Gunnison educator returns from National Geographic excursion
Photo by: 
Abbey Kuhns

A Gunnison educator hopes her recent seafaring experience provides students an open door to a wider world.

Boarding the National Geographic Explorer in the River Thames on May 14, Gunnison Elementary School (GES) teaching assistant Abbey Kuhns took a step toward a great unknown. Never before had the Gunnison educator traveled across the vast breadth of the sea.

“As I told people on the ship, I’ve been on canoes,” Kuhns joked.

At the start of the voyage, the potential for bad weather and Kuhns’ own naval inexperience foretold a coming disaster. Reality, on the other hand, was far different.

“I got seasick for about 10 minutes one day,” Kuhns said. “But that was it! And then it was fine.”

Kuhns embarked on the adventure as a part of the National Geographic’s Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship in conjunction with Lindblad Expeditions, an adventure cruise company that takes passengers to exotic locales overseas. The fellowship is a professional development program for National Geographic-certified teachers which aims to enhance both the educators’ and students’ geographic understanding.

Each year, a competitive application process is used to select educators. This year saw the largest group to date with 45 educators from across the world chosen to participate.


Educators set sail

Aboard the ship, Kuhns and Grosvenor fellow Cindy Bloom — a middle school teacher from Kalamazoo, Mich. — were accompanied by staff members from National Geographic, including naturalists and photographers alongside paying customers. Thankfully, the menace of course-altering weather was quickly dismissed.

“We had perfect weather almost every day,” Kuhns said.

As the ship sailed east out of the Thames and around the southern coast of England, passengers enjoyed sunny skies and temperatures in the high 50s. Their good fortune with regard to weather was maintained during the duration of the trip, which travelled from England to the western isles and coastlines of Ireland. All the while observing a stunning aquatic array of seals, dolphins, orcas and sea birds.

“We saw quite a few dolphins,” Kuhns remembered, “and sometimes they would come right up to the ship, just an arm length away from the boat we were on.”  

Kuhns’ role at GES, where she’s been employed for the last three years, consists of work with gifted and talented students. Yet, originally, she wasn’t set on becoming a teacher. Rather, she fell into the profession through college coursework at Western Colorado University in 2008.

The opportunity to try teaching arose when she moved to Gunnison from Washington D.C, and a colleague of her husband suggested she give it a shot.

William Niemi, who is still teaching at Western, asked if Kuhns had ever thought about teaching. She had not, but Kuhns subsequently found it to be a natural fit.

“I’ve always loved school,” she explained. “I like learning, I just had never really thought of teaching. But for me the best part about it is that it’s not boring. Every day is different. Every student is different. Everything changes all the time, and it is exciting.”

For the students in her gifted and talented classes, there was much excitement to hear that their teacher was going to be traveling across the sea.

“They were really, really curious about the ship itself and travelling in the sea,” Khuns said.


Return to the classroom

As a teacher on board the ship, Kuhns was able to receive several tours of the vessel. Studying the Explorer’s eight decks — which housed life boats and engine rooms alike — allowed her to take the information back to the classroom.

“I think just living where we do in the mountains, traveling on the ocean seems so foreign. So, I definitely wanted to learn a lot about that to bring that back to my students,” said Kuhns, noting that the experience also fits well with students’ curriculum in helping them understand the Age of Exploration.

As part of the fellowship, educators are expected and required to bring material back to the classroom to enhance their students’ education.

“We said ‘yes’ to every opportunity,” Kuhns remarked. “We always tried to pack in as much as possible, and every day sleep the minimum that was required to be healthy.”

Bloom and Kuhns would spend early mornings on the bridge of the Explorer watching the sunrise, keeping their eyes peeled for any sign of wildlife and learning from the on-board National Geographic naturalists. Afternoons would consist of hikes across islands and talking with locals.

Both leading up to the trip and along the route, Kuhns has made connections with educators across the nation with the intent to create collaborative projects across classrooms.

As for now, Kuhns has returned to Gunnison and is trying to catch up with students before summer sets in — to tell them tales of Shetland ponies, Irish faeries and playful killer whales.


- Rowan Jones, Special to the Times