This post was written by Dr. Vicki Phillips, Chief Education Officer, National Geographic Society
I am always honored to be in the presence of educators, as a former teacher and lifelong educator myself. So I was especially honored to sit down recently with a group of eight global educators who shared their stories and experiences from the past year. I wanted to hear their stories both in the spirit of reflection and as a way of navigating a path forward as the world begins to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. These conversations were held in conjunction with a project we are lending our platform to this week called #BothAndStories.
At National Geographic, our mission is centered on storytelling and education, as well as science and exploration. As a year like no other begins to wind down, we are creating a space for educators to share their stories via an interactive story map. The name Both/And stems from the tensions this last year brought to so many of us – strength and struggle, hope and healing. We know this has been especially true for educators who have been on the frontlines of the pandemic. We’ve seen you work tirelessly to support your students and school communities, and we are humbled to share our platform with you to document this moment. We’ve also timed this project with Teacher Appreciation Week here in the US, because the best way to show our appreciation is to honor your stories and invite others to read and reflect on them.
In sitting down with these eight global educators – from Japan, Mexico, Canada, France, and the US – the importance of projects like these became clear. We know that your voices are often left out of important conversations about the future of education, and it’s our intention to give space – literally on a map – to them. As we move forward, they will remain a living geography of this moment in history and our hope is that your stories will be read, shared, and considered by many.
I want to get started by hearing about your experiences and observations as educators over the past year – those of strength and struggle, hope and healing.
Toronto educator, Isabella Liu:
This year has just genuinely been a time where the students are telling me what they need and they’re advocating for themselves. So I am just very inspired by them day to day because they’re showing me how they’re feeling. It feels like we are truly in the same boat together, and that is really nice because I feel like as a teacher, I always tell my kids I need them to meet me halfway. I feel like I need to do the same thing because we’ve invited each other into our homes, in a sense, when we’re all virtual learning. We all have a certain understanding of each other that is unspoken. It really helps to foster that and build community, despite us not being physically together, so it’s been rewarding despite the challenges.
Paris educator, Tim Black:
Amongst the many challenges experienced this year, I have found the entire COVID experience too deep for words to capture its essence. I often felt frustrated during conversations I had with family, friends, colleagues and of course students. Finding the words which often always come naturally was now far more of a struggle for me. What were we allowed to say? what couldn’t we say? How much could we say? It was always going to be a difficult time and we had little time to prepare ourselves for it.
Honolulu educator, Christina Torres:
This year threw a lot of curveballs at me. I found out we were returning to school under a hybrid model— which is perhaps the hardest form of teaching I’ve ever done— two days after discovering I was pregnant with my first child. The exhaustion of being pregnant combined with trying to manage students in the classroom (particularly their safety in staying distanced and wearing PPE) and online was difficult. Trying to redesign my curriculum and support students’ emotional welfare through this all was mentally and emotionally exhausting.
Yucatan educator, Maritza Morales Casanova:
Students in our school took advantage of the lockdown by building ponds at home and researching native fish. Others instead came as volunteers, helping with the care of the herbal garden or with the compost. But most of our families found a way to take refuge and try to regain the freedom of being in contact with nature in gardening. Witnessing these actions helped me reflect that human beings must cultivate in our hearts more love toward nature and our surroundings. It made me realize that without education there is no conservation.
Many educators converted into virtual classrooms virtually overnight, and flipped back and forth between virtual, hybrid, and in person. It’s been quite extraordinary. I think sometimes people don’t understand the level of complexity that teachers deal with on a daily basis, even in the best of times. So to have had the additional complexities of this last year added to the existing challenges of teaching must have made the job so much harder. Yet teachers like you rose to the occasion. I’m interested how you think you and your colleagues may show up differently in your practice going forward?
I definitely think this year has been an eye opening experience for teachers as well as students to realize the levels in which the whole education system could be revamped and there could be better ways of teaching students how to learn so they can be the global citizens that we want them to be. We are in a rush to return to normal, a lot of people ask this big question, like, exactly what is that? Was it actually normal to begin with or did we just accept what was viewed as a norm at the time? So much of what we once thought impossible, now we know they absolutely are options.
Philadelphia educator, Sam Reed:
I also see teachers leaning more into our own leadership. I’m excited that teachers are leading without having to leave the classroom and we are seeing those new opportunities where we may not have before because we’ve had to step up.
Los Angeles educator, Gabriel-Philip Santos:
I have had a bit of a personal healing journey this year. One part in particular has been overcoming my imposter syndrome as an educator. No matter what I achieve or how much work I have put into something, I always feel like it is never good enough. I’m not good enough. In the past year, I’ve really had to learn how to believe in myself. Accept my successes as just that without any thought of why I didn’t really deserve them. Believe that I’m the best me I can be right now. It took some time and healing to really see that, and I may not be there 100 percent, I’m definitely more confident in myself than I have ever been. I’ve learned to remind myself “nothing is ever going to be perfect, so why let that stop you from trying?”
I will definitely be rethinking work and homework in my classroom because I really reevaluated what that looked like during the pandemic. I want to keep looking at that and really think about what am I actually assessing, and asking myself, what do I really need kids to take away from this? And how do I use their time? The nature of the pandemic really pushed teachers to draw on the resources that young people have at home. I think that’s always a good part of our practice.
And do you think young people will show up differently in their learning given this last year?
