Exploring as a School Community in the Face of Uncertainty

This post was written by school administrator Dr. Jamie O’Neill, Ed.D.

There was a point during this past summer when educators like myself had hoped for a school year that would feel more “normal”. We thought maybe masks wouldn’t hide our students’ bright smiles or facilitating group learning experiences wouldn’t come with fears of students being too close to each other in classrooms. When we realized our exact hopes might not be met, our school community embraced a choice – we needed to cultivate an Explorer Mindset to move forward into this continued unknown.

I am a school leader at a Spanish Immersion school. Our collective vision is to develop globally and culturally competent learners each day through our actions, our studies, and our school community. So embracing a school-wide Explorer Mindset in collaboration with National Geographic aligned perfectly with our vision and the path we hope to cultivate going forward. We knew our next step was to roll out the nuts and bolts, supporting educators as they set about the path of embracing the Explorer Mindset that National Geographic teaches.

The steps we have taken since then to become an “Explorer School” have truly set us on an exciting, albeit unknown, path. Along the way, we have learned much about our own school identity and community, our students and families, and the vision we have for our journey forward. Because this moment in time is rife with uncertainty for so many educators and schools, we hope to share our school-wide Explorer Mindset journey and insights with others.

  • Be open to new questions as they arise.

In addition to completing the Developing a National Geographic Explorer Mindset with Your Learners online course, we expanded professional learning opportunities for educators within our school community to provide all of us the time to apply what we learned to our specific context. We planned systems that would integrate an Explorer Mindset into our everyday activities. We designed behavior and enrichment lessons, as well as clarified how Explorer Mindset aligned to our other required learning standards. So many questions arose that we never considered such as – How do explorers investigate? Do explorers respect their learning environment? How do we add an additional layer into our standards to ensure an Explorer Mindset? Collectively approaching new questions with curiosity brought out the educator-explorer in all of us.

  • Develop a team of innovative explorers who will inspire and lead others.

We wanted educators to elect into this effort, rather than be required to participate. For us, educator exploration begins with curiosity and passion, which cannot be externally mandated. So we developed an “Explorer Quest” professional learning group who would meet outside of the school day and at an outside location beyond the school building. By shifting the context and environment for professional learning, we created an energizing opportunity for educators to feel comfortable exploring new ideas. We empowered this group to own the majority development for the nuts and bolts of the Explorer Mindset program. Once we shared this opportunity with the entire staff, we were amazed to discover that we had more volunteers than we could fit into the planned location of the meetings. This leadership team takes on many tasks, including diving into the resources National Geographic offers to support educators as they develop their own explorer classrooms. 

  • Rely on what has worked in the past.

While exploring is often about approaching new horizons, we have also found that relying on paths we have already tread can also be beneficial for expanding the Explorer Mindset across a school community. For example, an older school program that involved student passports was brought back to life with an explorer twist. Students would earn passport stamps through explorations and activities sensitive to an environment where a pandemic is still very real. Each grade level was assigned Spanish speaking countries and asked to integrate exploration of these countries into their daily plans. A familiar concept was also brought back into light by connecting with a school in Puerto Rico where our students and theirs will communicate through a pen pal program over the course of this school year. 

  • Be adaptable.

Even though our year started with much promise, we are still navigating a very serious state of the pandemic here in Louisville. While we entered into this Explorer Mindset idea with dreams of a future where our students could actually explore Spanish speaking countries or even our neighborhood community, we recognize the reality that exploration may have to remain virtual this year. Yet we are using this opportunity to plan for a post-pandemic program to build upon the foundation we’re creating now. 

And we are already reaping the benefits of that foundation now. As Hawthorne’s resident art educator, Kathryn Cohan shared, 

“This experience has really given us the opportunity for students to think about their world and others in their community in a way that a traditional classroom activity may not lend the possibility and discussion. It has been a beautiful experience to see them pause and reflect, have the freedom to understand their ideas can change and shift, as well as start developing a new way of thinking.”

While our students are already reaping the benefits of embracing an Explorer’s Mindset as a school, many of our educators have also noticed how their own professional growth has been influenced as well. Our school librarian, Dr. Jamey Herdelin noted, 

“One of the things I have loved so much about being a part of the Explorer Mindset program with our students is the opportunity to pause as an educator. It has been freeing because it has given us permission to go with our passions and to soar together. We have learned how to work as a team to flesh out the activities and collaborate and explore each other’s strengths. Together we realized that we are just as much explorers as our students. An unexpected bonus was we are energized despite all of the uncertainties we face each day. We are able to keep our why and our focus.”

Exploring never truly occurs in a vacuum, and cultivating an Explorer Mindset as a school community has provided all of us – school leaders, educators, and students – with a path forward, even in the rockiest of terrains. And we are more dedicated than ever to traversing it.

Jamie O’Neill, Ed.D. is the Assistant Principal at Hawthorne Elementary School in Louisville, Kentucky.

Lead image is a bulletin board in the front lobby of Hawthorne Elementary School with pictures of the teachers’ summer explorations.

National Geographic invites you to join a passionate and supportive community of educators by enrolling in our free, self-paced mini-course “Developing a National Geographic Explorer Mindset with Your Learners.” This mini-course defines the attitudes and skills of National Geographic Explorers and provides resources to foster the #ExplorerMindset in your students.

One thought on “Exploring as a School Community in the Face of Uncertainty

  1. So so happy to read this inspiring and powerful story. As an out-of-school #EducatorExplorer, I do strongly believe this is how the school systems around the world should be. NOW, is the time and opportunity to REVAMP our schools; our students need it! Thank you & BRAVO to the whole school to have taken the leap and being a pioneer in inspiring the power of the #ExplorerMindset school.

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