5 Programs for Free Teacher Travel

Matt at Gyeongbokgung Palace in South Korea.
Matt at Gyeongbokgung Palace in South Korea.
Teaching Traveling: Want tips on 5 programs for free teacher travel? Let’s welcome Matt Cottone, who realized mid-way through his career how educators can get funding to see the world!

Matt, tell us about how you became immersed in global education. 

Matt: It’s funny to think — now that I’ve started to gain a reputation as a global educator and traveler — that my first ever flight was in 2005. I never thought as an educator that this profession would allow me to live out my dreams and travel the world.

During my 7th year of teaching in 2015, my assistant principal sent me a link in an inconspicuous email about an opportunity to visit Germany courtesy of the Transatlantic Outreach Program.

In Germany at Neuschwanstein Castle - The real Cinderella’s Castle!
In Germany at Neuschwanstein Castle – The real Cinderella’s Castle!

After working endlessly on my application, conducting workshops, and evaluating lessons, I was accepted to an incredible experience with TOP Germany. The fellowship was nothing short of life-changing, as I had clearly found my calling by wanting to immerse myself more in global experiences immediately after returning home.

Since my fellowship with TOP in 2015, I’ve participated in several amazing teacher travel programs: Teachers for Global Classrooms, where I spent 3 weeks in Indonesia, TEACH Bahrain which allowed me to visit the tiny island country for one week, and most recently, visiting South Korea courtesy of the Korean War Legacy Foundation for one week. (Keep reading for links and details for each of these.)

Though not all of these programs provide 100% of travel costs, most fund the bulk of the trip, meaning that a teacher can manageably save for or fundraise for the rest.

These experiences have without a doubt had an indelible impact on my outlook on the world today. It’s safe to say that I’ve developed the travel bug from them!

In Indonesia at Borobudur Temple.
In Indonesia at Borobudur Temple.

TT: Amazing! Tell us more about the experiences you have participated in within the last year. 

M: The last 365 days have been a whirlwind. I’ve been traveling the world more than I could have ever imagined. When I finished up my last fellowship this summer in South Korea, I was sitting with a 3rd year teacher who shared with me an eye-opening outlook on education.

When she explained why she decided to become an educator late in life, she said the main reason was to travel the world! I let out an audible laughter as I was shocked with her reasoning. I never thought when I became a teacher that this profession would ever allow me to leave my state, let alone experience the world.

Matt in Bahrain with the teacher travel program there.
Matt in Bahrain with the teacher travel program there.

Her outlook on the career is hopefully a wave of the future for this profession. Within the last year, I’ve been continually pushing myself by experiencing new cultures, educational practices, and meeting new people through teacher travel opportunities.

Starting with the wonderful the Teachers for Global Classrooms program and visiting Indonesia for 3 weeks, I had loved learning about global education as it relates to how to incorporate these travels into my teaching in the classroom.

Staying at a Buddhist temple in South Korea.
Staying at a Buddhist temple in South Korea.

Visiting the country’s beautiful landscape, swimming in the Indian Ocean, teaching at a host school in Purwokerto, and visiting UNESCO World Heritage sites Borobudur and Prambanan were rich and fulfilling experiences.

Riding this wave of excitement into the new school year, for the first time in a year, I had no international travel opportunity waiting for me. It felt almost empty not having something to look forward to, but before long I found on a Facebook group an opportunity to visit Bahrain: TEACH Bahrain.

Shortly after applying, I found out I would be traveling with 7 other teachers to Bahrain in the fall! Never did I think I would set foot in the Middle East during my career, and here I was traveling to the tiny island country.

The Bahrain Grand Mosque: the 6th largest mosque in the world.
The Bahrain Grand Mosque: the 6th largest mosque in the world.

To my astonishment, I was blown away by the rich cultural experiences we were immersed in, the modern architecture, and the progressive use of the limited natural resources.

Throughout the year I had been helping my school plan an EF Tour to Germany, which was my first EF Tour with students. (Teachers travel free in exchange for organizing EF trips.) Visiting Germany again offered some familiar, but very new experiences in Dachau, Dresden, Munich, and Berlin.

