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Free Educational Tours: TEACH Fellowship and EF, Bahrain to Beijing

With other teachers in Beijing at the Great Wall of China.
With other teachers in Beijing at the Great Wall of China.

Want opportunities for funded teacher travel on educational tours?

Let’s learn about the TEACH Fellowship and EF Tours!

Teaching Traveling: Welcome to Maranda Wilkinson, who will give us tips on how to access these programs. Maranda, tell us about your background.

Maranda: Rural Tennessee is where I call home these days. A few years ago I came across an article in the New York Times centering on how far the typical American lives from Mom: a mere 18 miles so the story went.

Broken down even further, that distance decreased in Tennessee to a single digit — 6 miles. At first glance, I thought, “Smokes, people need to get out,” but then I realized I too lived roughly 6 miles from Mom and where I grew up. Oh, the irony.

Nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, the beauty of Franklin County’s landscape is rather tough to match. Reared on a farm, land has always held a special place and meaning in my life, and other lands far away have always beckoned me. I’ve always had this innate calling, if you will, to “just go,” and it would be several years down the road before that calling came to fruition.

Fast forward to my college years, and it was during my time at Campbellsville University that my basketball coach, Donna Wise, took me and several teammates to Zambia to lead a basketball clinic at a reformatory school partnering with a nonprofit, Partners in Development.

It was there that I fell in love with the sights, sounds, tastes, people, and everything in between as I soaked in every second. Admittedly, travel became an addiction for me from that point on as I found myself completely fascinated by how people around the world carry on with their everyday affairs amid differing cultural contexts.

With an affinity for all things Geography, I wound up teaching 7th grade Social Studies (never a dull moment in middle school land) for 7 years and traveling as much as my pockets would allow. If they were empty other than a random paperclip, dry erase marker, or whatever else ends up in a teacher’s pocket, I acquired a second job, worked extra hours on top of my teaching duties, and would seek out and apply for as many professional development opportunities as possible.

One way or another, I was making my way out of Franklin County, because I saw the value in education through travel which, in turn, allowed me to enhance the classroom experience for my students as their teacher. (Stay with me here on this one; I’ll address it in greater detail later.) Despite my recent position change to STEM Curriculum Specialist for my school district, I still seek every opportunity to travel and learn.

Dressed like pandas on the bus in Beijing, warming up for karaoke.
Dressed like pandas on the bus in Beijing, warming up for karaoke.

TT: Wow! Tell us more about how you got into the world of funded educational tours.

M: Last school year I applied for the TEACH Fellowship (Teachers Educating Across Cultures in Harmony) offered by the Bilateral US-Arab Chamber of Commerce to the Kingdom of Bahrain… but wasn’t selected.

I was rather bummed to say the least. I told myself I would try again the following year when the 2018 application came out, and I put it on my “to do” list—a list that seemingly expands by the millisecond.

Fast forward to a few months ago, and out came the application. My work load was weighted at the time, and I just kept pushing the application essays off to a later date. I came to a point where I realized that I just couldn’t carve out enough time to work on the application before the deadline, and I was already thinking, “Well, I blew that one.”

A visit in Bahrain with the Bayan School.
Touring the Bayan School in Bahrain.

Through the most random and crazy turn of events, however, I found myself admitted to 2 different hospitals over the span of 4 days with drip IVs in both arms all thanks to a cellulitis party in my foot. While this picture I’ve painted thus far is far from Bob Ross caliber, I’m pretty sure you can guess where this is going.

Removed from work, I spent 2 days of that time frame (in between inquiries from an infectious disease specialist and other physicians looking over me and nurses switching IV bags and whatnot) pouring myself into the application essays, attempting to convey my passion for participating in the opportunity via keystroke. Long story short, I was selected! Then came the questions.

It’s not every day a small town girl (cue Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” tune) and a Southern one at that travels to Bahrain. From “Where is that?” and “Is that even a real thing?” to, “Maranda, you know that’s in the Middle East, right?”, I was flooded with questions about the opportunity from students, family, friends, and acquaintances.

A visit to the Dilmun civilization site in Bahrain.
A visit to the Dilmun civilization site in Bahrain.