I think this year forced learners to grow a little more than typical, because if we look at the world moving forward, it’s going to be a challenging place. It’s not the sort of fluffy environment that I grew up in. I think it’s going to be a little bit more of a place where they’re going to need those critical thinking skills to guide them. They’re able to disagree with people respectfully. We’re all going to have to learn those skills as we move forward, because without them, I can’t see a future being the way that we want it to be. I think we owe it to them to tackle that honestly.
Bowling Green educator, Natalie Croney:
I believe young people are learning more to listen and question as a tool for empathy. I recently learned of a story exchange where students are learning empathy because they take on the voice of another person. So they learn about someone’s story and they have to tell that person’s story in first person. There’s nothing like embodying someone else’s story to make us see them fully or at least become more curious about who they are. And here’s another thing – It’s an odd empathy thing, but some colleagues and I were also talking about how students are able to read facial expressions much better than they were able to before. Even students who struggle with that are now able to catch little cues that they weren’t able to catch before because of the time we have all spent really looking into each other’s faces. Students now have new tools and skills at their disposal that they can use that we weren’t aware of until now.
At National Geographic, we’ve been thinking a lot about the power of community, global citizenship, and intersectionality. Young people get that these things are connected. It feels to me that given what we’ve all collectively experienced in the last year – not just the pandemic, but the issues of race and justice – impact people’s ability to think globally and to come from a place of empathy. It feels as if this has the potential to grow. I wonder if you are seeing the same thing?
With this pandemic, there’s been this narrative of learning loss in students, which is a deficit orientation and I see our students are pushing against that. There hasn’t been learning loss. There’s been resilience, there’s been brilliance, there’s been genius.
I have witnessed so many of my BIPOC colleagues in education, especially my Black colleagues, continue to challenge systemic racism within the educational system. From Black Lives Matter student discussions to developing anti-racist curriculum to championing equity in education, my BIPOC colleagues have had to do all of this while still teaching, engaging their students interests, and doing it all virtually.
I realized I had never made myself completely vulnerable in conversations about race in the past, but now I am facilitating them. I am helping students understand ‘here’s what you may feel in your body, and here’s where you have permission to back up, and here’s where you can lean in. This year has forced us to learn how to engage in that experience.
With this in mind, I’d love to hear your ideas on how we might lean even further into connecting and learning from one another – and encouraging young people to think more globally and from a place of empathy – as a community.
This year has been a journey. And I think when you go on any journey with people, once you’ve actually been through something, then it brings you together and it creates a stronger community. What I was finding during that sort of journey over the course of the year was that it almost felt like the students were becoming more mature. They were able to actually be more critical thinkers in the ways they were talking about the idea of empathy.
Seeing kids discover and teach each other new games and ways to connect with each despite wearing face masks, face shields, and having to stay distanced, was so inspiring. They used whiteboards and learned sign language to talk with each other. Ultimately, kids find a way to overcome. Overall, so many of our kids are so brilliant and resilient, it inspired me to push harder and support them. One of our students recommended that we start a pen pal program so students in different cohorts could get to know each other. It’s been so awesome to see them get to know each other and build new relationships. It’s been a salve in a year where everyone talks about losing so much.
With this pandemic, there’s been this narrative of learning loss in students, which is a deficit orientation and I see our students are pushing against that. There hasn’t been learning loss. There’s been resilience, there’s been brilliance, there’s been genius.Sam Reed, Philadelphia educator
To close this conversation, I want to come back to where we started, which is thinking about hope and healing. As you think about your colleagues around the globe, what do you hope for them – and yourself – going forward?
Yamato educator, Michael Pope:
When I show up next year, I’m going to show up a little bit wiser, knowing that I can, with confidence, use these new skills to the best of my ability. I’ve learned to have an interdependency between my colleagues because they are the strength we need as we move forward. We can’t be in a bubble anymore. We have to be more collaborative. My hope is that we remember lessons like this and carry them into next year.
I hope that we continue to be unstuck. We have been dislodged from everything that we knew and with this new freedom, it can be scary sometimes because when everything’s an option now, you have to make intentional choices. So my hope for educators and just humans in general is that we understand that being stuck is a mindset.
I think as teachers, we constantly feel like we need to give, give, give and give. And not having that feedback, whether it is students telling us that we’re doing a good job or our administrators are telling us we are doing a good job. It’s been a very lonely experience this year. I think it’s important to remember that we are enough. When I find myself having really difficult times, I just remind myself of why I wanted to be a teacher to start and then just increase those bright spots there. I hope others can benefit from this practice as well.
We are re-imagining what school can be. Haven’t we always yearned for more possibilities? Ideas that once seemed like dreams are more possible now. All of the innovations are inspiring. And hearing educators and students talk about their mental well-being gives me hope that education is moving in a more sustainable direction. Students are writing about leaving toxic relationships. Teachers are talking about setting healthy boundaries. When people choose to love themselves, they are much better for humanity.
Many thanks to these eight educators – Christina, Natalie, Maritza, Isabella, Gabe, Sam, Michael, and Tim – who took the time to discuss their journeys over this past year with me. I learned so much from their insights, and I am grateful for the moment we took to pause and reflect together.
To continue learning with one another, I invite all educators reading this – no matter where you are around the world – to add your stories to our story map. Our hope is to create a beautiful and important collection of stories that everyone can reflect on and learn from.
On behalf of all of us at the National Geography Society, Happy Teacher Appreciation Week to educators here in the US. And to educators globally, know that we see you and support you each and every day of the year.
Join your fellow educators by contributing your own stories of struggle, strength, hope, and healing to the Both / And Stories map.
And thank you for all that you do. Always.