5 Tips for the 20-something traveler from the Veteran Traveler.


Yesterday was my 30th birthday.   I decided a few weeks ago to spend my 30th birthday in Portugal and Spain. Portugal was country number 35 which blew my goal of  visiting 30 countries by 30 out of the water!

Anyway, I am having a fabulous 30th birthday trip but  I also keep noticing that the other “world travelers” suddenly seem impossibly young.

I watched a shiny new group of travelers at the airport earlier this week.  A few years ago I might have joined in on their political discussion or accompanied them on a adventure to see a kid named Zven jump off a cliff.   However, as I listened and watched I was suddenly and acutely aware that I no longer fall into the category of 20-something hostel going, dreadlock donning, backpack toting traveler.

That was me for a time (minus the dreadlocks).   I did that. I was that. I had the unbelievable fortune of spending a large portion of my 20’s traveling the world. I visited 35 countries, countless cities, numerous landmarks, and have had a lifetime worth of experiences to show for it.

And while I will never stop traveling, my traveling looks different now. I have traded in the hostels for comfortable and cozy Airbnbs. I wear adult clothing, shower regularly, and do not have to worry if a girl named Forest is going to use my toothbrush in the community bathroom. I have traded in my flip flops for professional looking flats and the awkward heavy backpack for sensible rolling luggage.

So, Instead of being the crazy old lady trying to fit in with the cool kids at the airport, I sit back and listen to them with a wise knowing smile.   I let them have their youthful moment. My time has passed.

I smile as I watch them go on their way to learn whatever they are going to learn on this adventure.   I am glad that I got to experience that in my 20’s and thankful for the lessons I have learned now that I am in my 30’s.  

I have learned so much about travel and life and myself in this past decade. I may no longer be a cool youthful traveler, but I now have a new role. I am the wise sagely veteran of the trade and I have some tips for the 20 something Travelers.

My top 5 Tips for the 20-year old traveler.

#1  You don’t have to use a backpack to go “backpacking” through Europe.

Ok. I know that the backpacks with all of the patches look cool. I know that they make you feel like you are a down to earth, granola eating, world loving globetrotter. I know that they differentiate you from the retired couples who are on their 5th Viking Cruise through Europe. But lets face it. Giant backpacks are TERRIBLE. They are big and bulky and painful.  Basically they are THE WORST.  And they make it difficult (nay… sometimes impossible) to move around the tiny little European shops/ hotels/ restaurants.

Not only are they torture devices designed to leave permanent indents on your shoulders, they are also black holes that swallow up your belongings. In fact packing a backpack always has the following stages:

  1. Painstakingly spend 20- 40 minutes Rolling/smashing your belongings inside the backpack and tucking everything into all the little compartments and side pockets to “save space”
  2. Realize you packed something you currently need
  3. Spend the next 10 minutes groping around in search for said item in the unending abyss that is a travel backpack
  4. Empty entire contents of backpack onto the floor around you
  5. Locate said item only to discover that it is irrevocably wrinkled
  6. Repeat Process

And there really is no need for this painful and frustrating luggage system. Unless you are hiking, or camping, or walking El Camino de Santiago, there is not a reason to tote all of your possessions on your back like a pack mule.  All cities and even all little towns have sidewalks or roads that can be used to easily roll your bag to your hostel/ hotel/ airbnb and leave it there.

Use a small carryon sized roller and It stays perfectly controlled at your side the whole time! Long gone are the days where you have to make sure you don’t knock over a display with the 40-pound growth on your back.

Now that I am older and wiser and use rolling luggage I am so much happier and less encumbered with my stuff. Not once since my conversion to the church of the rolling luggage have I thought….Gee….I really wish I could hoist up this bag and carry it on my back right now.  I am certain there are no actual benefits to the travel Backpack. Take it from the old 30 year old traveler-Rolling Luggage is the way to go. It may not be as cool, but it is definitely more liberating and so much better for your back.

#2: Leave the fancy camera at home

Unless you are Ansel Adams, leave the fancy cameras at home. They are big. They are bulky.   And they are expensive.   Therefore they make you paranoid, encumbered and nervous. They are also literally a giant “I’m a tourist Sign” you wear around your neck.  

