Lower School Naturalist Teacher shares her journey

From the classroom to the Appalachian Trail and back, Lauren Hagan shares how she landed her dream role and her plans for the Naturalist Program.
By Sierra Smith, Communications Specialist

It’s the dream job she never knew she wanted. 

When Lauren Hagan started working at University School of Nashville in 2014, she had no idea what was in store. 

Shortly after starting at USN as a kindergarten teacher, Hagan befriended Cynthia Lee, the founder of the Lower School’s Young Naturalist Program. Spending time with Lee and Lisa Preston, USN’s subsequent Naturalist Teacher, reignited Hagan’s love for the outdoors and pushed her to be more adventurous; for Hagan, something shifted. 

One of the greatest delights of being the Naturalist [Teacher] at USN was experiencing the awakening of wonder in children and adults — the teachers and parents. This was especially true those first years with Lauren. She loved our journeys so much and her enthusiasm was evident in her classes,” Lee said. 

And so the couple became her outdoors mentors.

“I had always told myself that I was going to go all these places and try all these new things, but I was always saying ‘sometime’ or ‘some day.’ Cynthia and Lisa just inspired me to finally do it,” Hagan shared. 

“During my first year at USN, we were on the bus on our way back from a journey that Cynthia led and I told her that I really wanted to be a better naturalist — I was just hooked — it reawakened in me the sense that I needed to be outside,” she continued.

And so it began — that summer Hagan visited Yellowstone Park and took a naturalist course while there. She explored the Grand Tetons and took up backpacking. Short trips quickly lengthened in distance and duration. Before long, Hagan was facing another someday goal with a today attitude. 

On March 17, 2019, Hagan found herself in Amicalola Falls State Park in Dawsonville, Georgia. With 2,192 miles ahead, she began the mammoth journey.

“There was this sense of calling where it just seemed like I was meant to do the Trail and that I was always meant to, that it was something that was just in me,” Hagan said. 

While the trek itself is most impressive, taking this journey also required a great deal of preparation from Hagan. She read countless books to learn more about what the journey entailed — both physically and mentally — and continued taking backpacking trips to build the strength, endurance, and mental fortitude required. 

“I couldn’t have done it without the support of USN,” Hagan said. “Administration was so willing to work with me and [Lower School Curriculum Coordinator] Christy Plummer stepped into my role in the classroom so I wouldn’t have to quit. The rest of the kindergarten team at the time — Jan Honsberger, Jody Reynolds, and Karri Leslie — and my remarkable Teaching Assistant Dee Russell were all instrumental in helping me realize my dream.” 

It took Hagan 207 days to hike the entire trail. During her journey, she faced several obstacles. Extremely low temperatures coupled with heavy rain made some days difficult to continue. A crime that occurred on the trail caused a delay. What’s more, Hagan suffered an ankle injury that required her to leave the trail to recover — a setback she admits could have easily been a breaking point. 

Nonetheless, Hagan persisted and reached her goal. The feeling of achievement was well worth the struggles along the way. 

“It’s still so hard to put it into words; it was the accomplishment of a lifetime, and in a way, it was really a pilgrimage for me. It was spiritual; I came back a different person,” Hagan shared.

As if fated just for her, Preston’s retirement aligned with Hagan’s return to USN. While she’d always known she’d return from the Appalachian Trail to the halls of 2000 Edgehill, Hagan has now taken over the Lower School’s Young Naturalist Program. 

The Young Naturalist program connects Lower School students to the wonder of the natural world through outdoor journeys that foster knowledge, love, and a sense of place. 

The Young Naturalist Program accord is: 
What Naturalists Do:
Go outside
Respect all living things
Honor the right of all people to enjoy nature
Observe closely with curiosity
Record what we see
Naturalists Are full of wonder.

Each journey students take directly connects grade level curricula to the natural world by bridging with current classroom units around the areas of environmental science, social studies, measurement, writing, and drawing, as well as to the social-emotional curriculum. Classes go on journeys, both on-campus and off-campus at least once a month and in all kinds of weather.

The program also includes Forest Days, where classes spend an entire day in the woods each season in open exploration, written reflection, and in a focused field study.

Hagan’s journey — from her first days teaching to her time on the Appalachian Trail — has shaped her perfectly for this role. 

“I feel like this is what I’m meant to be doing,” Hagan affirmed. “Being on that trail, in those mountains — some of the oldest mountains in the world — it brings you closer to the earth and that’s one of the things I hope to do with this program. I want the kids to feel that connection to nature, too.”

Preston confirmed Hagan’s aptitude for taking over in her retirement. 

“I am so excited for Lauren in this new role. Her sense of wonder and knowledge of the natural world will enhance the Young Naturalist Program and carry it forward,” said Preston.

Middle School Parent Joanna Brichetto, who is a certified naturalist and often volunteers in USN’s outdoor classroom, echoed Preston’s support. 

“I’ve watched the Young Naturalist curriculum evolve through all of Lisa Preston’s expansions and additions, and though I was sad to see her go, I was pleased the baton would go next to Lauren. I’ve known Lauren a long time and she is wide awake to the wonders of the natural world, which is requirement number one for a mentor and role model. She brings her Lower School experience, trail experience, naturalist training, and love of teaching to the mix. This all adds up to mean we’ve got another inspiring nature connector for our kids, and through the ripple effect, for the USN community,” Brichetto said. 

Hagan’s grand vision for the Young Naturalist Program focuses on encouraging a sense of wonder and respect for the world around us. Moreover, as students grapple with feeling safe and stable in the midst of a global health crisis and a civil rights movement, Hagan hopes to share the peace and solace the outdoors can provide with her students. 

That’s not the only way Hagan’s goals for the program are a response to current events. When news broke of Christian Cooper being racially targeted while birdwatching in New York City’s Central Park this spring, Hagan felt an added responsibility to help make being outside safer for everyone. 

“I want to educate myself on Black naturalists and other people of color working in this field, so I can share that with my students, as well,” Hagan said. “We’re going to honor the right for all people to enjoy nature.”

Through the Young Naturalist Program, children show an increased comfort level in the unpredictability of being in the outdoors, a willingness to problem solve on their own, and a desire to explore levels of personal risks with courage, bringing an improved sense of self-confidence and self-reliance into their everyday lives.

Following one of her kindergarten class’s first journeys of the year, Teacher Jody Reynolds said, “Lauren has a gentle soul and a peace about her that are greatly needed in our world right now. One of the beautiful ways that the program trains our young learners to observe what they see is to encourage them to ‘come close.’ When we gather together in this way, Lauren helps students to use their best naturalist strategies every time we meet. Today, we all came close to observe some bunny scat.” 
    • Lower School Naturalist Teacher Lauren Hagan with her predecessors and mentors Cynthia Lee and Lisa Preston.

    • Hagan on the summit of Mt. Katahdin the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail.

    • A toad — one of the many animals Hagan observed along the trail.

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