Launched in 2009, TEACH has enabled cross-cultural experiences and exchanges between US and Middle East/North Africa (MENA) educators. Each year, TEACH Fellows travel to the MENA region where they meet with US and Arab economic and government leaders as well as fellow educators as a means of comparing educational practices and pedagogy and gaining insight to the economic demands of the future and the skill sets required in the progressing 21st century (TEACH).

Without a worry in the world, I packed my bags and was off to the Gulf region just before Thanksgiving on a 5 day immersion centering on culture, economics, politics, and education.

Never in my wildest dreams did I envision myself standing amid Dilmun ruins on Bahrain soil, touring a grand mosque, and sipping Turkish coffee in a back alley café, let alone engaging in dialogue with Gulf Petrochemical Industries Co. (GPIC) representatives on the 4th Industrial Revolution and its projected impact and discussing Bahrain’s education system with the Economic Development Board.

Crossing cultures and connecting in Bahrain.
Crossing cultures and connecting in Bahrain.

We toured a school, met with INJAZ Bahrain (Junior Achievement) representatives, roamed the markets, visited a camel farm along with the first oil well in the Gulf region, and even made it out to the Tree of Life among other sites.

To say that this trip was nothing short of a completely amazing whirlwind is an understatement. I cannot begin to describe my gratitude for having been offered this opportunity and a taste of the Arab world — a largely foreign world to me up to this point.

The Bilateral US-Arab Chamber of Commerce went above and beyond to make this experience exceptional for not only me but the other 9 teachers on tour, and the cultural, economic, political, and educational exchange throughout offered a content breeding ground for lessons that could later be used and implement back in the classroom.

The story doesn’t end here though. The original title of this piece was, “Bahrain to Beijing and Back,” so maybe you can guess where my plane (an Emirates one to be exact) was bound next.

With TEACH in Bahrain, at the INJAZ visit.
With TEACH in Bahrain, at the INJAZ visit.

From Bahrain, I flew over to Beijing to assist with an EF Education First training tour. For those of you who aren’t familiar with EF Tours, this company is a world leader in student travel and sends teachers on a training tour (for FREE) once they have planned a tour and have several students enrolled.

The purpose of this training is to provide teachers with a glimpse at group travel in the real world setting and to ensure they feel prepared to lead their own student groups abroad as EF wants students to experience the best educational tour possible, and this one just so happened to take place in Beijing over Thanksgiving Break.

Having traveled with EF and its sister company Go Ahead now on 15+ tours as either a chaperone, regular participant, group leader, or experienced group leader, I can honestly say that my favorite letters are EF!

I’ve enhanced my curriculum over the years by taking my students on service learning and educational tours to Peru, England, Ireland, Scotland, France, Switzerland, Italy, Austria, and Germany through EF, and the experiences have been worthwhile to say the least.

A textbook can, in no way, do the human story justice, and the stories acquired on these trips are priceless. (We’ll be on the EF Journey Down Under educational tour this coming summer as we add New Zealand, Australia, and Hawaii to the list of travels!)

Beyond the training sessions themselves, 35+ teachers from Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Indiana, along with several EF Staff (including the one and only Big Joe), myself, and our rock star Tour Director — Li Jun —toured Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Summer Place, and Temple of Heaven.

TT: In an amazing coincidence, Li Jun was the Tour Director for MY student trip to Beijing with EF! He was awesome. Tell us more about your tour. 

M: We played hacky sack in a park with some of the most fit Chinese senior citizens one can imagine, roamed the exotic streets with vendors selling all kinds of once crawling critters on sticks (yes, some scorpion eating was involved), tobogganed down the Great Wall of China, were (forcefully on some accounts) sold silk sheets and comforters, met a cricket fighter pro (Who knew there was such a thing?), and graced the karaoke stage on the last night (a must when in Asia) to cap the trip.

I’m pretty sure I’ve left some hilarious encounter out of this brief synopsis of the tour, but hopefully you now have an idea of how fantastic EF, educational travel, and experiencing the world with other teachers (and your students if you choose) is.

I always tell my students, if you don’t travel with me and EF, find some other opportunity that will take you beyond the borders of our county, state, and even country as learning through experience is game changer, and I say the very same to you.

Now for the “Back” part of the original title. I’ve arrived home, the holidays have come and gone, and as I write this, I’m mentally sorting out my 2019 application schedule and preparing for the EF student tour I will lead in the summer. Several opportunities for 2019-2020 have already been posted and applications are now being accepted.

