By Andi Webb
Until I boarded a plane headed to Russia, I never realized I would be a “global teacher.” If I’m honest, I didn’t even realize it then. Traveling with a group of almost 30 educators, going abroad for the first time ever, and definitely not being an expert packer were aspects of my experience that didn’t fully sink in on the 13-hour flight. I quickly learned to trust my instincts, to board the Metro with elbows out and as aggressive a face as I could muster, and that I could indeed live off Matryoshka doll cookies for almost two weeks. (Okay, I’m slightly exaggerating on the last part.)
I applied for the study tour to Russia truly having no idea what to expect. Little did I know I would spend two nights on an overnight train traveling to and from St. Petersburg, get to see St. Basil’s Cathedral in all its glory, or so genuinely respect the different religions of people I’d never before met. The defining moment for me was toward the end of the trip. Our group was staying at a family-owned inn in Suzdal, Russia. It was in Suzdal that I realized spending time in small towns was much more rewarding than big cities, as cities often look very similar no matter where you are in the world. I had stepped out of my comfort zone and “bonded” with other educators in a Russian banya. We were enjoying a meal of fresh fruit and vegetables when our hosts asked us to gather together for singing. We listened as our Russian friends sang their national anthem. They asked our group of U.S. educators to sing “The Star Spangled Banner.” It was in that moment, with tears streaming down my face, that I realized I’d never even imagined I’d be in a country known for its animosity with my home country singing our national anthem. I knew I needed more experiences like this because, as cheesy as it may sound, my life was changed. Forever. No overstatement involved. That one experience changed my life.
I had a conversation with our group leader and told her when I got home, I was going to research how I could keep learning about the world. I told her I was going to start as soon as I got home. I think she was probably like most people and thought I had good intentions but would forget about it once the excitement wore off. That never happened, and I hope it never does. I can be thankful for jet lag because, upon my return, I was awake at very odd hours. The first day after returning home from Russia, I did exactly what I said. I began my research of grants and fellowships and have yet to stop. As I mentioned, I hope I never do. I should be fair and say that my trip to Russia was not through a grant or fellowship, but my research that stemmed from it has led to some of the best moments of my life. Hands down.
Let me explain a little. The trip to Russia was in 2011. I had traveled out of the country probably six or seven times but never abroad. Since my determination to seek opportunities to learn about people and places around the world began, I have studied in Nova Scotia, Germany, Indonesia (twice), China (twice), and Japan—almost completely at no personal cost! Other educational travel experiences I have sacrificed to fund personally include study tours to Senegal, Ecuador/Galapagos Islands, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua. When I studied in Indonesia, I was able to travel at my own expense to Australia, but it was significantly less expensive than traveling from the United States. I have plans in January 2017 to live in Singapore for three months to learn best practices in mathematics that have allowed the small country to gain international notoriety. Through an educator’s travel group, I was able to find a significantly less expensive than normal trip to Antarctica in 2018. In 2011, I had never traveled abroad. I have since traveled to five other continents and approximately 30 countries. I have also traveled quite a bit domestically. I’ve worked trawls in the Gulf of Mexico and been a part of missions in “space.” Whereas I had previously served as a presenter for my school and district, I now serve as a presenter at the state, national, and international levels. The opportunities are there for the taking! It definitely requires determination, hard work, and lots of time, but I can honestly say every moment has been worth it. My life is changed for the better. I am a global teacher. I am a better person because I have made friends around the world.
These experiences have allowed students at my school to make their own friends in countries around the world. When 1st grade students I worked with began Skyping with friends in Indonesia, they wondered why the girls wore scarves over the heads. They would ask about the music they heard in the background when it was time for prayer. After Skyping for weeks, they understood, even at six years old, what a hijab is. My 1st graders from the United States would hear the music signaling time for prayer in the Muslim area and would then say, “It’s time for you to go pray now.” My colleague and I could not contain our tears as we watched the children exchange conversations that now seemed normal. The respect for differences grew. I’m not sure what seeds of hope have been planted with the children in both countries, but I am in awe at the possibilities.
At this point, I imagine you may be thinking, “How can I experience this, too?” In contrast, you may be thinking that all of this is great but not something you would want to do. Traveling the world and stepping far outside of your comfort zone is not for everyone. It’s not meant to be. But if you think it may be for you, go for it. You never know how it can change your life.
Some amazing fellowships I have been a part of include the following:
- Earthwatch Teacher Fellowship
- Transatlantic Outreach Fellowship (TOP)
- Sino-American Bridge for Education and Health (SABEH)
- Chinese Bridge Delegation
- America’s Unofficial Ambassadors’ School-2-School Program (AUA)
- Fulbright Japan ESD Teacher Exchange
- NOAA’s Teacher at Sea Program
- Honeywell Educators at Space Academy
- Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching Program
Prior to embarking on what I often think of as at least a part-time job based on the amount of time I put into grant/fellowship research and writing, I had written somewhat small local grants. I have learned—through trial and error—how to improve my applications. I almost always ask for feedback if I do not get accepted. Sometimes I receive it, and sometimes I don’t. I am amazed at the number of teachers who receive grants and fellowships on their first try. That is often not the case with me. I tend to apply at least two or three times before getting accepted to something my heart is set on. I have learned to persevere and that timing is everything. I couldn’t be happier because, five years later, I have received approximately $225,000 in grants and fellowships. I am earning my doctorate at no personal cost and my goal, hopefully within the next three years, is to work in international education full time. Who knew that first trip abroad would literally change my life?
Andi Webb is a K–5 math teacher and coach in Fayetteville, North Carolina, with experience teaching all grades and all subjects. She is passionate about global education and sustainability.