Teaching Traveling: Interested in a transformational two-week tour of South Africa for educators? Read about Stephanie’s experience!
Stephanie, tell us a bit about your background.
Stephanie: I’m 28 and would be considered by my family a “homebody”… and I was. My other family members had been to multiple places on different continents, whereas I chose not to go abroad in college and the farthest I had traveled was to Mexico for a four-day vacation.
Needless to say, when my family heard I would be traveling to South Africa to tour and teach for two weeks, they were pretty shocked. Although I’m originally from Connecticut, I have been living and teaching 4th grade at the John D. Runkle School in Brookline, Massachusetts for the past 6 years. It’s a colleague at Runkle who made this life-changing experience to South Africa possible for me.
For me South Africa exhibits a tangible positive, spirited energy. Coming home, it was hard, if not impossible, to put into words. I’ll give it my best shot in this interview.
TT: Interesting! Tell us more about your travels.
S: My trip to South Africa was an Educator Tour through South Africa Partners, based in Boston, Massachusetts and in East London, South Africa. The two weeks have a focus on education in South Africa and the seven people on the tour, whom quickly became seven good friends, were either teachers or social workers.
The tour brings you to Johannesburg, East London, and Cape Town; three very different, yet equally impacting areas of the country. This tour was extremely well planned and looking back I can’t believe how much we were able to do and how many amazing people we were able to meet in just two weeks.
Our trip began in Johannesburg, which laid a valuable foundation of South African history, culture, and pride. There we visited Kliptown Youth Program (a youth program in an impoverished township, which was started and is run by the youth of that township), the impressive (and beautiful) Roedean School for Girls, Constitutional Court, and Apartheid Museum.
We also traveled part of a day to Pretoria, where the South African government buildings are located. Johannesburg was an incredible start to our trip that set the tone for the warmth, welcoming, and appreciation we would continue to experience with everyone we met in South Africa.
We then traveled to East London, where we taught with teachers in varying grade levels at the A.W. Barnes School for five days. We not only got to experience seeing their school days, but also were able to be a resource for the teachers there and show them different teaching strategies to enrich their current curriculum.
It was a great partnership. We also visited a couple different high schools, where we were able to talk to the students and administration about education in South Africa, the current issues at hand, and the hopes for the future.
Before leaving East London, we were able to also visit a game reserve where we went on a breath-taking safari. After East London, it was on to Cape Town where we toured the LEAP School, where there is a focus on social-emotional awareness and creating healthy productive paths to adulthood for students who are from impoverished townships.
Our Cape Town stay also included the very powerful experience of touring Robben Island, where the tour guide was an actual former prisoner. Believe it or not, there was also time to tour the beautiful landscape of Cape Town and see the harbor attractions. The two weeks were jam packed, thoughtfully planned, and flew by too soon.
TT: Wow! How did you find this travel opportunity?
S: I found out about this travel opportunity from Joanne Guzzi, a first grade teacher at my school, and a member on the Board of Directors for South Africa Partners. I remember during my first year of teaching, Joanne was showing a slideshow of her travels and work in South Africa at a faculty meeting. It struck me how amazing her work was and her experience just sort of stuck with me.
I told her after that meeting that someday I would go with her. I just couldn’t afford that on my own right now (and let’s be honest I wasn’t about to change from homebody to traveling half way around the world). So from then on I helped Joanne do what I could for the cause on this side of the ocean. After each time she’d always say, “Stephanie, you’re going to come with me someday.” She made good on her word.
TT: How did you find the money to fund this travel?
S: I had a rare opportunity for which I was most grateful. My colleague, Joanne, had been able to raise funds for three teachers from our school district to go on the tour. I only had to pay for my airfare. Other educators on my tour were being funded through the private schools at which they taught. Depending on your school system, there are also various travel grants you can apply for to fund your trip.
TT: What a story. Tell us one moment from your travels that was particularly interesting.
