Teaching Traveling: How can you see the world affordably while still maintaining a full-time teaching job at home?
North Carolina teacher Candace Heckstall has great insights since returning from her recent trip to China, which was funded by a prestigious teacher travel grant. Candace, tell us about yourself.
Candace: My name is Candace, and I currently teach K-5 ESL (English as a Second Language) in Greensboro, North Carolina, where I live with my fantastic husband of seven years! My mother is a teacher, and tried to get me interested in teaching, but had no such luck for the longest time. I’m a huge lover of music, traveling, and learning new languages, and had originally planned a career traveling the world as a professional percussionist — teaching was not in my plans! Teaching showed up on my radar in a rather random way, however! As part of a volunteering course I took in college, I began volunteering at an after-school program at a nearby church, and got hooked on teaching and helping students. It was there that I began to work with English Language Learners, and discovered that I had a knack and a real love for working with children! I received my B.A. in Spanish, and my Master’s Degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) not too long afterwards. I guess my mother saw something in me long before I did because I’m currently in my sixth year teaching English as a Second Language, and my life is so much richer because of it. I’m always trying to find new ways to bring the world to my students, and this summer jumpstarted my traveling experiences!
TT: Excellent! Tell us more about your travels this summer.
Candace: This summer was my first year traveling, and I was so excited! I’ve always wanted to travel to different countries and see the world, but as a teacher, I never thought I’d have the time or money to go. Since becoming an ESL teacher and working with so many amazing students from numerous countries and cultures, I’ve made it my goal to learn as much as I can by traveling!
This summer, I, along with twelve other educators, had the amazing opportunity to spend one month in Shanghai, China. We were selected through the Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad program through the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. I was floored when I found out several days before Christmas that I was selected, but I was also very curious to go to a country of which I had very little knowledge. While I was excited, I was also really, really scared. Not only was it my first time out of the country, it was also my first time on a plane! Yes, you read that correctly. Was I crazy? Plenty of times, I felt that way, but I thought, “Well, let’s just go ahead and jumpstart my travel experiences in a big way!” (I do believe I succeeded!)
Our schedule was jam-packed! We visited elementary, middle, high, and special education schools, and collaborated with Chinese teachers as well as met some of the beautiful children there. We also learned about some of the similarities and differences between Chinese and American schools. We received cultural and Chinese language instruction at Shanghai Normal University where we stayed, and visited many cultural sites. Places such as the Xu Guangqi Park, Qibao, Tianzifang, the Shanghai Museum, and the Bund in Shanghai, the Humble Administrator’s Garden, Suzhou Museum, and Jinji Lake in Suzhou, and the Summer Palace, the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and Olympic Park in Beijing were some of the wonderful places we visited. I was thrilled!
TT: Amazing, Candace! How did you find this fantastic travel opportunity?
I’m a member of my alma mater’s (UNCG) Facebook group for TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages), and received a notification about the opportunity there. I never thought in a million years that I’d be accepted, but I was!
TT: Social media is such a great tool! Tell us how you found the money to fund this trip to China.
Candace: A large majority of the trip was funded by the Fulbright-Hays GPA grant that UNCG received from the U.S. Department of Education. The rest of the money came from my savings. I’d like to say here that I felt so fortunate to have had such a large portion of the trip be funded. I was prepared to pay for part of the trip, although it certainly made a world of difference to know that I didn’t have to pay for everything.
TT: Very true! Tell us one moment from your travels that was particularly powerful, interesting, or funny.
Candace: Oh, my goodness — there were so many moments that I wish I could share, but there are several that truly stand out, for different reasons.
One of the most awe-inspiring parts of the trip had to be our weekend trip to Beijing. In one day, we visited the Badaling Pass of the Great Wall of China, followed by a trip to Beijing’s Olympic Park and an evening show of Beijing Opera; and many Chinese people asked to take our pictures, which felt a little unnerving—we felt like celebrities! Even as I write this, I still can’t believe that we did so many wonderful things in one day! I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. My brain simply could not comprehend the sheer size of the place, it was so large. I couldn’t believe that I was physically standing in some of the most iconic places in the world. I felt very humbled and fortunate to be there.
About two weeks into living in Shanghai, I began to feel very homesick and missed my husband terribly. One of our trip co-leaders, and my former graduate school advisor, Dr. Ye “Jane” He, saw my distress and spent the evening talking to me for hours and sharing stories about her life growing up in Shanghai. She also told me to be proud for learning Chinese so well, and for having the courage to travel to a country so far away for the very first time! Her apparent faith in my abilities as an educator and sincere kindness really went such a long way to help me feel better, and made me realize that I was not alone.
Some of the funniest moments I had in Shanghai dealt with Chinese people’s curiosity with me and my fairly strong handle of basic Chinese. (Before this trip took place, I began learning Chinese for free beginning in February as a part of my district’s free language classes for educators. I wanted to learn as much as I can before traveling to Shanghai; and I wouldn’t know nearly as much if it were not for my wonderful instructor, Mr. Feng Xiaolei! Kudos to you, dear sir!) I LOVE learning new languages, so I was extremely excited to realize that I understood Chinese so well! One day as I waited to cross the street to get to the other side of the campus where we stayed (Shanghai Normal University-Xuhui Campus), an elderly Chinese man stood beside me and unabashedly began to stare at me. I turned to him with a huge smile and said, “Nín hǎo! Wǒ shì lǎoshī. Nǐ ji? o shénme míngzì?” (Hello! I’m a teacher. What is your name?) He looked at me in surprise, then broke into the biggest smile as he laughed and walked on! That seemed to happen quite a bit, no matter where I traveled in Shanghai — around campus, to the store, the park, the coffee shop, even the cafeteria! I didn’t mind people’s curiosity — I just hope I was as fascinating to them as they were to me!
