An interview with Sean, The Study Academy’s Lower School Department Head of English & Humanities.
When the National Geographic Society offers you the opportunity of a lifetime, you take it. That’s exactly what Sean did when he learned about the Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship program.
In February of 2019, Sean was recognized as a member of the National Geographic Society & Lindblad Expeditions 13th annual Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship class. Alongside 44 other highly-respected educators, he embarked on a once-in-a-lifetime journey to the Galapagos to enhance his geographical knowledge, hands-on.
Sean discusses his Fellowship experience including the moment he found out he was a Fellow, the expedition itself, and his takeaways from the program so far.
What inspired you to apply for the Fellowship?
I’m a social studies teacher, so I’m always thinking of engaging ways to bring the world into my classroom. I was motivated first by National Geographic’s educational resources where I came across the certification and Fellowship opportunities.
Speaking of the [National Geographic Educator] certification: what motivated you to complete it?
I was the person who grew up with National Geographic magazines and documentaries. That’s really how I got pulled into it. The Educator Certification provides formal training to teachers around the world on how to bring up critical global issues in the classroom – like climate change and pressures on the ocean. I wanted to have that experience and grow my practice, so that’s why I went for the certification opportunity.
Now that I’ve been certified, I help out with the certification course for National Geographic by mentoring other teachers.
Could you tell us more about your mentorship role for the certification?
The mentorship opportunity came up after I finished the certification. Some educators who go through the course and get certified are invited to apply to be a mentor for other teachers going through the process. I applied and was selected as a mentor before I became a Fellow.
As a mentor, I spread the word about the course through my professional networks. As for the actual mentoring piece: while educators are going through the certification process, I have a mentor group on the online course where I help facilitate the course, support educators when they have questions, and assess their final project.
When did you become a Fellow? How did that process go?
[laughs] I officially became one in the middle of a class actually, it’s a weird story! In February of 2019, I got a phone call and, like most good teachers, I didn’t answer it as I was teaching. I saw the number was from Washington, which is where the headquarters of the society is, but also my wife is from the DC area. At the time I was worried something was wrong, but I kept teaching. Then Bryan, the founder of the school, answered the school phone when they tried that number. He walked in and he was smiling.
He said, “I’m going to cover your class – you have a phone call.”
I immediately thought it was really bad, but he was smiling which was confusing. So anyway, I stepped out into the stairwell and my manager at NatGeo was the one on the phone. She was playing a trick on me.
I answered, “What’s going on?”
She said, “I need you to do something.”
Confused, I replied, “What? You’re calling me in the middle of the school day. Like what -”
And she responded, “I’m just kidding – we’ve chosen you!”
Short momentary panic followed by a lot of happiness.
As a Fellow, you’re also a Program Ambassador. What does that entail?
It starts with a conference before the expedition to meet the other Fellows and receive training for the role. Following the expedition, I bring the experience back into my classroom in a few different ways. One is pretty obvious: I have to develop an action plan and a project for my students. We are in the midst of creating that together. The next step is creating a resource development piece for National Geographic. I mentioned that they have a pretty robust online resource library for educators. So, I will be developing something for that resource library. Then, the final deliverable is an outreach event. Whether that’s a public speaking event at a library or school board meeting – that is to be determined at this point.
Okay, let’s talk about your expedition! Tell me all about it.
I went on a 10-day expedition to the Galapagos on the National Geographic Endeavour II. It was an opportunity to visit an unusual place in the world and bring back the experience through photos and stories to my students. In short, it was totally amazing.
The ship has NatGeo photo instructors. There’s a crew of eight naturalists who are all super talented educators that describe what they’re seeing on the fly to guests on the ship. Other people on there are totally inspirational people as well. In my expedition, there were also teams from the Charles Darwin Research Station in the Galapagos, National Geographic Pristine Seas Project, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). They were filming underwater around seamounts, using the ship as a passage to see what kind of species are at the ocean floor, perform species counts, identification, and things like that. An opportunity for me to be a total nerd I guess [laughs]. There was plenty to look at!
Every day, we were generally moving to a new island. It’s an archipelago, so there are a lot of different places to visit. Every day, there were really amazing choices in terms of what you can do. I’d wake up, have breakfast, and then I’d be asked, “Do you want to do some deep-water ocean snorkeling where you might see some sea lions and sharks, or do you want to go for a hike where you can try to identify iguanas, flamingos, and birds?”
We had really packed days with total hands-on experience and presentations from naturalists and staff on board the ship. As a Fellow, my role was a hybrid of half guest and half crew member. Along with another Fellow, I represented the Fellowship program on the ship by delivering a presentation about how we can use these expedition experiences to inspire students.
How many Fellows were on your ship?
There were two of us: Dave Ostheimer, from Delaware, and myself. I’m a middle school teacher and he’s a grade 1 teacher, so totally different contexts. It was really great to have another perspective on how you can unpackage the same topic in different ways to engage your class.
What have you learned from the Fellowship so far? Is there anything that really stood out to you?
I’m still processing the experience itself and thinking about how I want to share it. I’ve done the easy thing: I’ve shown them videos and I’ve talked to the kids about the coolest moments. Now I’m parsing out what piece I’m going to use as a full project that will really drive student learning.
Overall, what I’ve learned the most isn’t from the expedition itself, it’s from the community that the Fellowship has given me. The opportunity to connect with 44 other educators all over North America. When you’re teaching a class, it can feel pretty localized: your students, your content, your marking. Through attending the Fellowship kick-off conference and then learning about them through online work, it’s been really inspiring to meet people who are doing really incredible things. A lot of times I think, “Oh wow, I never would have thought of that. Now, I can take that idea and use it in my classroom.”
Apart from getting these different ideas from other educators, how do you think this Fellowship will benefit your students?
The big thing for me is that, even though I went to a place that is objectively far away and different from where we live, there are many ways the things happening in the Galapagos are connected to major issues happening here. The thing that I really take in, and see my students take in, is understanding what’s happening in the Galapagos, which is either really scary, inspiring or difficult to think about. It makes you think of something you saw happening in Algonquin or at a cottage, in High Park or in the schoolyard. It’s the idea that there are connections that can be made between two very different places.
Is there anything else you want to share about your Fellowship?
I want to share the experience with as many people as I possibly can. It’s a very competitive process but if you put the work in, there’s an incredible opportunity you can have as an educator.
It is really cool to be able to bring those experiences back to the students and have those conversations in a meaningful way. A lot of times, you’re showing pictures or videos or telling stories – it’s really powerful when you’re able to say I did this and I saw this firsthand.
You can empower students to have a mindset like that themselves. They can take the ideas that underpin the Fellowship – being explorers, taking in the world in unique ways – and work with people to actually tackle global issues.
Spread the word on opportunities like this. I guess, that’s what the message is.
To read about the 13th annual Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship class, access the press release here.