CNM Instructor Wins Prestigious National Geographic Educator of the Year Award

Jennifer Chavez-Miller is a full-time instructor in the Education department and was recognized for her project that helped connect NM students to nature and the larger world
September 24, 2020

Jennifer Chavez-Miller, a recent hire in the CNM Education department, found out this week she was the recipient of the National Geographic Educator of the Year Award. The award was a long time coming, and well deserved.

That’s because for the past 21 years, Jennifer has worked as an elementary and middle school teacher in New Mexico and been focused on teaching kids that the natural world is theirs to explore, and that the larger world is theirs to know. 

“I’ve always wanted my students to see themselves as part of a micro community but also part of the global community,” Jennifer says. “Kids that have a perspective are more able to understand the dynamics of everything from democracy to economics to the environment.”

Jennifer first connected her pedagogy to nature when she was a teacher at Mountain Mahogany Community School, where students spent almost every Friday outside. In 2015 she did a Fullbright in Finland that served to cement the connection between being outside and receiving a global education.

“When I came back from that fellowship it really became a priority to find ways that I could connect my students to the world,” she says.

She also partnered with Cottonwood Gulch to address what she refers to as the “nature and adventure gap,” where students of color don’t always get the same opportunities to recreate and explore outside. 

“The whole idea was to demonstrate to my students that they belong outdoors as well,” she says.

Her affiliation with National Geographic started when she became a certified Nat Geo educator as part of her own professional development. She was then named as as a National Geographic Grosvenor Teacher Fellow in 2018 and went on an expedition with the organization to Svalbard in the Arctic. 

After the expedition she was inspired to share her experience with her 8th grade students at the South Valley Academy in a way that developed a similar sense of adventure. That’s when she secured a Nat Geo grant and created the Vamos Explorar! program.

As part of Vamos Explorar! all 8th grade students at South Valley Academy spent 10 days outside during the 2018/19 school year. They backpacked in the Gila Wilderness, camped in Northern New Mexico, and hiked around Albuquerque. Jennifer loved working with 8th graders because she says that's when students often come into their own and are most eager to find their place in the world.

“I wanted students to develop their own mindsets as an explorer as a way of cultivating their own toolkit of attitudes, skills, and knowledge that they can apply to multiple contexts throughout their lives,” Jennifer says. 

Because the program was a success, SVA went on to fund the program itself for another two years.

All this work to change students’ is what led to the National Geographic Educator of the Year Award. She never applied, but instead was surprised when the announcement came out.

“I was of course really grateful and it made me proud of my career. But because I received this award in the middle of a global pandemic, it also really helped me change it from a ‘me’ story to a ‘we’ story,” she says. “By that I mean that now more than ever teachers need as much support as possible to help meet student needs in distance learning situations. This award for me is an acknowledgement that no teacher is in isolation and that we work and we thrive in community.”

This progress toward a cooperative model is why Jennifer is now at CNM in the Teacher Education program. With all her experience she can help educate the next generation of teachers who can continue what she started. She purposely chose CNM because of its approach and because of its determination to support new teachers in their journey.

“Our new teachers need all the support they can get. I can’t even imagine being a first-year teacher right now,” she says. “At the same time we also have an exciting opportunity to reimagine education because of what we’re facing, and my hope is that what we develop creates an ever more equitable experience for all our students and a better way to truly foster the well being of all our children.”

Learn more about the Nat Geo award.