I was so humbled to receive so much help and assistance from our wonderful cultural liaisons and interpreters, as well as the faculty and staff at SHNU. They made our experience even more wonderful by being so hospitable, helpful, and extremely kind. Everyone I met was willing to help us when we needed it, and I was so grateful! Two interpreters, Peiwen and Zenyang (or “Ellen”), became my good friends while there; and this year they’re living in the United States–which gives me the opportunity to help them if they ever need it!
But I think my proudest moment came towards the end of the trip. My colleagues and I made a presentation on what we learned about China, and what we planned to take back to the United States, but I made the introduction for our presentation… all in Chinese! It felt great hearing from our professors afterwards that I did a good job!
TT: Wonderful! How have your travels impacted you as a teacher?
Candace: Simply put, I’ve been rejuvenated as a teacher. Traveling breathed new life into my instruction. I’d always read that when you travel, you find excitement in your teaching again, but I never truly believed it. Now I do. I am so excited to share what I’ve learned with my students, and it shows. My kids are eager to learn as much as I do about this great country. In almost every lesson I teach, I mention several interesting facts about China and connect what I’m teaching to aspects of Chinese history and culture. I’ve created a “culture kit” that contains some of the artifacts I purchased and received in China, and share it with my students every chance I get! I recently finished a first grade unit on the Dragon Boat Festival (or the Duānwǔ Jié) and will begin a third grade unit on the Chinese New Year celebration very soon! I’m also collaborating with one of the elementary teachers I met in Shanghai on Chinese holidays and celebrations, which is a lot of fun!
My colleagues and I have created curriculum design activities as a way to incorporate Chinese culture into our district’s curriculum, which has been a fantastic experience. The group of colleagues with whom I worked created a unit centering around Chinese folktales, fables, and myths. Instead of simply taking the “tourist route” in teaching China and its rich culture, I’ve dug deeper into what makes the Chinese culture so special… which has led to much more meaningful and insightful dialogues with my students.
TT: How have your travels impacted you as a person?
Candace: Traveling has made me feel less afraid to take risks and try new things that I otherwise would not have tried. I now approach new situations with a can-do attitude. I recently attended the Dragon Boat Festival in my state, and had the pleasure of eating one of my most favorite Chinese foods again– bāozi (a steamed bun, stuffed with meat and/or vegetables)! I’m also eager to find as many traveling opportunities as I can. My goal is to travel every summer, and something tells me that I’ll have a great deal of success now that I’ve already done it! I think that, now that I’ve traveled once, I know that I can do it again. I don’t think my summers will ever be the same again!
As an ESL teacher, I am hyper-aware of cultural differences and how important it is to value and honor that which makes us unique while celebrating our similarities; but traveling to China has made me realize just how important it truly is. We all have something very special to bring to the table, and how else will we know about it unless we share with one another?
After living in China for a month, I feel even more compassion and empathy for people coming to the United States (or any country, for that matter) to live, work, learn a new language, and begin a new life. It was difficult at times, and more than a little scary not being fluent in Chinese and relying on the help and kindness of others. However, we were all so well taken care of that I try to emulate that kindness in my own school and community.
Traveling to China has inspired me to continue learning Chinese so that I can eventually teach Chinese to English speakers!!! In the meantime, people can read my blog about my experiences!
TT: What advice do you have for teachers who are dreaming of travel, or travelers dreaming of teaching?
Candace: DO IT!!! If you think, “Someday, I’ll travel,” “someday” will never come. A comedian once said, “Last time I checked, “someday” was not on the calendar!” Before traveling to China, I prowled through your amazing website to read the stories of other individuals who followed their dreams of traveling around the world. Actually reading these stories inspired me to finally take the plunge and go. Even if you’re unsure, nervous, or scared (like I was), just go for it! It never hurts to try. You’ll never, ever feel “completely” prepared to undertake an endeavor this wonderful or life-changing, but like I heard in a song once, “Even if you’re not ready, time to begin!”
Check out the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs Exchange Programs (wow, what a mouthful!) to find great opportunities for travel grants abroad. Be bold and contact some of the people featured on TeachingTraveling.com, or other great travel blogs. Talk to people who have traveled before. They can connect you to other people who can help you get funds for your trip, as well as share helpful tips on the best times to travel, in addition to the most useful items to bring with you on your trip, but you’ll never know if you never ask. A simple Google search on “traveling abroad for educators” will yield some pretty awesome results, too!
Whatever you do, please take the time to do as much research as you can about the places you’d like to visit, and then… go! Explore! Your life will change in ways you never thought were possible! You’ll be so glad you did.
Teaching Traveling: Thanks so much, Candace! Readers, what questions or comments do you have?