Educators as Explorers – Developing a “Deeper, More Discerning Matrix of Understanding”

September 22, 2017

“I’m about to say something that requires you to be mature. Can you handle it? I know you can.”

“I saw a blue-footed booby!” I proclaimed. “It did a special dance to show off its blue feet to a potential mate as if to say, ‘Hey there, I have bright blue feet which means I’m very healthy and we should lay eggs together!’ and then it pushed back its tush and raised up its sweet head and honked as a sign of interest!” The rising 1st and 2nd graders all burst into contained giggles, attempting to keep the promise of maturity. In mid-July I began my annual summer ritual of teaching at a geo-literacy enrichment program through my school district called Global Village Summit. Each year I teach the littlest of the littles about the culture of another place around the world. This summer I chose Ecuador because I had recently explored the Galápagos and the opportunity to share about my expedition was something I dared not squander.

My expedition to the Galápagos was made possible by the Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship through National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions. Throughout this year, 35 carefully selected educators will travel to some of the most remote and pristine parts of our globe. Our goal is to impart what we experience through storytelling, professional development and teaching to the communities where we are already connected to and growing in. Through the National Board’s Five Core Propositions, allow me to share how exploration of any kind impacts us.

Core Proposition 2 is titled “Teachers Generate Multiple Paths to Knowledge.” This may sound philosophical, but I take it literally. Thanks to the opportunities I have been given, I have literally spent time on unfamiliar paths and soaking in what it feels like to be a novice, treading to places I have never been and learning from experience. On the Galápagos island of Española I took my first hike of my week-long expedition. I had been told it could be strenuous due to the rock scrambling we would do, so I borrowed a walking stick. As I clumsily entered the zodiac, an inflatable motor-powered boat that took the guests from our ship to the islands, I realized how foreign everything was to me. I was unpracticed with riding in zodiacs, unable to get into one without the support and coaching of the zodiac driver, and washed with embarrassment as I almost stabbed the side of the zodiac with my walking stick. The hike had not even begun and Española was in the distance, but here I began to feel the shock of being novice. I realized that my experience is not that different from a child’s first day of school. Learning where the cubbies and lockers are, wondering where this day would take you, curious if those around you see how novice you are in your new settings and if they would accept you…I felt the feelings of being outside my comfort zone.

A few days after my near zodiac stabbing incident, one of my new friends aboard the ship showed me an image on her iPhone. It was of a circle with the words “comfort zone” written inside and the words “where the magic happens” on the outside. How did the iPhone prophesy what Galápagos would be for me?!

Let’s go back to Española, post zodiac ride. I exit the zodiac, getting slightly stronger using the mariners grip to exit the boat with the help of the driver. I started to see that everyone was learning the best way to exit and enter a zodiac gracefully. I wasn’t alone. Upon the shores I watched young sea lion pups play in the waves while older sea lions dried their fur on the sunshine drenched beach. Marine iguanas watched me and smiled with their sage little faces as they searched for the best sunning rock. A young guest wielded his fidget spinner and set it on a rock while an Española mockingbird watched nearby; it flew over and pecked at the spinner while the young guest recorded it with shock on his GoPro. After hiking inland a bit as the sun said farewell, we watched waved albatross couples “sword dance” in the last golden dapples of the day. Google it – it’s magical! After losing myself in taking photo after photo of animals, one of our naturalists said, “Jennifer, you won’t need this walking stick again. I haven’t seen you use it once!” I started to realize I had yet to use my walking stick. I did not need it. Getting back to the zodiac over the rocks was less intimidating and I jaunted onto the zodiac just a little easier this time, connecting my eyes with the driver as he gave me his arm for the mariners grip that would safely take me to my seat.

With time, I found my own path to understanding exploration in Galápagos. Day after day I became a stronger hiker, zodiac rider, and connector of things I experienced. Like the flora and fauna of my beloved islands, I was growing and thriving and – gasp! – evolving!

Accomplished educators model those processes for students, showing them how to pose problems and work through alternative solutions, as well as how to examine the answers that others have found to similar problems. – “Teachers Generate Multiple Paths to Knowledge,” Core Proposition 2 of What Teachers Should Know and Be Able To Do

Educators can be mistaken for the kings and queens of knowledge, disseminating intelligence and praise to our students. I propose that instead we model being explorers and take risks with problem solving and inquiry to benefit our learners.

By the end of Global Village Summit, I had recounted many of my expedition stories to the rising 1st and 2nd graders. One of our culminating experiences was to explore the Darwin Finch and predict a future evolution of its body. Some were silly – finches that eat school buildings! Others were more in line with current evolutions – finches that eat fish as well as insects! Each child was able to defend their evolution and explain how they believe the finch could change to eat these items. It was incredible to hear about their thought processes and the follow up questions they asked themselves. I realize that while my goal was to expose the learners to the idea of evolution and what role Galápagos played in this scientific theory that I also introduced the learners to problem solving, thinking ahead, and seeing themselves as explorers. All of them – despite gender, race, class, religion, age, etc. – were engaged in taking their own path to understanding.

This paradigm shift from disseminating information to students towards leading children to explore different paths to understanding manifested at Global Village Summit, but it began when I left my comfort zone in Galápagos. Educators – see yourselves as explorers. Whether you leave your city limits or your time zone, go somewhere new…because this is where the magic happens.

Photographer © Ralph Lee Hopkins

Jennifer Burgin, NBCT

Jennifer Burgin, NBCT, is an elementary educator at Oakridge Elementary in Arlington, Virginia, a part of Arlington Public School. She was named a 2017 Grosvenor Teacher Fellow, made possible by National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions. Her expedition was to the Galápagos from June 2-11, 2017. Jennifer is a lifelong learner, co-author of the nonfiction children's ABC book A is for Arlington, 2017 Deeper Learning Ambassador and a National Board Support Cohort co-leader. She was named the Oakridge Teacher of the Year in 2015 and the Arlington Teacher of the Year in 2016. Jennifer, a once self-described house cat, was first called an explorer in March 2017 by her National Geographic Education leaders and it is a description she has clung to since! You can follow Jennifer's teaching adventures on Twitter @MrsJBurgin and her new blog, Educator Explorer at, which currently details her expeditions to the Galápagos and in her local community.