught us about the evolution of our nation’s capital and Explorer Carter Clinton explained what DNA samples can teach us about those who escaped slavery through the Underground Railroad. In WILD Washington, ornithologist Pete Marra and biologist Gabby Corradino brought students along to investigate D.C.’s vibrant wildlife and ecosystems, showing learners how to explore their own backyards as birdwatchers and plankton analysts.

This year, National Geographic’s Photo Camp went virtual. Photo Camp Live connected thousands of aspiring photojournalists with National Geographic photographers to learn about visual storytelling. From Brendon Bourg’s visual letter to his ancestors, to Thoriso Ngwatwane’s meaning of home, and Mahammad Yasin’s exploration of community and identity, young people from around the world were invited to explore other cultures and communities through the many different lenses of photography. The images inspired, informed, and connected us.

Ethologist and conservationist Jane Goodall has long inspired students and educators, and we were tremendously proud to build on her legacy with the National Geographic Museum exhibition: “Becoming Jane: The Evolution of Dr. Jane Goodall.” This year, the museum received two prestigious awards: a Thea Award for Outstanding Achievement and an American Alliance of Museums’ Excellence in Exhibition Award. It’s a joy to see Dr. Goodall’s groundbreaking discoveries and decades-long activism resonate with so many young people who share in her curiosity, fearlessness, and passion to change the world.

I am immensely proud of our educator community and all you’ve achieved this year. Many of you have earned much-deserved recognition for your steadfast commitment to education. Jennifer Chavez-Miller received the Gilbert M. Grosvenor Educator of the Year award for her outstanding work inspiring students to become global citizens. Ali Pressel was named a 2020 Emerging Explorer for encouraging scientific exploration among her students through project-based learning and outdoor field studies. Ranjitsinh Disale was awarded the $1 million Global Teacher Prize for his efforts to support the education of girls from disadvantaged backgrounds. Peter Cameron, was awarded the Royal Canadian Geographical Society’s Innovation in Geography Teaching Award for his exceptional leadership in geography education. Sergio de Alba was named the 2020 National History Teacher of the Year by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and received a very special shout-out from Lin-Manuel Miranda that we’d like to second!

If there is one message I can share with educators this year, it is thank you. We commend your courage and conviction to continue moving forward and achieve the seemingly impossible. All of us at National Geographic are endlessly grateful for your collaboration and your partnership, and we remain profoundly proud to support you on your journey.  

This holiday season, I hope you have the opportunity to rest and recharge. If you’re able, I encourage you to take some time away from the classroom—whether that classroom was virtual, in-person, or hybrid this year. Reread your favorite book. Go for a socially-distanced hike. Drink your coffee while it’s still warm! Give yourself the opportunity for renewal so you can come back to school rested and reenergized for yourself and your students. 

On behalf of the National Geographic Society, thank you for everything you do for your learners and your communities each and every day. We send our best wishes for a happy, healthy and restful holiday season. We can’t wait to see you in 2021!

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