Want to learn how to travel the world inexpensively through work exchanges?
Read this interview with teacher and fitness pro, Kelly McKimson-Rhodes!
Teaching Traveling: Kelly, tell us a bit about your background.
Kelly: I’m in my tenth year of teaching high school English in the southwest suburbs of Chicago. I live in downtown Chicago’s South Loop neighborhood. My husband and mother are also educators in Chicago, so I am surrounded by inspiring teachers constantly.
Teaching, in some form, has always been my passion, and when I realized I could unite this with my growing interest in world travel, I haven’t looked back! I’ve used teaching and/or volunteering to completely fund my travels for four summers, and many of my other travels have been related to teaching.
I’ve taught English in Madrid, worked on an organic garden in the mountains of Eastern Spain, backpacked through Europe, and most recently had the opportunity to teach yoga abroad on the beach in Jamaica.
TT: Teaching yoga abroad?! Wow! Tell us more about work exchanges like fitness pro travel.
K: Most of my travel experiences have stemmed from teaching English abroad in some way; however, my most recent teaching trip centered on my yoga practice. After years of practicing yoga, I decided to make a commitment to my practice, and I completed a 200 hour teacher training in December 2013.
I began teaching a weekly vinyasa yoga class in the community where I teach high school English. I also offered classes to teachers in my building, and I quickly noticed how much I enjoyed spreading my love of yoga, especially amongst those who were new to the experience, those who had trouble financing classes, and those who struggled to fit yoga into their busy schedules. My five dollar Wednesday evening yoga class at the Chicago Ridge Park District remains one of the highlights of my work week.
I began researching ways to teach yoga abroad and came across several companies that offer teaching vacations for fitness professionals. I ended up taking a placement in Jamaica (where we had our wedding two years before!) teaching yoga twice daily to resort guests.
Waking up to teach a morning yoga class on the beaches of Montego Bay with eager tourists ready to experience yoga was simply amazing! I enjoyed getting to practice in such a picturesque location while meeting people from all over the world and even helping the Jamaican staff learn a few poses and get in shape.
TT: That is so cool. How did you find these fitness teaching work exchanges?
K: Like most of my teaching travel experiences, I found this opportunity through extensive internet research. There are some yoga teaching opportunities abroad at retreats and other resorts that I found through help exchange websites, but many were looking for teachers to commit to longer than I was available.
Fit Bodies, Inc., the company I worked with, allows you to choose which resort and which weeks you are available. Their website is user friendly and offers plenty of resort reviews from other instructors.
Fitness instructors pay a portion of the travel expenses, but the cost is heavily discounted and includes one guest; some of the resorts allow up to two children included in the price, as well. The cost of our trip ended up being a fraction of what we would’ve paid if I had not been a guest instructor.
TT: Fascinating. What do these work exchanges pay for, and what do you self-fund?
K: As aforementioned, many of our trips have been funded through work exchanges. We received room and board or a small payment for our services, which helped to offset costs. The rest of our travel funds come from our savings, and I utilize my district’s credit union in order to regularly deduct small amounts from my paycheck and place in our “travel account.”
Taking on extra duties at school, like stipend positions, is something we also try to sign up for to fund travel. We have used credit card miles to cash in on some free flights and other discounted travel options. We had free airfare to the Colorado mountains this summer because I paid for some of my graduate school classes using a credit card with a good rewards program.
TT: Brilliant. Tell us one moment from your travels that was particularly powerful.
K: Asking me to choose one travel moment is like asking me to choose my favorite book: it seems like an impossible task! I have so many fond travel memories that have taught me something about the world or about myself, but a few particular ones come to mind.
My destination wedding in Montego Bay, Jamaica was certainly memorable as we got to share our love of travel with seventy of our favorite people! But on a work exchange trip, my husband proposed to me in Madrid’s Plaza Mayor, which is the first “landmark” I ever visited when I traveled for the first time, and taking in this beautiful city with my camera and guidebook in hand always left a special place in my heart for Madrid, so I was thrilled to return to Spain.
While this moment was quite memorable, the following day’s rental car driving experience is one for the books. We rented a manual transmission compact car (hey, we were on a budget, right?) to make our drive up into Costa Blanca’s mountains where our volunteer exchange was located.
Seemed simple enough, yet either of us considered the fact that we do not know how to drive a manual transmission vehicle. Needless to say, what could’ve been a scenic mountain drive became a humbling and actually pretty frightening experience.
Somehow we made it to our destination safely, and I spent the next few weeks focused on tending an organic garden and not thinking about the day we had to take that tiny car back down that huge mountain! Lesson learned: no matter how much travel “homework” you do, embrace the challenges and understand that things will go wrong, but it’s all part of the journey.
TT: How have your travels impacted you as a teacher, a fitness professional, and as a person?
K: Overall, my travels make me a better teacher. Just last week in my AP Literature class, I was introducing students to Ernest Hemingway and was able to show them my travel photos of bull fights and Pamplona’s San Fermin festival.
Besides enriching my lesson plans, I also think modeling an open-minded worldview and demonstrating passion for culture and learning impacts my students positively. Sharing these experiences and continuing to seek out new travel options keeps me interested and enthusiastic about teaching and learning.
Travel has helped me relate to students and colleagues, and I’ve noticed it inspires me creatively. As a literature teacher, seeing the world encourages me to appreciate and better understand its people and their art.
TT: What advice do you have for teachers who are dreaming of travel, or travelers dreaming of teaching?
K: My best piece of advice is to go for it! My first teaching traveling experience was when I was 23 and had only briefly been outside of the United States. I felt the urge to travel, but I didn’t know where to even begin. I eventually found a program teaching English for the summer at a small school in Madrid.
I was going alone, and I was excited but also really scared. It ended up being one of the most meaningful experiences of my life, and it showed me that travel could be part of my career. (Fitness note: To keep exercise up while traveling, online on-demand workouts can be great! Here’s a giant round-up of Beachbody reviews for one of the most popular and affordable platforms.)
As for advice: Start by doing your research. Look for work exchanges using sites like helpx.net or the Worldwide Organization of Organic Farms (WOOF). If you are a native English speaker, private English lessons are an option and sites like lingobongo.com are a good place to start looking, in addition to more formal TESOL placements through various companies and organizations.
If you are also a fitness professional, personal trainer, or even a DJ, try Fitbodiesinc.com for teaching vacations at various Caribbean resorts.
TT: Thanks, Kelly! Readers, what questions or comments do you have?
The author, Lillie Marshall, is 6-foot-tall National Board Certified Teacher of English from Boston who has been a public school educator since 2003. She launched TeachingTraveling.com in 2010 to share expert global education resources, and over 1.6 million readers have visited over the past decade. Lillie also runs AroundTheWorld L.com Travel and Life Blog, and DrawingsOf.com for educational cartoons. Do stay in touch via subscribing to her monthly newsletter, and following @WorldLillie on social media!