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A teacher’s journey: Around the world and forever changed

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.

Then 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, in that moment, my life was changed. Forever. No overstatement involved. 

I had a conversation with our group leader and told her that when I got home I was going to research how I could keep learning about the world. 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 am thankful for jet lag because, upon my return, I was awake at very odd hours. The first day after returning home from Russia, I began my research of grants and fellowships and have yet to stop. My research has led to experiences that now frame my career and my life.  

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 overseas. Since my determination to seek opportunities to learn about people and places around the world set in, I have studied in Nova Scotia, Germany, Indonesia (twice), China (twice), and Japan — almost completely at no personal cost! I also invested in 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.

Since 2011, I have traveled to five other continents and 35 countries. Right now, I am living in Singapore. In 2018, I’ll visit Antarctica. 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! 

These experiences have allowed students at my school to make their own friends in countries around the world. When first 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 first 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 hope you may be thinking, “How can I experience this, too?” 

Check out these amazing fellowships I have been a part of:

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 few years, is to work in international education full time. 

Fulbright Orientation

After three years of applying to the Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching Program, my perseverance paid off again! Being accepted to the highly competitive fellowship and being a “Fulbright Teacher” is one of the highlights of my career. Because of the Fulbright award, I am currently in Singapore studying how this small country has gained world-wide attention through their success in mathematics. Mebane Rash, with EdNC and in partnership with Burroughs Wellcome Fund, will be shadowing me during my work here in late March. 

Who knew that first trip abroad would literally change my life? Find a grant. Apply today. 

Andi Webb

Andi Webb is a teacher and mathematics coach at Alderman Road Elementary in Fayetteville. She is National Board Certified and is currently pursuing her Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership through East Carolina University. She is a Career Award for Science and Mathematics Teachers grant recipient through Burroughs Wellcome Fund.