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How to be a better teacher through travel: 10 lessons from an educator

My name is Lillie M., and I am a 6-foot-tall Bostonian who taught high school English in the Boston Public Schools before taking a leave of absence to travel around the world for nine months. After returning to Boston and happily teaching in BPS again, it became remarkably clear how important that voyage was in learning how to be a better teacher. Here are 10 lessons I learned from that journey. While I can’t guarantee these results for everyone, there is a strong probability that if you travel, you too can experience these benefits:

1. My understanding of the material I teach became radically enriched.
Sure, I’d read a ton about the Vietnam War and seen movies about it, but it was not until I actually set foot in Vietnam that the enormity and madness of the war slapped me across the face. Further, I’ve taught Things Fall Apart for years, but it was not until I slurped the food called fufu in Ghana that I really got the picture of what the characters in Achebe’s novel were eating!

2. I became more patient, confident, and most importantly, happier.
Traveling forces you to build some important skills. There will be long lines and transportation delays, so you will learn patience. There will be culture shock and new situations you’ve never experienced before, so you will learn courage. And there will be awe-inspiring moments, so you will connect with yourself in a way you never have before. Over time, these newly enhanced skills can help you figure out how to be a better teacher for your students.

3. My standards for behavior skyrocketed.
I thought my colleagues in Boston Public Schools had great classroom management, but seeing the sky-high behavioral expectations in Ghana was eye-opening. When we’re in our home classrooms, we think things are just the way they are and don’t realize until we’re immersed in another environment there are other ways to manage young ones.

how to be a better teacher
via Lillie Marshall

4. I realized the astounding privilege my home country has.
My American teaching co-workers and I were always frustrated about our lack of paper and copiers, or the 30 computers for 1,200 students, or the fact that sometimes we only had 50 books for classes of 120 kids.

Three months in Ghana shed some perspective on this frustration. In the schools in the Volta Region where I visited, there were not only no computers, but there was no electricity. There were not only 40 students in a class, but the toilet was a hole in the ground behind a wall of sticks. Back in American schools, I feel more appreciative, which makes it easier to calmly find new solutions for (relative) resource shortages.

5. I became even more of a role model to students.
Since I returned to the country, students started saying: “Wow, after what you did, now I realize the things that are possible. I want to travel, too!” I can now confidently reply, “If you dream of doing it, you CAN make it happen!”

6. I can focus more intently on my classroom because I feel fulfilled having started to explore the rest of the world.
Part of the reason I left the country to travel for a year in 2009 was the question “What else is out there?” kept nagging me. Having that question buzzing in your mind constantly makes it hard to focus  on being a great teacher. Now that I’ve dedicated nine months to exploring “what else is out there,” I find myself so much calmer and more present, and as a result, I figured out how to be a better teacher.

7. If you start a travel blog or even just email friends about your trip, you develop a far stronger sense of writing for a new authentic audience.
If you are going to travel for any amount of time longer than two weeks, it is amazing for you (and your students) to publish an account of the adventure online. Having others actually read what you write and leave comments creates an authentic writing experience that spurs an English teacher like me to really understand the importance of writing. It’s one thing to write about something exciting—it’s another thing to convey to your audience the excitement you felt.

8. I gained a diverse circle of contacts around the world, which I can tap into for resources to enhance my teaching back home.
When you travel, and when you write a travel blog, you connect with amazing people, many of whom can help you and your students down the road. For example, international student pen pal exchanges are now far easier for me to set up, since I have contacts in schools in Ghana, Thailand, and Japan. I can also get virtual guest speakers on an extremely wide range of topics tied to my curriculum.

9. I gathered a treasure trove of stories and photos, which frequently come in handy to help enhance a point I’m trying to make in my lessons.
Before starting our memoir writing unit in class this year, I shared with my students the memoirs I’d helped my pupils in Ghana create. Not only was this an engaging way for students to see what makes a good true story, but it was particularly thrilling for everyone to read real stories of kids across the globe with whom their own teacher had worked.

how to be a better teacher in laos

via Lillie Marshall

10. I gained an unshakable belief that dreams are attainable if a person puts their full effort into it.

Seriously, if you could take a 30-hour bus ride from Laos to Vietnam with no bathroom, you can set the expectation that a student can study a few extra hours for an upcoming test. More profoundly, meeting people who have sacrificed everything for the few opportunities they could find makes you realize the awe-inspiring potential of human beings, and the responsibility to work hard and use any amazing opportunities available to us. These are such powerful lessons to impart to our students!

So there you have it: Travel can play a role in teaching you how to be a better teacher. While professional development at your home school may be lovely, consider how strolling through the streets of Paris or Bangkok can develop you as a teacher even more.

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Editor’s note (2020): This piece has been updated for clarity, accuracy, and relevance.

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