Bringing travel into the classroom

Sydney Atkins

With over 14 years experience in teaching, staff and pupil development, Sydney Atkins is the Vice-Principal of GEMS Our Own English High School. In the last decade Sydney has traveled to 23 countries and believes that travel can change a teacher’s life and revolutionize how they impact students’ view of the world.

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I’ve always been obsessed with travelling. As a teenager I volunteered with my church group to traverse India working in villages, prisons, NGOs and hospitals. The experiences fulfilled me in ways I cannot fully explain and each year, I looked forward to doing more meaningful work and exploring my country every chance I got. As a young teacher some years later, I began organizing regular domestic travel for my students. I have such incredible memories of those early trips to forts and palaces in Southern India, ancient monuments hidden in mountains of the North and paragliding over sparkling waters in Goa. It’s quite possible that I had more fun than the kids on those journeys, but as I reflect on those experiences, I realize that they also allowed me the unique opportunity to see students developing an understanding of essential skills and it was pretty remarkable to me how a short break of eight or ten days could educate children in a way that classroom teaching never could. In fact, I am a firm believer that travel experiences can do more for character education and a sense of identity than any other experience in life can.

Over the last twelve years I have been to twenty-three countries and to simply say that travel changed me a little each time would be an understatement. Now, the philosophical world traveler in me feels the need to describe these moments as rich cultural experiences, but, truth be told, at first I was only interested in getting pictures for Facebook - the social and cultural education was a convenient bonus. Over the years, I have spent most of my time attempting to prepare children for life. I’ve learned from some incredible mentors, taken great courses, and had many professional development opportunities. Yet my travel experiences have taught me just as much and helped me become a better educator.

Shared Learning

Sharing my travel stories with my students allows for intercultural understanding. It allows me to share my learning with them, inspiring and encouraging them to chase their passions and dreams. Personal travel stories allow me to address and hopefully debunk stereotypes, biases and presumptions towards cultures. They have the potential to awaken students to traditions and values of cultures, helping students recognise and value new ideas. 

Making Sense of the Past

I remember standing inside the cavernous hall of the Armenian Genocide Musuem in Yerevan and thinking to myself ‘Why didn’t we learn about this in school’? But when it comes to history, there are plenty of things we don’t know. More than a hundred years on, the impact of the Armenian genocide reverberates loud, and is echoed by the other atrocities that dot our social media feed daily. Too often despair stands in the way of action and knowledge leads to a sense of hopelessness. We cannot bring back to life the dead of the past or those who have been victims of political mass murder throughout the ages, but, through courage as well as knowledge, we can act to bring about a world free from the scourge of hatred. In committing ourselves to everyday things to create a world of peace, freedom, and mutual respect, we honor the memory of those who have fallen victim to the ultimate crimes. The genocide will soon turn 100, but the capacity to forgive is infinite. Mercy forsakes logic, math, numbers – I hope my students will always remember that.

Look Beyond the Textbooks

Some years ago, while travelling around Jordan, a friend arranged for me to spend 2 days at an orphanage school in Amman. The school was full of Syrian refugee kids trying to come to terms with their new circumstances. Recounting those experiences to my students, I realized that many of them admitted to knowing very little about the refugee crisis and the political landscape of the Arab countries. Before I began travelling, my Private School education too had actually taught me very little about it. Our curricula is sometimes so western-focused that we hardly really learn about the histories of people and nations in less developed parts of our planet.

I started this post thinking I would list ten ways in which travel helps me inspire my students, and I could go on listing my reflections; but I must keep my terminal verbosity at bay, so I’ll just leave you with some thoughts to consider with students in your classrooms.

  • In a world that is constantly assaulting the senses, travel teaches young people the value of doing nothing and using time and space to unwind and make sense of their experiences
  • The last twelve years has also cemented the idea that learning doesn’t end with a high school degree. In fact, graduating high school can be like baby steps – true education happens while you’re living and experiencing life in the real world
  • Culture connects us all; despite having unique ways of experiencing the world, once you spend enough time with people you will realize that we have more shared humanity than we realize. The things that make us different, make us special, but the things which we share in common unite us too.
  • Until I moved to the UAE, world travel seemed like a distant dream; the kind that sits at the back of your head, but you never give it any importance because you doubt it will happen for you. Over the last twelve years I have gained confidence in the idea that dreams are attainable if you work at them. I know that sounds cliché, but it is true, and when I tell that to my students, I believe it; because that has been my own experience.

So there you have it, if I were to sum up everything that I am feeling as I type this, I would say that sharing my travel experiences with my students has helped me create a safe zone for learning about life. Students are always interested to know about their teachers’ personal lives and sharing my travel experiences with them helps me intersect the personal with the profound in a way that subject content might never be able to.

I hope that each of my students can have some degree of world travel experience. When I started wandering and wondering, I discovered things about the world I had not known before and through it, I discovered who I was. I hope they too have the wonderful opportunity to discover themselves and the history of shared humanity through the joys of travel.

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