Also, because you have to actually download the pictures onto a computer before you can share them, they often stay on the camera during and oftentimes even after the trip. I have discovered that I never end up doing anything with my “Fancy pictures” and I often regret not having the photos on my phone. No one wants to wait until they get home to post photos. It is more fun to post as you go.

And honestly most of us are not trained to use the manual cameras properly anyway.   So, unless you really know what you are doing and are in fact going to do something with the fancy pictures, leave the big bulky cameras at home. Blend in with the locals and just use your phone.

#3 Don’t get an international phone plan. Be present!


Use your phone to take your pictures, but that is it!   Instead keep your head up, your eyes open and your heart ready to learn and grow.   I have never gotten international phone services. Wifi is so available and prevalent there really isn’t a need to pay for an international plan.  And really, as long as you can find Wifi at least once a day- that is all you need.  The rest of the time just live in the moment!

There are times international data would be helpful, but honestly, it is much more fun and novel to be unplugged. Perhaps one of the reasons I love traveling internationally is due to the fact that when I travel I am completely unconnected. I’m not constantly checking my phone for emails or updates or likes or new posts. I am truly and completely present in the moment.   I am only concerned with the here and now.

Plus going “unplugged” has forced me to become skilled at map reading and navigation. I am not typically the most observant person. I don’t often notice the mundane and I don’t pay attention to my surroundings unless forced. When I travel without a phone or GPS to guide me I have to notice everything or I would be lost.   And sometimes I do get lost….and that is ok too! Some of the best things on my travels have come from being lost!

You don’t have to have all of the answers. Sometimes the struggle and the wondering and the figuring it out on your own is part of the journey.  So, keep your eyes up off your phone.  Stay unplugged and learn to rely on your own intellect, not Siri’s.

#4 Talk to Strangers


Everyone is put in your path for a reason. The best thing you can do while traveling is talk to those around you. You never know what friendships may be forged, what advice may be given or what help may be offered.   I can’t tell you how many blessings have come from talking to random strangers on my travels.

Years of traveling alone had done much to improve my deftness of making a certain type of acquaintance I categorize as “stranger friends”.   These are random people I have met on my travels. These friendships are sometimes fleeting in length but essential and no less true than the ones formed in more traditional settings and with more natural tenures.   And sometimes these friendships have foraged into lasting real life friendships.

I am so thankful for the friends God has sent me during my many journeys. These friends provided me comfort and companionship when I needed them most.  And sometimes they provided just the assistance and guidance I desperately needed at just the right moment.

For example, Last night I was alone on my 30th birthday.  Yet, in line for drinks on a rooftop bar in Madrid I met another solo traveler.  She and I started talking and roaming the city together.   We shared a meal and even later on a birthday churro!  We had a lovely time. It all started because I turned around and started talking to her.  Even if you travel alone, you never have to be alone if you don’t want to. 

You travel to learn about the world, and meeting random people is the best way to learn and grow!  You never know what truths they can speak into your life-or what truth you are meant to speak into theirs.  God sends them to you for a reason.   

I have had many stranger friends show up in my life right when I needed them most.  You just have to have the courage to look around and talk to people.  And while the names of many of these stranger friends escape my memory, their phantom faces often flash across my mind.   I wish them well, I thank them for the kindness they showed this random traveler and I thank God for sending them to me.


#5 Go for it!  Don’t be afraid to spend your money.  

Let me preface this with saying that you should NEVER go into debt to travel. I have never been in debt because of my travel purchases or decisions. I have lived frugally and have learned how to creatively travel on a teachers salary. In fact out check out my blog on how to travel extensively on a teacher salary.   I save fiercely for travel, but once I’m abroad I have learned to not be afraid of spending it.

I learned my lesson early on in my travels that it is better to spend your money on the experiences in front of you than to hoard your money and leave with regrets. I call this the Gondola mistake.

The first country I traveled to independently was Italy. Venice was the first city I visited and I didn’t take a gondola ride. The ride would have cost me 40 Euros. I had 40 Euros. I just thought that was too expensive and I didn’t want to waste the money. Looking back now, this seems laughable to me.  I was in Venice and I didn’t go on a gondola ride! Really?!  For what?  Something as common as money?

