Teaching Traveling: Want to be inspired and informed about how to teach abroad from an expert?
Please welcome brilliant Teacher-Traveler Dana Wielgus. Dana, tell us about your background.
Dana: My name is Dana and I am a native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. I am 23 years old and just received my Bachelor’s Degree in Education (certified to teach French and ELL to students ages birth-21) in January 2013. I knew from the moment I entered university that I wanted to teach and live overseas, so I curved my studies in college to reflect those goals, focusing on world languages (French) and English as a Second Language.
I studied abroad during the 2010 spring semester in Caen, France, in the Normandy region. Then, during the summer of 2011, I spent 8 weeks teaching English in Fukuoka, Japan. I finished my student teaching in January 2013 and landed my first teaching job just two weeks after– as a long-term substitute ELL teacher in the Milwaukee area (two back-to-back maternity leaves)!
I also taught summer school in another district in the Milwaukee area, and I now currently teach English in a professional French High School in Toulon, France, in the Côte d’Azur!
TT: What a resume! Tell us more about your travels.
D: I would not be where I am now if it was not for my semester abroad in Caen, France during my undergraduate studies. Before my study abroad I was still taking education-based classes, but I was focusing on another certification (about which I was not at all passionate!) and was not very happy.
I was set on studying abroad in London, but long story short, it was too expensive. So, I ended up spending my 2010 spring semester in Normandy with the intention of completing my French minor. I am so glad that I did because because it changed my life. It changed the way I saw and understood the world, and more importantly the semester in Normandy changed the way I saw myself.
My semester abroad forced me out of my comfort zone — I integrated into the French culture via living with a local family and enrolling in intensive language courses at the university alongside other exchange students from all around the world.
I got to travel around France and Europe with my new friends and just learn so many life lessons. But most importantly, my stay in France rekindled my love and passion for travel, the French language, and French culture; I changed my major a week after I returned stateside.
My semester abroad inspired me to apply to teach English in Japan for eight weeks during the summer of 2011. I was accepted to a program called USA Summer Camp, which is a summer camp for Japanese students founded and established by an American named Guy Healy, who lives in Nagasaki.
I was one of about twenty-five American and Japanese counselors. We worked together to lead 9 three-day camps to Japanese students of all ages. This program paid for my flight, lodging, transportation, food, and two 3-day family stays, but we worked a lot in exchange.
I was mostly based in the city of Fukuoka, which in the island of Kyushu, but I took some time to travel to Kyoto, Tokyo, and Nagasaki at the end of my contract before returning home. The summer I spent in Japan was life-changing; Asian cultures are so different from occidental lifestyles; it was as if I learned things I never even knew existed.
My experience in Asia assured me that I wanted to teach abroad after graduation. Because I have been aching to get back to France, I applied to the Teaching Assistant Program in France (TAPIF) when the application came out this past October.
TAPIF is a great opportunity for young people between the Ages of 20-30 who want to teach in France and already have French speaking skills. I am one of 1,120 American assistants who are teaching English all around France and its overseas departments this year.
I submitted my application in December 2012, was accepted in April 2013, and learned where I would be living and teaching in June 2013 (Toulon, in the Côte d’Azur- complete opposite from Normandy!) Now I have been in France for almost 2 months!
This experience is a lot different than my study abroad because I feel more like a real adult — I am not doing this experience on my parents’ dime- I am living and working here completely on my own.
I have wanted to do this for as long as I can remember, so to be able to have made this dream come true for myself at 23 is a pretty incredible feeling. I am teaching in a public French high school, using my degree, improving my French, traveling all the time, and integrating myself into the culture — I have never been happier!
After France, I’m not sure what will become of my fate. I know I want to teach and I want to stay abroad, so I am already looking into recruitment fairs, programs in other countries, etc.
TT: How do you find your travel opportunities?
D: The University of Wisconsin school system has pretty extensive study abroad opportunities. The program to Caen, Normandy is pretty well known, and since our French department is rather small, anyone who studies abroad goes to Normandy. If you are a university student and interested in Normandy, check out the site (this program is very affordable for out-of-staters, too!).
Guy Healy recruits counselors from the UW system each year for USA Summer Camp, so I found and was accepted to the program through my university. However, it is completely possible to apply and be accepted on your own! The website is here.
TAPIF I learned about while I was studying abroad in France. I met a couple of Americans who were living in Caen and teaching, but not studying. They told me about the program and then sent me the information via email- I bookmarked the program in my browser for three years, followed the official TAPIF Facebook page, applied to the program while I was student teaching! The website for TAPIF is here.
TT: Great resources! How did you find the money to fund all your travel?
D: I worked a lot during college. Each summer I waitressed full time at a country club, and during the school year I always found part-time on campus jobs. I used this money to help pay for school (books, rent, sorority dues, etc.) but always set aside about $50 per paycheck into a separate travel account, which is what I have used to build up cash for all of my travels. I also have never had my own car, which has come with both some gains and some sacrifices in regards to my own independence.
My semester study abroad was funded through a mixture of my student loans, my parents, and myself (though I am the one paying back the student loans!) My program in Normandy is one of the cheapest for a semester in France, at $9,500 for the semester.
This included 12 credits of tuition, family stay/2 meals per day, round trip airfare, round trip train tickets, a five day all inclusive guided entry tour in Paris, and four excursions around the Normandy region during the semester.
My summer teaching in Japan was completely paid for by Guy Healy Japan, with the exception of my solo travels after I finishing my work contract. I budgeted about $1,500 for my own travels, as well as when we had a few days off during my time with Guy Healy, and I was able to get by with that.
