TeachingTraveling.com: Anyone out there planning or dreaming of a Leave of Absence to travel around the world? U.S. teacher Aurora Kushner is doing just that!
Aurora, tell us a bit about your background.
Aurora: I am originally from New York State and I went to college at Vassar. From there I taught environmental and outdoor education for two years to kids from NYC, which was a great adventure. Then I moved out to Oregon and served at a high school with AmeriCorps for two years.
After that experience, I swore that I would not become a teacher! Teaching just seemed to be a career that stifled curiosity and did not bring out the best in people (kids and adults). So, I went on to work for the AmeriCorps program as a coordinator for three years and during that time I supervised and coached AmeriCorps members serving at schools and non-profits in SW Washington.
I also spent as much time getting into the woods and up the mountains as possible. And though I loved climbing, I knew there was something more. So I left the Pacific Northwest (which was really tough to do) and headed back to the east for Antioch New England Graduate School to get an M.S. in Environmental Studies with high school Biology certification.
While at Antioch, I started working for Outward Bound, for two reasons. The first was natural: I liked being outside, and I like getting kids outside. But the second was because I had always wanted to work at an Expeditionary Learning School (they are affiliated with Outward Bound) and I thought this would be a good connection.
Long story short, through working for Outward Bound, I got a great connection which lead me to becoming a founding faculty member of The Springfield Renaissance School, a public Expeditionary Learning School in Springfield, MA.
During the past five years of building a school, I have taught biology and environmental science, I have developed curriculum, I have designed key components of our school and I have coached a group of 12 students from their rough beginnings in 9th grade until they graduated, all being accepted to college. It has been one of the most amazing experiences in my life, professionally and personally. As much as our kids have grown and changed, I have too!
So now, 5 years in, after giving a whole lot of energy to this school, I’ve applied for a leave of absence to go travel for a year. I figure, I am 36, I’ve put a lot of time and energy into this dream of starting a school, and it is time to start tending to my other dreams… of trekking in the Himalayas and Andes and Patagonia and of traveling and learning Spanish and more traveling!
TT: Yes! Explain more about the travels you are planning.
A: I will be first traveling to Nepal, where I will spend roughly two months trekking and traveling around. This is the most ‘friend-rich’ section of my trip, as a good friend from college lives there and another good friend will be joining me for trekking for 6 weeks.
From there, I will head to India at some point (end of October or beginning of November) and travel around. I hope to get to southern India. And Varanasi. And …. Yeah, the list goes on and on. In mid-December, I head to Vietnam, but with a 5 day lay-over in Thailand. I hope for 5 fantastic days of food, sites, and hopefully some travel out of the city. Oh, and did I mention food?
Then it is on to Vietnam for two weeks, where there is a possibility of being joined here by my brother or by a friend, but as of right now I plan to go to the Mekong delta, check out the beaches and then head up to Hoi An.
From Vietnam, I will make the long haul to Buenos Aires, Argentina! I will be in South America for roughly 5 months. During that time, I will hopefully climb Aconcagua with two friends, trek in Patagonia, road trip up Ruta 40, visit the salt flats in Bolivia, trek in Bolivia and Peru, go to language school and volunteer at a school. Right now, those couple of months are pretty open. We shall see what happens!
TT: So exciting! What has been your motivation for wanting to take time for extended travel?
A: My inspiration for travel has been growing for a long time! I received a Fund for Teachers summer sabbatical several years ago when two colleagues and I traveled to India for a month.
After that adventure, I was definitely inspired to travel more and to find ways to open travel up to my students, so last summer I traveled to Ecuador with a group of students with World Challenge Expeditions. But my traveling started when I was a senior in high school and I went to live in France for a year as an exchange student.
But also, in terms of taking time off, I want teaching to stay fresh for me. And so I realized that in order for that to happen, I needed to put myself in the learner’s seat and push myself to grow and learn every couple of years: just like I try and get my students to do. So, this is my way of avoiding stagnation!
TT: Brilliant. What resources are you finding that are inspiring and helpful for planning you travels?
A: There are more RTW blogs and stories out there than I ever have time to read, but I have found tons of good information and good inspiration. I have loved reading about how people lead up to their trips and how they plan (maybe because that is the same stage I am in?).
Especially interesting is what impels people to make the decision to pick up and go. Kim on so-many-places.com has a great series on the moment when people have made the decision. The Lonely Planet forum has been invaluable to find out bits of needed information (what type of money situation I should use, how to get my visas, what gear to bring (or not to bring) for trekking in a variety of places, etc.)
I also am going to research my volunteer site with Omprakesh (omprakash.org/) which is a great organization that I found out about when I met when of the founders in India.
A: I have been slowly saving up money over the last 5 years of teaching and working during the summer. And once I made the decision to go last summer, I started to really save. And, I am working all summer. But, I haven’t been as disciplined as I should have been. I do enjoy a good craft beer and food out with friends, which cuts into the budgeting. But, I am going pretty budget ($30 a day during my whole travels), so if I can do that, I should be just fine (I hope!).
TT: Indeed! So what challenges are you facing in planning your travels?
A: All of the organization of what to bring with me and what to pack and what to leave behind is a challenge. Also, my trip is a bit logistically challenging since I am trekking in the beginning and then for two months I am traveling around and then back to trekking. So, figuring out the gear and logistics has been a challenge!
And then there are the bigger, more amorphous challenges of being scared and nervous and feeling like I am jumping off a big cliff, and even though I know and trust and believe the landing is soft, being afraid of that big leap.
TT: I hear you! What are you most excited about regarding your upcoming travels?
A: I am viewing my travels as an expedition. At the school I work at (yay, Springfield Renaissance School!), our students learn through expeditions which are deep learning experiences that ask kids to go further than they thought possible. We regularly push them to think deeper, go further, imagine bigger. We expect great things from our students and they so often rise to those expectations! So, I am hoping that by showing the kids that I am pushing myself and that I am trying to live my dreams, that they can, too… even if their dream is not to travel the world!
But beyond that, I am so excited to move about the world at my pace: to go fast when that is what I need, or to slow down and stay awhile if that is what calls to me. I am excited to have the time to be in these different counties to get a sense of life there and ultimately, learn a lot about the world, people and myself. And I am so excited to eat a lot of amazing Thai, Vietnamese and Indian food. (Ok, I’ll admit it, I bet the steak in Argentina is going to be amazing too!)
TT: Yum! What advice do you have for other teachers who are dreaming of travel?
A: Go! Do it! Go big or go home! No, but in all seriousness, it is a big ol’ world out there, and we have so little time. Go after it. The interweb is full of resources and lists and guides and inspiration. But there are also great opportunities to travel with organizations like Fund for Teachers or World Challenge Expeditions or to find volunteer opportunities with Omprakash, so if you want something more structured, it is out there. Or if you want to create your own adventure, there are lots of people who have done it before and can help you out! I can honestly not think of another profession that is better suited to take a year and go travel. It helps us when we return, we become better teachers and our world becomes that much bigger (and smaller) which helps our students learn about their world.
TT: Thanks so much, Aurora, and we eagerly await news of your travels at planetaurora.wordpress.com! Readers, what questions or comments do you have for Aurora?