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How to Become a Teacher Who Travels the World For Free With Fellowships and Programs

Michael at Darwin Station, Ecuador.

Michael at Darwin Station, Ecuador.

Teaching Traveling: How can teachers see the world for free though travel grants and scholarships?

California teacher, Michael Wing, has advice on how to to it! Michael, tell us about your background.

Michael: I’m in my eighteenth year teaching science at Sir Francis Drake High School. Before that, I was an environmental consultant and an academic. I’ve traveled to:

  • Finland and Alaska (National Science Foundation – funded PolarTREC Program) 2009.

I’ve also taken my own students, co-workers, and parent volunteers on trips. In particular I have lead over a dozen trips to the University of California’s White Mountain Research Center, in California’s White Mountains (12,500’ elevation) where my school has several ongoing research projects that I started.

Posing at the Arctic Circle in Finland.

Posing at the Arctic Circle in Finland.

TT: Astounding! Tell us more about your travels!

M: My very first trip led to all the others. In 2007 I was lucky enough to be selected to go to the Galapagos through the Toyota International Teacher Program. We were two dozen teachers, no two from the same state, traveling together from island to island meeting with local teachers and seeing the wildlife.

Strangely, some of the teachers I was with seemed to know each other very well. I would ask about this, and they would say things like “Oh, we were together two years ago in Korea.” Or, “We were together three years ago in Saudi Arabia.”

Gradually it dawned on me that even though there are about four million teachers in the USA, the same very few teachers apply to all the cool teacher travel programs.

I decided to become one of them. On the way home in the airport in Ecuador, I went around to each person and said “what other programs like this one have you heard about, or done?” I made a big list. I’m about halfway down it.

A tortoise with bird poop on it in the Galapagos Islands.

A tortoise with bird poop on it in the Galapagos Islands.

TT: Such a brilliant insight and idea. More people should do this! How did you find this first travel opportunity?

M: A co-worker sent around an email about the opportunity. Discovering opportunities for free teacher travel is the easy part. The hard part is finding the courage to apply. Because any application involves risk – the risk of wasted time, and of disappointment.

Everyone thinks “Oh, I don’t have time and besides, the chances are I won’t get it.” Believe me, I had those thoughts too, but something made me sit down at the computer and bang out an application anyway. The Galapagos are expensive – I would never get there any other way.

After eight years of just teaching my classes and going home I was ready for a challenge. My own kids were old enough to live without me for a couple of weeks.

Getting that one trip made all the difference. Now, applying for things doesn’t seem hard at all. I know how to do it. It’s like playing the lottery. In my state, millions of people buy lottery tickets even though their chances of winning anything life-altering are basically zero.

They do it because in the interval between buying that ticket and finding out you didn’t win you have the right to daydream about how great it will be if you do win. But applying for something that you’re qualified for, and that matches your interests, brings much better odds.

I get over 30% of the things I apply for. In the meantime, I get to daydream about how great it’ll be, just like any lottery ticket holder.

Michael on Cornwallis Island.

Michael on Cornwallis Island.

TT: Brilliant mindset, and so inspiring and helpful. How do you find the money to fund your travels?

M: Most of the teacher travel programs I’ve done were totally free. Toyota and PolarTREC even gave me some spending money and paid for my substitute teacher while I was away.

For the Spaceward Bound trips I paid for my own airfare (it was never more than $2000) but NASA paid for all of my expenses while I was on the ground. The first time I went to the Canadian Artic with the Haughton Mars Project I flew for free on New York Air National Guard training fight.

The second time I paid my own way ($12,000) by winning a Waitt Grant from the National Geographic Society. My trips to California’s White Mountains are inexpensive.

They are two tanks of gasoline away from my school, and the White Mountain Research Center charges less than $60 per person, per night, meals and lodging included. Sometimes I got small grants to pay for them, sometimes participants paid their own way.

Sampling soil in Finland.

Sampling soil in Finland.

TT: So cool. Tell us one moment from your travels that was particularly powerful.

M: One evening in the United Arab Emirates this total stranger came to our hotel and invited us to visit his camel stables. (The hotel was near a racetrack.) I was expecting some place dusty and smelling like animals but he took us somewhere that was more like a palace.

We sat on carpets and cushions around a big fire, under the stars, with a humungous-screen TV while servants brought us dates, coffee, hot ginger milk, and water pipes.

The revolution against Qaddafi in Libya was just starting and we discussed world affairs for hours. An important sheik came in and we all rose to greet him. Then we went indoors to dinner, where we sat on the floor and ate biryani with our fingers.

When our host brought us back we were in big trouble with our minders – they didn’t know where we were! But it was a magical evening.

On the Equator!

On the Equator!

TT: What a magical experience. How have your travels impacted you as a teacher, and in your current career?

M: In 2009 I went to Finland through the PolarTREC Program to participate in an archaeological study. We were studying 6000-year old hunter-gatherers. When I got home I thought “well, that was an amazing experience, but there’s no way I can do this with my students.”

Archaeology is very unforgiving to amateurs. If you start digging without a permit you will be labeled a “pot hunter” and probably thrown in jail. High school teachers don’t get permits.

However, there was a very mysterious 800-foot line of granite boulders in my county that nobody knew anything about. Maye it was prehistoric, maybe not. There was nothing else like it. And, in Finland I had seen how much of archaeology is really just surveying and map-making.

You can do those things without digging, or even touching a stone. So first I brought all 100+ of my students out to the line to make some preliminary measurements. Two of them said they wanted to take it on as a project, so over the next two years the three of us made detailed measurements on hundreds of individual stones.

We found a pattern that was reminiscent of New England stone wall builders, even though the line wasn’t a wall. Probably it was built by 19th century ranchers at the start of the Anglo-American period in California. We wrote up our findings and published them in the peer-reviewed journal California Archaeology.

A plane crew's midnight arrival.

A plane crew’s midnight arrival.

TT: So cool. How have your travels impacted you as a person?

M: They have made me more creative. For instance, I was in the Mojave Desert in 2009 with some astrobiologists from NASA. We would turn over quartz rocks and find bright green films of cyanobacteria on their undersides.

The rocks act like little greenhouse windows, transmitting some light but protecting the cells from UV radiation and desiccation. I started to wonder how long it takes to colonize a rock. I decided to put a set of glass and marble tiles in the desert to find out. Now I have similar sets (I call them “artificial hypoliths”) in Namibia, the United Arab Emirates, the Canadian Arctic, California’s White Mountain Peak, Svalbard, and Antarctica.

All of them except the Antarctica ones were put in place by a teacher or student from my school. I sure wouldn’t have had this idea at home. In fact, ALL of my creative ideas have come to me while traveling or soon after returning from a big trip.

At the Tropic of Capricorn.

At the Tropic of Capricorn.

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

M: Teaching and travel definitely complement each other. If you’re a teacher, apply for things and talk to creative people. You never know where your next big idea or opportunity is going to come from.

Take your students on field trips. If you have the travel bug, teaching is a great profession for that. You get access to opportunities that other people don’t, you get some time off, and you get reasons to go places.

Get a teaching credential. Home exchanges during school breaks are another way to travel. My family and I have gone to Norway and England, each time for nearly a month, through

TT: Thanks so much, Michael! Readers, what questions or comments do you have for this impressive Teacher-Traveler?

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