Teaching Traveling: Welcome to Caitlin Ahern, a fellow Massachusetts educator, who’s here to discuss how important vacation travel is to rejuvenating teachers. Caitlin, tell us about your background.
Caitlin: I have been a teacher in Massachusetts for seven years, first in an urban charter school, and for the last two years in a suburban public elementary school. The day I left for the airport for my most recent trip, though, I accepted a position as the professional learning coordinator for the district, putting together professional development courses and opportunities for teachers and staff K-12. I also write about teaching and learning on my blog, Teacher Cait.
Growing up in Buffalo, NY, my family took road trips to visit family across the US. We never did Disney World, and we certainly never went on a cruise or took a trip to Europe. We would load up the car and drive to a campground in Michigan for a week with the cousins. As an adult, I still spend most of my vacation time traveling to visit family, so international travel is a big deal for me!
TT: Such an interesting background. Tell us more about your recent travels.
C: My husband and I have had a few opportunities to travel, and when the opportunity arises, we look for destinations that are perhaps a little more off-the-beaten-path, and (therefore) more affordable. Four years ago, we honeymooned in Belize, which absolutely fit that criteria; when we started planning our most recent trip to Europe, we tried to find a destination that was maybe a little less “normal.”
We started thinking about our trip two years in advance — it was announced that my father-in-law would be receiving an award at a professional conference for his work in landscape architecture. The conference would be in the summer of 2016 in Budapest, Hungary, and his dream was to have the entire family attend. So we had a long time to plan — and save — for this trip.
As the conference date got closer, the plans solidified; the entire family WOULD make the trip! So it was planned that we’d spend a weekend together in Budapest, and then rent a house on Lake Balaton in Hungary, about two hours outside of Budapest, for a few more days together as a family. From there, my husband and I decided to extend the vacation another week to travel through Croatia together. We rented AirBnB apartments in Zagreb, Split, and Dubrovnik, and traveled via train and bus from city to city.
The two weeks we were traveling were phenomenal. We managed to have 14 days of hot, sunny weather! We explored castles, ruins, cities, and islands; we saw a part of the world we had never really considered visiting before. We ate amazing food (especially seafood!), and had time to relax and reconnect away from our hectic jobs. Coming home was certainly bittersweet; we missed our home and cats, but were loving the freedom of traveling!
TT: Love it! Tell us one moment from your travels that was particularly beautiful.
C: All of the places we visited were beautiful, unique, and charming. We spent hours discussing what we loved, or were surprised by, in our travels. But the most magical moment of our trip was a Friday night in Zagreb.
We made a small dinner at our apartment, and then set out to see the city at night. We walked to Trg kralja Tomislava (King Tomislav Square), where we found what seemed like half the city outside on the lawn, with blankets and picnic baskets. At the far end of the square, a screen was showing a silent film (The Kid, 1921), and a live orchestra was providing the score. It was beautiful, whimsical, and we felt so lucky that we had stumbled upon this scene. Families, couples, groups of friends, individuals walking their dogs—everyone enjoying the warm night air, swaying to the music, laughing at Charlie Chaplin’s gags.
We sat awhile on the lawn, and then decided to walk down the greenway towards the city center. On the very next square, there was a DJ set up in an illuminated gazebo. Stands were set up all around, serving beer, food, and ice cream as people danced or people-watched. The music was a mix of older hits from the US and the UK, and (what I presumed was) popular Croatian music. We grabbed some beers and a table to drink it all in; we stayed until the DJ packed up at midnight. I never did go back and do research to try to find out if this was a summer concert series, or some sort of “art in the park;” I guess it doesn’t make any difference why this was going on. To us, this night became an amazing memory of the joy of wandering, discovering, spending time together in an unfamiliar city—Zagreb truly came alive for us through these experiences.
TT: What a wonderful description! How have your travels impacted you in your career?
C: In reflecting on my travels, I’ve started to think about the idea that traveling is very similar to project-based learning. It’s an interdisciplinary, authentic opportunity to learn and problem-solve, stepping outside of your comfort zone to take in new perspectives. So much of what is inherent to travel are the hallmarks of an effective learning opportunity!
My husband and I were intrinsically motivated to learn, and sometimes extrinsically motivated — if we couldn’t convert our dollars to forints, we couldn’t buy lunch! There was the day-to-day navigating of a language and literacy barrier, and the constant math thinking of the 24-hour clock, a 6-hour time difference, and 7 kuna to a dollar.
There was the challenge of conveying in words and photographs the beauty of the landscape, and the research to understand how what we were experiencing had come to pass, through centuries of competing powers.
Travel reminds me of the kind of classroom experience I want my students to have — learning that is almost effortless, because the learner is authentically engaged in the process.
It also forces me to think about the students who struggle. Trying to navigate a large, busy city where none of the signs make sense and everyone is speaking gibberish — how many of our students feel this way in the classroom?
What scaffolds do we provide, and what coping skills do we help our students develop, so that they can take an overwhelming, confusing situation and break it down into manageable parts? How do we teach students to think creatively and find an access point to a problem, rather than shutting down and giving up?
Speaking of shutting down and giving up… another parallel to the classroom that I encountered on this trip was the importance of a learning partner. My husband and I have overlapping interests, but different skill sets, which makes us excellent learning partners. He is adventurous and immune to embarrassment—for him, the end result or experience or view is always worth the journey. I, on the other hand, like to have things all figured out before we go. Him: let’s get a moped and explore the island! Me: But where exactly will we go? How much will it cost? What is that in dollars? Where will we stop for lunch?
Our personal priorities made sure that we had a trip filled with adventure and exploration, along with a healthy dose of logistics and contingencies. And while in the classroom, I’m always trying to make sure that learning partners are both pulling their weight and contributing to the learning, this trip made me consider another aspect to the learning partnership (which may already be present in the classroom, and/or may be something I need to consider more carefully)—the brain break.
There were times on our trip where I was exhausted and overwhelmed, mentally and/or physically. In those moments, my husband would sense that I was close to a meltdown, and he would take the reins. I would follow along, not fully engaged in the learning process, but at least still moving forward. I needed those brain breaks. So in the best instances of learning pairs, partners can complement each other’s strengths, and support each other when struggling, all while still moving the learning forward. It certainly gives me an ideal to work towards as I purposefully pair my students!
Finally, reflecting on traveling, I realized that while I spend a lot of time talking and thinking about teaching and learning, the vast majority of what I do is teaching. There aren’t a lot of times in my day-to-day life where I am actually in a learning situation. I like to have control, I like to know what’s going to happen before I do something, I don’t take a lot of risks or push my boundaries. It turns out that most of the time, I’m asking my students to do something I’m not willing or able to do on a regular basis. Oops. So my goal going forward is to put myself in the path of learning more often — to be purposeful about practicing what I preach.
TT: This is so brilliantly put. What advice do you have for teachers who are dreaming of travel, or travelers dreaming of teaching?
C: One of the biggest takeaways for me from this experience was how travel put me squarely back into the role of the learner. I think, as we are tasked with educating young people, that it is vital for us teachers to be reminded of how it feels to be in that position! And I know that a two-week vacation in Hungary and Croatia is kind of an extreme example — I guess for me, it took that jolt of culture shock to start reflecting on these ideas, but going forward, I want to be more observant of how learning is manifested in my more “everyday” travels. I think whatever kind of travel you can manage — whether a weekend away, holidays with the family, or the trip of a lifetime — being reflective about the process and the learning can have a positive impact on your practice.
TT: Yes! Readers, what questions or comments do you have for Caitlin? Do share!