S: This is the toughest question, because it’s close to impossible to choose only one moment. But, if I had to choose one, I’d say it was a moment while teaching at A.W. Barnes. There was a fourth grade teacher who had not requested to work with one of the American teachers and she was clearly skeptical and hesitant about having me teaching in her grade. However, one day she asked the teacher I was working with if she could “borrow” me.
I was nervous and didn’t want her to think I was stepping on her toes at all in her classroom. She introduced me to the class and simply said, “Ok teach.” I read them one of the books we had previously donated and afterwards showed the students how to have a discussion about the book.
This was an exciting concept for them that they could not only form their own opinions about a book, but debate about them and express themselves to their classmates and teacher. The teacher got into it, even helping me along the way to communicate the objective, and at the end of the lesson what she said to me was most memorable.
She told me that she doubted me at first, thought I would bring some fancy American materials that they don’t have, but she now sees how to bring more life into her classroom, which is what she’s been wanting to do for a long time, and I had done it with nothing but one book.
I honestly think that is one, if not the biggest, moment of my life where I’ve felt really successful. I wanted these teachers to see that you don’t need much to do good teaching and there are ways to use what they do have to make their teaching feel more rewarding, powerful, and effective. So, for this teacher to not only see that, but to also appreciate and want that, was definitely memorable.
TT: I love that story. How have your travels impacted you as a teacher?
S: My travels have certainly impacted me as a teacher. Showing teachers in South Africa different teaching strategies re-invigorated me to use more strategies in my own classroom and to explore newer strategies. My time touring the different schools and educational programs in South Africa also re-ignited my appreciation of the importance of education and the value of what I do each day in my career.
Beyond that, showing my travels to my class has added a powerful layer of thinking more globally about other cultures and children around the world. We even had a couple opportunities to Skype with the class and teacher I worked with in East London. It’s been impacting not only for me as a teacher, but also for my students, in sharing this travel experience.
TT: How have your travels impacted you as a person?
S: My travel experience to South Africa has been life changing. At the very least, I no longer consider myself a homebody and am a lot more open to new experiences and adventures. And at the very most I have been impacted in how I view what’s important in life and that with all the differences around the world, people are more alike and connected than we think.
I know that sounds a bit cheesy, but I’m not sure how else to say it. I remember one meeting I sat in on in East London with Joanne and a group of the A.W. Barnes’ teachers. They were debating and discussing the ideas and methods we had shown them. Some things said were “Where will we find the time to teach these ways when we have an obligation to get through all this curriculum?”
“We need to focus on and prepare students for the standardized tests.” “These strategies take more effort and our time, which we won’t be compensated for.” I sat there and realized that I was halfway around the world, yet I felt like I was at one of my own faculty meetings back home.
While we live in different countries and under different circumstances, at the end of the day teachers share the same bond and struggles in this field. And that made me realize that people living in different countries and under different circumstances (even within our own country) probably want a lot of the same things.
People around the world might not be so different after all. And that has left me with a good feeling of unity and hope for things to be able to change for the better. Again, a little cheesy, but again, true.
TT: What advice do you have for teachers who are dreaming of travel, or travelers dreaming of teaching?
S: My advice for teachers who are either looking to have a similar travel experience or are presented with the opportunity is simple: Do it. When Joanne came to tell me she had raised the money for me (and other Brookline teachers) to go, I was completely caught off guard and asked if I could have some time to think about it.
She said she would give me two weeks to decide. I remember going home that night and telling my sister about this opportunity, and even with her knowing about my lack of travel experience and my homebody nature, she said to me, “Stephanie, you’d be crazy not to go.” And she was right.
I told Joanne the next day I was going. I just did it. So, do it. You will always be able to think of reasons why not to do it, so quiet those reasons and doubts and just go. It’ll be worth it. Oh, and if you do, I highly recommend a neck pillow for the plane, one that is not inflatable that pops on the plane ride home.
TT: Thanks so much, Stephanie! Readers, what questions or comments do you have?