The “Back” is where preparation occurs and the part many who just watch and wonder how people are traveling don’t see or even consider for that matter. Nothing, of true worth that is, is easy — in my opinion — and, yes, applications and leading tours both take time.

If you really want to develop yourself as an educator or an individual in general though and/or want your students to experience the world, make time for the behind the scenes bit — applying for the opportunities available to you, working a part-time job if need be, and sorting a trip for your students.

EF Tours Beijing travel with students: teachers travel free
Learning around Beijing on educational tours!

TT: Astounding. How do you find these educational tours?

M: The Facebook Group “Scholarships, Grants, and Summer Institutes for Teachers” is a fantastic resource for teachers searching for opportunities of this nature. It is a closed group, so you’ll have to request acceptance and fill out a few short questions before entrance.

Loads of teachers who have already traveled on many of the opportunities posted are there willing to offer insight and input on applications, and you can almost always count on some sort of response from one of the admins, well-traveled and highly-educated Dunn Woods! He’s a gem.

Bahrain's first oil well
Bahrain’s first oil well.

TT: Dunn is the best! How did you find the money to fund your travels?

M: Quite a bit of my travel has been funded through grants and scholarships, but I have had to roll up my sleeves and take on a 2nd and even 3rd part-time job on top of my full-time job to fund some of my travel adventures.

One plural word sums it up: priorities. Figure out what yours are, and throw 100% of yourself into them. Learning in the real classroom through travel is a priority of mine, so I do my best to find a way, or 2, or 3 to do so because I know the experiences I have had thus far have been worth every penny as they have exposed me to settings, people, and ideas I, for sure, would have missed out on here in Franklin County.

EF Tours Beijing tea tasting
EF Tours Beijing tea tasting

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

M: To quote Mark Twain, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s life.”

While I am by no means perfect and have my own list of faults and flaws, I can say that travel has broadened my view and opened career doors that would have otherwise remained shut.

I think I’ve evolved as a person in ways that I would not have without the experiences and people I’ve encountered abroad, and I’ve learned far more through living experiences rather than simply reading about them.

Bahrain's Al Fateh Grand Mosque.
Bahrain’s Al Fateh Grand Mosque.

TT: Tell us one moment from your educational tours that was particularly powerful.

M: I think the most powerful moments I experience on any trip center on people and the human story itself. No matter where I go in the world (in this case Bahrain and Beijing), I find that the majority — if not all in some form or fashion — just want to live happy and healthy lives, and they want their kids to grow up in a safe environment.

I am reminded of this every single time I travel. That is the power of travel. We are offered the chance to alleviate misconceptions through travel by meeting and interacting with people who possess differing perspectives — a chance and opportunity I am willing to spend time applying for, working an extra job or two for, and organizing for my students.

Teachers travel free on educational tours with the TEACH Fellowship and EF Tours! Learn about how in this interview about trips from Beijing, China to Bahrain. #education #teaching #travel
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TT: Yes! What advice do you have for teachers who are dreaming of travel?

M: To this I say get up and go after what you want! My motto in life is “Wait on no one; rely on no one. If you want something in life, work hard, and go get it.” I’ve come to realize over my 31 years on this earth that no one will do the work for me, and that if I really want something, I’m the one who has to put in the time and effort, no one else.

Results may not always pan out how I want them, but I’ve created positive forward motion in the process. I cannot tell you how many hours I’ve spent writing essays and lesson plan examples for applications amid working 2 or more jobs and training for races (I was a former triathlete) only to receive a rejection email.

It happens, and I’m certain I will receive more in the future; that’s just life. The point is to create the forward motion though. I can honestly say that my applications have, in my opinion, become more sound than when I first started due to trial and error.

It’s all part of the learning process. One must decide his or her priorities and then work to make those associated dreams realities instead.

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


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Maranda Wilkinson

Monday 11th of February 2019

I learned from some of the best on that 1st EF training tour; you and Scott set the tone!

Ashley Scott

Sunday 10th of February 2019

That's was very inspiring! I'm at awe at how far you've come! Keep up the good work!

Maranda Wilkinson

Tuesday 5th of February 2019

Thanks for the post, Lillie!

Lillie Marshall

Tuesday 5th of February 2019

Thank YOU for taking the time to create this inspiring article! It will help many people!

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