When I graduated college nine months ago, I had literally no money. But, I knew I was going to be (hopefully) moving overseas approximately seven months later, so I moved home with my parents to save money on rent and was lucky enough to be hired as an ELL teacher for a great district in the Milwaukee area.
I was getting paid well as a long-term substitute, so it helped me save a lot more money a lot more quickly than just working a random minimum wage job. Luckily my father was working from home, and my brother worked nights, and my mother teaches in the same city in which live, so the four of us shared three cars for the time being.
I paid for my gas, but it still saved me a lot of money, even though it cost me some of my dignity (only a committed twenty-something would be caught dead driving her parents’ 2002 Dodge minivan to her first teaching job daily). During this past summer I taught summer school as well as worked as a waitress, just to bank extra cash. I saved about $8,000 by the time I left this past September.
I am also paid a very, very small stipend each month. In a sense I am lucky because I am just out of college; I am used to living frugally. I don’t have a house, a car, investments, furniture, or anything valuable to my name (except my passport!) I didn’t have any investments to leave behind (except for my student loans, which I pay every month!)
TT: Tell us one moment from your travels that was particularly powerful.
D: I have thought about this question more than any other question on this interview, and to be frank, I cannot choose one. I have learned so much and have laughed so much during my travels it is unbelievable. But, I think that one thing I have truly learned is that I cannot control every situation, and that is okay.
More specifically, I have learned that at the end of a hectic travel day where you were lost or you missed your flight or you had all of your things stolen, as long as you are alive and healthy, you’re going to be okay.
In 2010, we were stranded on the opposite side of Europe, as well as in Iceland, due to the volcano in Iceland that erupted and basically shut down the entire continent during everyone’s spring break. We ran out of money and energy, we had missed the start of our classes, and were literally maxing out our credit cards in order to find a place to sleep at night.
At the time I felt it was the most horrible incident ever, and I was so panicked and anxious. But it worked out. We were alive, healthy, and we had our passports. This past week I went to Barcelona and missed the only connecting bus to the airport which is in the middle of nowhere (yay budget airlines!) I started to feel the same panicked feelings, but I quickly made myself slow down and just breathe, and look at things in perspective. I was in Barcelona, I still had a whole week of vacation to come back; I had my passport, I was healthy, I had money; in all honesty life was more than okay.
TT: How have your travels impacted you as a teacher, and in your career?
D: I believe that because of my travels I am much better able to meet the needs of all of my students. The demographics in the United States is rapidly changing. During college our professors preached to us the importance of diversity and differentiation within the classroom.
They emphasized the absolute importance of reaching the needs of students of color, students with an economic disadvantage, students with disabilities, students who come from different religious backgrounds, LGBTQ students, ELL Learners, etc. During my seminar courses we read thought provoking articles and had deep discussions about these topics, among others, such as white privilege, gender equality, and overall inclusive curriculums.
However, the majority of teachers in the United States are white, female, come from middle or working class, and have similar religious backgrounds and life experiences. It is one thing to speak about and be aware of these issues at surface level. However, it is another thing to deeply understand and experience them.
During my travels, I have experienced the vulnerability of being the odd one out, with language, religion, and ethnicity. I have lived among different people of different cultures, striving to understand their different ways of life.
I can relate to each day being a little bit of an overwhelming struggle, from talking on the phone in another language, navigating the roads, and interacting with other people. Thanks travels have helped me to develop deeper connections, and have a better understanding of how to meet the needs of all of my students.
My travels have also made me more confident in the classroom. I have taught in three different countries and my students have come from even more countries than that. Traveling has made me more flexible and adaptable.
I am also better able to communicate and collaborate with students and colleagues. I can walk into any classroom and use the resources available to plan lessons that are meaningful to my students.
TT: How have your travels impacted you as a person?
D: I know it sounds cliche, but my travels truly changed me as a person. I think the most powerful impact traveling has had on myself was when I realized that there are so many more people in this world who are just like me.
I am undeniably very different from the rest of my family as well as a lot of people my age; I am extremely independent and determined. I am driven, motivated, and interested as well as disinterested in many things that most Americans are not.
However when I came back from study abroad, I realized I was not alone in my desire to teach abroad or travel long-term. I was not alone in my world views considering humanitarianism, feminism, traveling, nomadic lifestyle, etc. As a result, I became connected with blogs like this one as well as countless others, and was able to build my own support system on Twitter.
TT: What advice do you have for teachers who are dreaming of travel, or travelers dreaming of teaching?
D: Again, I know this is said over and over again, but do it. Just don’t think too much about it, don’t listen to what other people have to say; just do it. If you’re between the ages of 20 and 30 and want to teach in France, and already speak some French, apply for TAPIF (see provided website above). If you have a masters degree and want to teach in France, consider becoming a lecteur d’anglais in France.
If you’re interested in a program like Korea, check out EPIK (I know several people who have successfully completed this program).
These programs are great for people like me who are dying to teach overseas but do not have the 2-3 years of teaching experience or the Master’s Degree that many International Schools require.
If you are already a certified teacher, attend a recruitment fair. There are fairs at the University of Northern Iowa, in Boston, London, San Francisco, etc. Check out this website for more info.
If you’re not a certified teacher, enroll in a TEFL course.
Finally, network. I would be so much more miserable in France if I didn’t network, reach out, meet people, etc.
Again, just go. Even if you end up having a horrible experience, at least you will not be not left wondering, “What If.”
TT: Thanks so much, Dana! Readers, what questions or comments do you have for this remarkable teacher-traveler? Do see her blog, here!