Feeling that I owed my wonderful wife a vacation of her own, we took our first flight with our year old baby to Utah to visit National Parks in the summer. Finally wrapping up my year traveling, I was selected to join the Korean War Legacy Foundation’s 2018 Teacher’s Peace Camp in South Korea.

This experience blew away my expectations of everything I thought about teacher travel to South Korea. We visited the DMZ, Korean temples, schools, saw a ceremony with the Prime Minister, had a banquet with US 4 star generals and Korean War vets, and stayed overnight at a Buddhist temple.

Free teacher travel is possible with these 5 global education fellowship programs: TGC, TOP Germany, TEACH Bahrain, Korean War Legacy Foundation, and EF Tours! Pictured: With 4 Star General Brooks at the Korean War Ceremony.
With 4 Star General Brooks at the Korean War Ceremony.

Not mentioned yet from this year were two opportunities to present in Washington DC with the Teacher’s for Global Classrooms program and a conference in New York City with the GAPP program.

It’s truly been an amazing 365 days of seeing the world. Often I feel I need to catch my breath, followed shortly by looking for new opportunities and how I can utilize these global education experiences in the classroom.

With students during teacher travel in Indonesia with TGC.
With students during teacher travel in Indonesia with TGC.

TT: Wow! How do you find your travel opportunities?

M: Finding teacher travel funding is one of the most under-appreciated tasks of obtaining new international experiences. The hunt for a new travel opportunity can often feel like falling further and further down a rabbit hole. Endless searches through Google, travel websites like this one, and social media sites are the main sources to help find the right global education opportunity.

In addition, once I went on my first travel opportunity to Germany, I realized that the peers I was traveling with were a great source of knowledge as many of them had gone on many great teacher travel programs that interested me.

Sometimes the hunt for a new travel opportunity can be addicting. You’ve been warned!

The astounding temples of Prambanan, Indonesia.
The astounding temples of Prambanan, Indonesia.

TT: Hah! How did you find the money to fund your travel? 

M: Luckily I haven’t had to pay for too much! When I am looking for the right fellowship that matches my interests, it also has to match my budget.

My wonderful wife who understands my intense passion for educational travel has supported every endeavor I’ve been on without hesitation. Her support in allowing me to put money aside to spend on the experiences has been eternally helpful.

The Bahrain Tree of Life: No one knows why it's growing in the middle of the desert.
The Bahrain Tree of Life: No one knows why it’s growing in the middle of the desert.

TT: Thank goodness for funded teacher travel! Now, tell us one moment from your travels that was particularly interesting. 

Perhaps the most shocking moment came from my 2nd day visiting Indonesia. Visiting a large posh mall in Jakarta, we were given an hour to shop and hang out. Looking at the mall, I immediately realized I wasn’t ready to shop at a mall that wouldn’t look out of place in Metro Detroit where I live.

Without much to do, I noticed a large mass of people congregating in the entrance of the mall. People were holding their phones above their heads and taking pictures of whatever was in the center of the mob of people. Curious, I walked closer with a few of my peers to the swarm of people, unsure who could be drawing this type of attention as I realized that people from the several floors above us were also staring down and taking pictures as well.

Looking out of place, I was approached by an Indonesian man who asked with excitement if I knew who this was. He said, “It’s Jokowi”. Unsure if this was the Indonesian Justin Bieber, I didn’t think it would possibly merit much more of my attention.

He clarified, “it’s our president!” Now he had my utmost attention! Seeing the mosh pit of people, a few other fellows tried to get closer. As we got nearer to the center of the huddled mass, things quickly became more chaotic as more people were jostling for position.

Matt during his Buddhist temple stay in South Korea.
Matt during his Buddhist temple stay in South Korea.

As we were making no gains towards Jokowi, another fellow in our group told a security guard that we were American teachers, hoping this would for some reason get the president’s attention. For some reason, this worked as the president signaled for us to come near him.

As I’m about to greet the president, I was pulled away by a bodyguard, only to hurriedly explain I was with the lady, which for some reason was enough for him to let me go. Here I was in Jakarta, greeting the president of the 4th most populated country in the world.

