Authentic Exploration Matters, a nonprofit organization based in Winter Garden, recently took eight teachers from Orange County Public Schools to Key Largo for its first STEAM and Sustainability Educator Retreat.
“We want teacher retention, and our goal at AEM is to support all educators who seek to incorporate innovation, collaboration and relevant teaching in their classrooms,” said Ashley Hollern, Authentic Exploration Matters founder and executive director. “We recognize that time, funding, recognition and limited professional development are key contributors in teacher retention.”
Hollern — who has a bachelors degree in biology and a minor in chemistry from the University of Pittsburgh and a masters degree in science of instruction from Drexel University — currently works at Windermere Prep and has worked as an instructor for the Endeavor Program in partnership with NASA.
“We are hoping to … (keep the teachers) in education and doing what they love to do, giving them the inspiration (they need),” she said. “Sometimes, you just need to be reminded how important you are, and that’s what we want to do for teachers.”
During the four-day trip, — sponsored by the Anette Urso Rickel Foundation — the educators were involved in ecological research centered around biodiversity and conservation, where they spent time at The Marine Lab and enjoyed a day trip to the Coral Restoration Foundation.
“One of my deepest wishes was that we provided the teachers with an experience that was engaging, educational and unique … (and) that the educators chosen would form a team that could help us inspire the educational community,” said Kirstin Cowan, Authentic Exploration Matters education coordinator. “By the time the retreat came to an end, I can say that my wishes and hopes were exceeded. Our initial group of educator ambassadors are an incredible group of dedicated, creative and talented individuals who have become the most amazing team.
“This entire experience and group of teachers has positively impacted both Authentic Exploration Matters and myself,” she said. “I know that as a team of peers, and now friends, we will genuinely inspire the educational community.“
After the trip, the educators who participated became AEM educator ambassadors and will bring their learnings and experiences from the trip into their classroom.
“(They) are going to create a case study that can be incorporated into their classroom,” Hollern said. “The great thing about our selected eight educators is that they are in different fields … and because we have such a wide range of not only the disciplines that they teach but also their age levels, we are going to have a bank of case studies that are derived from this.”
In addition to providing educators with real-life experiences to ignite their classroom teachings and lectures, AEM will hold bi-monthly live meet-ups at local coffee shops as well as online webinars that will aid in continuing the growth of teachers’ voice in the community.
Ultimately however, the backbone — and purpose — of the nonprofit and these retreats that will take place yearly in Florida for now, and possibly out-of-state in the future, is to allow educators to fall in love all over again with their profession.
“We wanted to provide them with as (many) opportunities to collaborate, discuss and work together (as much) as possible,” Hollern said. “I think that is just so invigorating in itself, ... (to) bounce ideas off of your peers, get feedback and share a passion that you have. That in itself became the most remarkable part of our trip, the idea of this rekindling, of ‘I love what I do, and I can hardly wait to get back … to share with my students what I’ve learned here.’”
WHAT AEM EDUCATOR AMBASSADORS ARE SAYING
“The Authentic Exploration Matters Educator Retreat was one of the most amazing experiences I have had in my 27 years of teaching,” said Anna Cazel, of Sanford Middle School. “We were provided with opportunities to experience real life applications to real world problems. And, we were provided with the resources to take these same lessons back to our classrooms and share what we learned with our students. This retreat gave me hope. I am not in this alone. Being able to collaborate with other teachers, who are just as passionate as I am, if not more. … was the biggest blessing.”
“As a teacher, my No. 1 goal is to make a positive impact on my students and peers,” said Susan Peorski, of Edgewater High School. “The AEM Educator Retreat focused on empowering us to do exactly that in the vital areas of sustainability and STEAM. I loved the model of working closely with like-minded teachers across varied grade levels and subjects. This experience also connected us with respected and change-making nonprofit organizations that we can bring into our classrooms.”
“As a visual arts teacher, the AEM Retreat gave me the insight into marine ecosystems I needed to make the visual arts, coupled with science, a conduit students will feel empowered to use as a creative path to not only understand Florida environments, but to also explore solutions to current environmental crises,” said Tiffany Gower, of Timber Lakes Elementary. “I was so inspired to meet young, optimistic marine biologists from The Marine Lab and The Coral Restoration Foundation that are dedicated to protecting our Florida waters. … We collaborated on bringing concrete experiences to our school communities that will inspire our students to seek their own adventures out in nature, to understand the connections they have with their Florida environments, and to foster a sense of awareness and action that they can make choices and real changes that positively impact the environment.”