A Teacher Travelogue: On What Travel Reminds Me

Me, having a very spiritual moment with a baguette in Paris

Me, having a very spiritual moment with a baguette in Paris

As teachers we never really stop teaching and learning. Sometimes the venue changes, but we are constantly thinking about how we can apply what we’re seeing and experiencing to our practice. This is true, especially during the summer.

Travel has become an essential part of my life and my travel contributes to my ever evolving worldview. In early spring 2007, halfway through my first year of teaching, my grad school roommate Pete (now a fourth grade teacher in Yakima, WA) and I hatched a plan to go abroad. As first-year teachers, our sole criteria for deciding our destination was cheap airfare. We found a sub-$700 flight to Bogota, on a now defunct travel site. At age 27, I secured my first passport and took my first (non-military) trip abroad. We spent four weeks traveling through Bogota, Santa Marta, Cartagena and the Caribbean Coast. I used my college Spanish for the first time. I sailed for the first time. I hitchhiked for the first time. I went SCUBA diving for the first time. I bathed in volcanic mud. I ate a fish so fresh out of the water, the fisherman was still unloading the rest of his haul when I began eating it.  

I was hooked.

For the last ten years, at the end of the school year, I have packed the same red & black backpack and headed abroad. My travel partner has changed, but the ritual remains the same. This summer I spent four weeks with my wife Hope, an English teacher, traveling through Western Europe: Germany, France, Spain and Portugal. Travel is essential to me. We have to forgo some “wants” during the year to afford it, but it’s worth it. My wife jokes about "Travel Nate," an alternate version of me, who is less harried, less tense, and more at ease. When I travel I get headspace to reflect on my practice. I get time to read all the books I wanted to read during the school year. I feel like a yoke of grading and obligation is removed from my neck. I feel peace: something that is far too rare for people in the US, especially people of color, people in poverty and even NFL quarterbacks.

A mural along the Rhine in Mainz, Germany

A mural along the Rhine in Mainz, Germany

Early in our trip, after I posted a photo online, a colleague and mentor in the profession, asked “what does it feel like to be black in Germany?”

I responded: I always feel “more free” when we travel… But knowing what's happening back home, right now even more so… It's hard to put into words... I feel black + carefree and I haven't felt that way in a long, long time.

When I travel, my brain works differently. I see things here differently. My understanding of America is sharpened by even a brief absence from it. I believe that if you want to be truly awake, you have to leave home. I think most importantly, travel provides me with distance to consider my life back home, what I prioritize, my habits, my consumption and my aspirations. Travel reminds me that there are better, smarter ways.

Travel reminds that US media coverage is problematic and I need to seek and encourage my students to pursue alternative sources. I spent this summer watching France 24 (their English language network), Deutsche Welle (Germany) and CNN International. I was struck by the expansive and nuanced nature of CNN International’s coverage of events in the US and abroad. Over the last year, in the US, CNN has “distinguished” itself with problematic coverage, commentary and HR choices. But this summer reminded me that CNN hasn’t forgotten how to “do news.” They choose to fill their US coverage with the likes of Wolf Blitzer, former Trump aide Corey Lewandowski, and (jive) Don Lemon. CNN gives their international audiences investigative reporting, searing documentaries and in-depth analysis of events with historical context. We get clownish coverage: gigantic countdown clocks to trivial events, talking heads who are ideologues rather than experts and massive chyrons that fill ⅓ of the screen, but don’t actually tell you anything. We get louder, inferior, less informative coverage, because that’s what sells.

The view of Old Town in Porto, Portugal from the Cathedral

The view of Old Town in Porto, Portugal from the Cathedral

Travel reminds me of the proper role of law enforcement in a civil society. Police killings are a uniquely American problem—something I remind my students of while discussing civil liberties in government class. While we were abroad, at least 95 people were killed by US law enforcement. Victims 630 through 725 of this year. Travel reminds me that issues of race, justice and policing should be at the forefront of many of our classes this year.

Just before I left for Europe, Minneapolis school cafeteria worker Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were killed by police. Both were killed at the end of what should have been routine encounters with law enforcement. These encounters were routine alright—part of a routine that allows the normalized killing of unarmed Americans by people otherwise sworn to protect and serve them. This fall students will show up to school in Minneapolis wondering “where Mr. Castile went? This September, Castile and Sterling’s children will be in our schools. These children—fatherless because of the actions of other agents of the state—will be in our classrooms. What will we say to them? How will we comfort them?

Travel reminds me there is a better way. Traffic stops should not end in murder. People should not be incarcerated for profit. Other industrialized nations don’t fund local government programs through revenue from red light cameras, placed largely in their poorest neighborhoods. They do not allow civil asset forfeiture [the practice of police seizing private property (or funds) they allege have been used in criminal activity for department use and budgets]. These are our problems alone.

Travel reminds me I have nothing to fear from “the Other.” We arrived in Europe four days after the attack in Nice. We expected to find anxiety and fear. We found none. Despite a very real threat from international terrorism, they do not live in constant fear. I want my students to inherit a world where they don’t have to be afraid.

Our view atop the Arc de Triomphe

Our view atop the Arc de Triomphe

Travel reminds me of the importance of our work. As an educator I get to teach my students a series of lessons, academic or otherwise about government, geography, character and life. As we prepare to return to school, my travel has reminded me that we have an obligation to prepare our students to be active participants in civil society. We must model for them how to thoughtfully question authority. We must implore them to question the underlying and unstated premises of arguments they’re presented with. We must push them to listen to understand, rather than listening to refute. We must teach them to believe more in discourse and less in debate. We must teach them to love to read and to read to grow.

This is the work of teaching. We get to help set students on their paths. We get to leave our cognitive fingerprints and habits of inquiry on the next generation. We get to plant seeds. Helping kids become curious about the world isn’t on my evaluation, but it's probably the most important thing I do. This work can’t be tested or assessed by the SBAC—it’s too important for that. It doesn’t fit neatly into an ELA standard, but it’s why we do what we do.

Travel reminds me of that.

Nathan Bowling

Republic of Cascadia