Needless to say, for the rest of my time in Indonesia, I had a great conversation starter with any Indonesian that I met by showing the picture of myself with the president!

Matt with the president of Indonesia!
Matt with the president of Indonesia!

As for a powerful moment I’ve had… Every teacher has them. Those lessons you can’t wait to get to at the start of the year. You circle it on the calendar and salivate as the unit comes closer.

For me, I’ve always been intrigued with the relationship between North and South Korea and the DMZ. To my astonishment, I was selected to join the Korean War Legacy Foundation mere days after the surprise groundbreaking meeting between the two countries at the DMZ.

I had been giddy beyond belief in anticipation for the opportunity to visit South Korea and specifically the itinerary’s visit to the Demilitarized Zone. This area is the most militarized zone in the entire world.

Here I was, willingly walking into the lion’s den by visiting this location that I would every year build up with heavy anticipation and excitement with my students. Upon entering, we see the guard houses, barbed-wire laden fences, armed military vehicles manning the checkpoints, and giant walls of explosives ready to blow up the bridges we passed in case war were to ever break out.

Visiting Korea's DMZ.
Visiting Korea’s DMZ.

Thinking about the surreal nature of it all as I traveled through the DMZ, the United Nations guide took us up a flight of stairs in what looked like an inconspicuous building. As we headed up the stairs in a single file line, to my shock upon getting to the top, in front of my eyes were the two iconic blue buildings that I had spoke about for years.

The DMZ is technically a large area, so I never truly expected that we were visiting the important political site between the two countries. I can say that my stomach flipped for the first time on an international experience due to my excitement.

Seen staring across the grounds, North Korean guards was surreal to say the least. Here was the exact place where only months ago an international incident happened when a North Korean guard was shot as they tried crossing the border.

Further to my surprise, they took us inside the blue buildings, allowing us to take pictures with the South Korean soldiers who were frozen still. Finishing by taking pictures of propaganda city, Kijŏng-dong, where the North Koreans created an entirely fake city with the single goal of luring South Koreans to defect to North Korea, I was on cloud nine.

I had trouble sleeping this night as I was constantly rerunning this experience in my mind. I cannot wait until I can share this experience with my students. This is how these experiences have changed me.

Matt at the DMZ in Korea.
Matt at the DMZ in Korea.

TT: What an experience! How have your travels impacted you in your career, and as a person?

M: Every international experience has been nothing short of life-changing. Beyond the pictures, the immersive cultural experiences, one of my most beloved parts of these opportunities has been being able to travel with like-minded individuals.

I continue to be truly humbled as an educator as I continue to meet some of the most awe-inspiring educators. While only meeting people for a few days or weeks, I’ve develop a bond with many of them that continues to extend far beyond the fellowship.

My career essentially has two eras thus far, pre-travel and post-travel experiences. Since my first fellowship, I’ve had a radically enhanced global view of the world, with a greater appreciate and understanding of the world. It’s developed an addiction to continue seeking out more opportunities to learn about the world.

Matt at a Buddhist Temple in South Korea.
Matt at a Buddhist Temple in South Korea.

TT: So beautiful. What advice do you have for teachers who are dreaming of travel, or travelers dreaming of teaching? 

M: It sounds cliche, but simply put, don’t give up! While people on the outside may believe that obtaining these travel experiences are as simply as signing up on a short form where everyone is accepted, little do they realize the amount of time and preparation that goes into applying, while often not succeeding despite the amount of work put in.

I truly believe to make your own path in life. I’ve found mine and it is tied to “experiencing the world”. This creed is something that I bring into my classroom and I hope to continue to personally pursue throughout my career.

For anyone who wants to connect more with me, check out my blog, Cottone Travel, or find me at @vhmcottone on Twitter or Instagram.

TT: Thanks so much, Matt! Readers, what questions or comments do you have?

Free teacher travel is possible with these 5 global education fellowship programs: TGC, TOP Germany, TEACH Bahrain, Korean War Legacy Foundation, and EF Tours!
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