Teaching Traveling: Welcome to Karen Krzystof-Bansley! Karen, tell us a bit about yourself.
Karen: Hi, my name is Karen and I’m from the suburbs of Chicago. My travel experiences were very limited until after I graduated from college, but have been frequent ever since. Each year I make sure to travel both abroad and domestically. While the list of the locales that I have visited is even longer, some of the highlights from my travels include: Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Argentina, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Egypt, Australia, New Zealand and all over Europe (Ireland, Scotland, Poland, Germany, Italy, and more). My domestic travels have taken me to thirty-eight states so far, and South Dakota is my recent favorite. My travels (depending on how far away I’m going) have been as short as five days or as long as a month. Antarctica is the last continent left for me to visit.
I have sixteen years of teaching experience; including educator experience from fourth through eighth grade, in both private and public schools. However, I’ve taught 6th grade exclusively for the last ten years and plan to remain with the same grade level. I teach within a K-6 setting, therefore I have the same students all day long.
TT: I’m so impressed by how much of the world you’ve seen! Tell us more about your travels.
K: I use the time during my summer break to satisfy my wanderlust. In addition I’m able to research various topics and strategies to enrich my skills and knowledge as an educator. I seek travel experiences that will aid me in my never-ending quest to be the best teacher I can be. My most recent trip, in July of 2014, was a two-week trip to Indonesia. In particular, I visited Bali, Yogyakarta, Bandung and Jakarta. In 2010, a trip to Southeast Asia was particularly inspiring and educational, and I was pleased to have the chance to return to the area. However I did not use a tour company for this trip. Instead, I carefully researched my options and planned the trip myself.
My class in Burbank, Illinois and a class in Bandung, Indonesia are beginning a pen pal relationship in order to get to know one another’s cultures more in depth. The Indonesian students are excited to have a chance to practice their English with a native speaker, and my students are excited as well. We are hoping to send them a package with a variety of items to help them better understand American culture, in addition to letters in English from their peers.
TT: How did you find this travel opportunity?
K: I found this unique opportunity to visit an Indonesian middle school through an educational parody writer named Mr. Dan Nicky. Mr. Nicky has visited my 6th grade class and, so far, we’ve written two educational parodies set to popular music together. Mr. Nicky, who lives in Indonesia part-time and Chicago the rest of the year, arranged for me to visit this school and to visit Ms. Yulianti’s English classes. In addition to the school visit, I was able to experience an Indonesian homestay with a local family, which provided a unique travel experience. This granted me inspiration for my future travels. I would like to incorporate more authentic experiences while in foreign countries.
TT: How did you find the money to fund this travel?
K: To fund this trip, I used my own personal savings. However, I was able to use my frequent flyer miles to cover the airfare. That reduced the cost significantly, and luckily the exchange rate was favorable during my travels, which further worked to my financial advantage. Also, I’m a huge fan of street food! So, eating like the locals at food carts was a cheap way to watch my budget, plus it immersed me into the culture even more. Luckily, I have a strong stomach and have not experienced any problems. While traveling, I’ve tried many exotic foods (stinky durian in Indonesia, crunchy tarantulas in Cambodia, delicacies in Ecuador, haggis in Scotland, and more.)
TT: Yipes! Tell us one moment from your travels that was particularly neat.
K: I was struck by the commonalities of middle school students no matter where I am in the world. One standout example is the moment I was asked, “Do you think my soul mate is a student in your class in Chicago?” One boy asked if his pen pal could be the most beautiful girl in my class. Boys will be boys, whether in Bandung, Indonesia or Burbank, Illinois!
Another notable moment occurred while talking about American holidays to the Indonesian class. I mentioned that our Independence Day is on July 4. This is when we became aware of a happy coincidence: my birthday is on Indonesian Independence Day, August 17th, and the Indonesian teacher’s birthday is on the Fourth of July. What are the chances?
TT: How have your travels impacted you as a teacher, and in your current career?
K: My travel experiences serve as a vehicle to educate my students in a unique and, hopefully, inspiring way. I was challenged by the difficult and rigorous process to become a National Board Certified teacher. As a result, I became much more self-reflective. The impact of my teaching both within and outside of my classroom walls has become a priority for me. I continue to teach and share my love of travel with my students. I’ve sent postcards to my students from the locations that I’ve traveled to so that they will have a keepsake to treasure, which also acts as a real-world anchor to the knowledge they will later gain when they return to the classroom.
Many of the stories that I tell my class, when studying Egypt for example, are based on first hand experiences gained through visiting those sites. I find that it is valuable to teach from experience. Also, since our school has a significant ELL population, it has been invaluable to travel to the locations where my students have immigrated from, because of the instant personal connection it creates.
TT: Congratulations on your National Board certification! (I got mine last year and it was intense but very worth it.) So, how have your travels impacted you as a person?
K: I honestly can’t imagine not being a traveler. I’m either on a trip or planning my next trip. Currently, I take one international trip per year and several domestic trips as well.
My daughter, Olivia, was in kindergarten when she responded to a prompt about a place that she’d like to visit. She wrote (in kindergarten creative spelling) that she’d like to visit Cambodia. The teacher crossed out her location and wrote, “You mean Canada.” My daughter meant Cambodia, because I had just traveled there, and she was fascinated with the destination. I’m sure she will follow in my footsteps, and I’m eager to learn about her travels.
With each travel destination leaving a permanent impression on me, I find myself personally invested in learning more about the location, the history and the culture of each locale. I have also had the opportunity to visit locations (such as Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, Killing Fields in Cambodia, World Trade Center Memorial) that reflect horrific periods of history. It is important that these events are remembered and their victims never forgotten.
TT: What advice do you have for teachers who are dreaming of travel, or travelers dreaming of teaching?
K: To simplify, use your money wisely so you can afford the trips you’d like to take. Also, don’t be afraid to travel alone. Initially, when I started international travel, I enjoyed the company and security of a tour group or traveled with a friend. However, schedules and interests don’t always match up and it’s important to be open to traveling alone. My first international trip alone was to Argentina in 2005. It was very liberating to be completely independent in a foreign country where I didn’t speak the language.
Also, there are several grants and fellowships available for teachers to travel. They are usually highly competitive and include a rigorous application process. Also, don’t underestimate how useful frequent flier miles can be! I use my credit card for basically all purchases, small and large, and I can get a free round-trip international airfare about every two years. This greatly reduces the price of trips. Additionally, I’ve found budget accommodations, such as hostels, to be very budget friendly and a great place to meet like-minded and very sociable fellow travelers.
I do purchase additional travel insurance for each trip, as I believe it’s better to be safe than sorry. It’s worth the extra money for the peace of mind that it provides. Safety is always a concern, so I make sure that I’m up to date on information provided by the consulate and that I take all reasonable precautions.
TT: Excellent advice. Hostels are amazingly affordable, and I would also suggest house-sharing opportunities such as Couchsurfing (as I did in Ghana), or renting people’s houses or rooms. Not only is house-renting affordable, but you can also meet great locals.
Thanks so much, for sharing your story, Karen! Readers, what questions or comments do you have?