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Springdale teacher shares story traveling world on National Geographic teaching program

After winning a founders award with the school’s EAST program, Derek Ratchford was contacted by National Geographic.

SPRINGDALE, Ark. — A Springdale teacher is the second Arkansas educator to become a National Geographic Grosvenor Teacher Fellow.

Derek Ratchford teaches at Sonora Middle School in Springdale. He says he has a passion for teaching his students and in September had the chance of a lifetime to become a student once again.

"The whole process really just started for my kids and the things that these kids can do and create when given the opportunity to learn and express themselves and find their passion," Ratchford said.

After winning a founders award with the school’s EAST program, Ratchford was contacted by National Geographic. He attended a summit and afterward, he applied and became a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow. 

The program allows educators to go on expeditions all over the world. 

"Because of COVID, we were unable to announce that or go through with the process until just recently," he said. "We were finally able to release that news in 2021."

While the pandemic put a pause on Ratchford's expedition, being included as one of the 50 educators from all over the U.S. and Canada gave him time to network.

"We've been communicating daily, with educators from around the globe," he said. "We're able to feed off of each other and implement things because of each other."

Ratchford made his 10-day trip to the Galapagos Islands in September.

"I've never really traveled without my wife and my family. So the thought of flying into one of the most dangerous cities in the world by myself was a little bit nerve-racking and I had so much anxiety about it," Ratchford said. "We flew into Guayaquil, Ecuador, and we stayed overnight, which was interesting. It's one of the top 10 most dangerous cities in the world. So, we flew in, and then we got there around 11 o'clock at night. So then we had to go by, took us to our hotels and we were basically under lockdown when we got to hotels."

Instead of letting his time in Guayaquil hinder his expedition, Ratchford compared the experience to what incoming middle school students experience.

"We did a lot of amazing stuff. We snorkeled with sharks and sea turtles, we kayaked through the mangroves with 25 to 30 sharks all around us, which was really super cool. And every day was different— every day was a different animal," he said. "I really enjoyed the cultural side, probably more than the animals, just to see how different it is and how special it was."

As a Grosvenor teacher fellow, Ratchford was tasked with creating lessons and content for National Geographic.

Ratchford says that on his trip leaving the island the first bus out was full, leaving him and a few others with a local. The local told him the greatest threats to the islands aren’t climate, black market selling of animals or even the change of animal migration patterns. Instead, he said it’s the perception of safety.

"If anyone ever gets that perspective, and connects it with the idea and philosophy that South American countries are not safe, no one will ever want to come there and 90% of their income and their economy is from tourism," he said. "Without tourism, they can no longer protect the animals that we love so much. They can no longer have the national guard service that helps them protect the wildlife and the environment there. And it'll all just go away."

Ratchford's interaction with the locals is one of the many lessons he brought home to his students.

"Looking back on it, they put safety first, which if you think about it in education, if our kids don't feel safe, they can't learn. And nothing political about that just in terms of how we approach education, I want my kids' minds to be open, I want them to be not afraid of failing," he said.

Ratchford is the EAST facilitator for Sonora Middle School and explained that the class was an opportunity to let students follow whichever passions they choose.

"My whole focus in around EAST and around providing for my kids is making sure they have anything that interests them, whether that's podcasting or laser cutting, or 3D printing, or whatever the case may be, I want my kids to have access to it. Because I get so tired of hearing that 'kids can't do it,'" he said. 

"We have kids in our building who are on a third-grade reading level, and they get labeled as kids who can't read, so they can't, they're not successful. But that same kid can walk into my classroom and develop augmented reality for a dinosaur exhibit."

A new perspective for Ratchford, brought on by his life-changing adventure.

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