Local teacher of the deaf selected for prestigious National Geographic fellowship, educational expedition

May 13, 2024 | 12:10 am

Updated May 12, 2024 | 8:19 pm

Photo provided by Heidi Givens

Dr. Heidi Givens, Teacher of the Deaf for McLean County Public Schools, has been selected as one of 35 educators from across the continent for the 16th cohort of Grosvenor Teacher Fellows, a collaboration between the National Geographic Society and Lindblad Expeditions. The cohort will embark on a voyage to circumnavigate Iceland aboard a state-of-the-art expedition vessel, the National Geographic Explorer.

The expedition will allow for hands-on, field-based educational and research opportunities, as well as a once-in-a-lifetime travel experience that Givens said she will use “to inform my curriculum and inspire my students to become environmental stewards.”

Givens, an Owensboro resident, is the program’s first-ever teacher of the deaf to participate. 

She was shocked and grateful to receive her acceptance call from National Geographic on February 16, 2024.

“I am pretty sure I screamed loudly. I was beyond excited but also quite surprised that I was selected,” Givens said. “I’m a teacher of the deaf who does not teach geography, science, history, or any other subject that would immediately come to mind when thinking of the Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship. However, I got over that brief moment of imposter syndrome and recognized that I am worthy in a way that is unique from other applicants. I am honored to represent my community and state, but more importantly, the deaf education community as the program’s first-ever teacher of the deaf.”

Givens said she has received many accolades and participated in numerous professional development opportunities in her career, but this fellowship offers a chance to grow in a way that she has never experienced. 

“I will be able to closely explore a part of our world and to share that experience with others in my community and beyond, especially with deaf students,” she said. “I also hope to learn from my shipmate fellows how they incorporate an explorer mindset with their students and find ways that I can adopt more inquiry-based learning into my teaching to help my students and others become better stewards of our planet.”

Givens was born and raised in Massachusetts, while her husband Darrell is originally from Lexington. They moved to Florida for 5 years before returning to Kentucky to plant roots closer to Darrell’s family in 2003. 

They ended up in Owensboro because, at the time, a regional elementary program for deaf and hard-of-hearing students was being formed through a collaboration between Owensboro Public Schools, Daviess County Public Schools, and the Kentucky School for the Deaf. Givens was hired to serve as the K-5 teacher in this program and stayed in that position until May 2012.

Being an educator was not Givens’ original professional goal. She started as a speech-language pathology major, wanting to work with children and adults in a private therapy setting. 

She took American Sign Language (ASL) as an elective in college, and that led to her working with a blind school that had a deafblind program. Her experience had such a profound impact that she changed majors and finished with a bachelor’s degree in deaf studies before obtaining a master’s degree in deaf education, both from Boston University.

Givens is now in her 28th year in education, with 26 of those as a teacher of the deaf. This is her 21st year in Kentucky. She began teaching in McLean County Public Schools in August 2019. 

“The district created this position because they had several students who required the expertise of a teacher of the deaf,” Givens said. “A full-time teacher was needed to meet the individual needs of these students; therefore, I was hired to fulfill this need. Over time, however, the number of deaf and hard-of-hearing students decreased.”

Givens said that while other districts might have closed the position when the number of students decreased, McLean County chose to find alternative ways to retain her as a full-time teacher. One year she taught ASL classes at the high school in addition to her role as teacher of the deaf. Another year they contracted with a neighboring school district that was in need of a teacher of the deaf.

Givens had been familiar with the Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship for several years but didn’t apply until January 2024. She felt she wasn’t qualified since she doesn’t teach science or social studies, but an experience with one student last fall changed her mind. 

“In the recent season of the TV show ‘The Amazing Race,’ a deaf father and his son competed. Recognizing the importance of exposing my students to deaf and hard-of-hearing adult role models, I received permission from my principal and the student’s parents to watch parts of each episode,” Givens said. “While watching the show, I used the opportunity of the competitors traveling across the globe to incorporate various in-the-moment lessons. These included lessons about map skills, different landscapes and climates, the types of transportation the competitors used, the different clothing and food seen in that country, and other related topics. Whenever my student showed curiosity about something he saw in an episode, we paused and researched it.”

That helped Givens realize she was qualified for the fellowship. 

“I have the opportunity to bring my educational expedition experience to deaf students and to also teach them about the world and their place in it. I want to show them what they can do to make the world better, to be curious to explore other places, and to learn about the contributions of deaf people worldwide,” she said.

An additional goal Givens has for her fellowship is to view the entire process with an accessibility and equity lens. 

“I want to find and work with National Geographic and Linblad expeditions to remove all the visible and hidden barriers that may prevent deaf teachers or any disabled educators from applying and participating in the Fellowship,” she said.

Since 2006, 400 total educators have been selected to join the Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship. The educational expedition is named in honor of Gilbert M. Grosvenor, chairman emeritus of the National Geographic Society, in recognition of his decades-long work supporting pre-K–12 teachers and promoting geographic education across the United States and Canada. The expeditions were donated in perpetuity to the Society by Lindblad Expeditions’ Founder and CEO Sven-Olof Lindblad in 2006.

The Fellowship is open to pre-K–12 educators, who apply and are selected through a competitive application process. Fellows take on a 2-year commitment to support National Geographic’s education initiatives and — in addition to being hosted aboard the Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic fleet for a field-based experience — may be asked to conduct webinars, co-design resources, participate in meetups, and serve as mentors to other educators.

Submissions for the 2025 Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship cohort are scheduled to open this fall. To learn more about the program, visit the fellowship website here.

May 13, 2024 | 12:10 am

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