40 Euros? I’m sad to admit that I have spent that much on a big brunch before.   I would not have missed those 40 Euros for one second. Money has come and gone since then. What has stayed was the regret of missing out on a lifetime experience for fear of spending too much money. I now have a desire to revisit Venice in order to have a gondola ride in Venice Italy.   And it will most certainly cost me more than 40 Euros to revisit the city.

You see, this experience taught me that sometimes things are expensive when you travel. But if you are there you might as well do and experience what you came there to do. (Within reason).

I often ask myself if my decision to buy or not buy passes the gondola test.  First I make sure I have the money.  Remember- Never go into debt for travel.   Then I ask myself, will I get home and regret that I didn’t spend the money. Will I feel the need to return to do this experience in the future? Will I spend more money on a return trip than just doing said activity now?

If the answer is yes to any of these questions I go for it. I spend the money, because money can be regained. Experiences, once lost, are lost forever. I will never again be able to feel the joy of taking a gondola ride in Venice on my fist day in Italy on my first international trip.   So, my advice to the 20 something traveler- Just go for it!  You have my permission.   Open your heart and eyes for any new or interesting experience and live your life as fully as possible. 

The world is so full and so interesting!  Take it from the seasoned traveler- The world is an amazing place if you just have the courage to step out your door and look!






Will My Tickets Arrive? My Olympic Opening Ceremony Drama!

 The morning of my 29th birthday I woke up thinking about what I wanted to accomplish during my last year of my twenties. I spent my morning thinking about how amazing the decade of my twenties had been. I had the great blessing to see and experience the world. I thought about the sites I had seen, the people I had met and the humanity and love I had witnessed.

In the last 8 years alone I had visited 34 countries, 4 continents, lived abroad twice and visited numerous cities. This allowed me to meet my lifetime goal of visiting 30 countries before I turned 30, but more importantly it helped me find myself.

With a since of thankfulness and accomplishment I spent the morning of my 29th birthday reflecting on these adventures, and thinking about how much I had grown and experienced. I also wondered what the year 29 would have in store for my future.

How could I possibly put a cap to the top of such a perfect decade of exploration and travel? What could possibly make it all come together to culminate in absolute perfection? What would be my next step?

About this time, I got a message from my friend in Rio. He wished me a happy birthday and said I should come visit him for the Olympics. And that was it. That was what I needed.  Attending the Olympics, the international Mecca of global cooperation and peace, was the perfect way to punctuate a decade of travel. And I simply said to myself “Why not?” Visiting the Olympics had always been my life dream.

I had spent most of my youth obsessing about the Olympics. I watched the athletes compete with suspenseful reverence. I cheered for the Americans, but I also loved hearing about and cheering for the underdogs from Romania or Croatia or wherever. I looked forward to hearing the humanitarian pieces and human interest stories. I was enthralled with the history and culture of the host cities and how the entire world could come together to compete for two weeks. I cried whenever an athlete (especially an American, but really any athlete) won a gold medal and got the honor of hearing their national anthem ring out loud and clear for all to hear.

But most of all, I looked forward to, I obsessed over, I yearned for and I watched and re-watched the Opening Ceremony. This is what I would hungrily await to see every 4 years. The Opening Ceremony is the dream, it is the most exciting and important and essential part of the games.

So, when I was invited to visit my friend in Rio this summer for the Olympics I did not hesitate. I immediately went online and purchased two Tickets to the Opening Ceremony. And just like that I was going, when just an hour before the idea had not even been on my radar. But, suddenly I had purchased my tickets and I was on my way to fulfill a life long dream- to attend an Olympic Opening Ceremony.   This would be my Olympic moment, my Olympic Story!

However, no good Olympic Story is complete without some drama. It turns out that the tickets I purchased in October for a 29th birthday to myself where fake. I should have realized something was fishy when the credit card sale was through an office in India. The website looked like the official site, but it turns out it was one hyphen away from the official Olympic ticket office. Now looking back on this, it was so obvious. Even my 7th grade students knew the tickets were fake. In my heart I think I did too. I mean, come on-I bought them from a random guy in India named Sam and I was supposed to pick them up at his “booth” in Rio before the event.

Looking back now it is comical. A typical Kelly Story. I am such a hoosier! So trusting. So honest. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. I would rather see the good in the world instead of being a skeptic. Why would anyone sell fake tickets? I just didn’t want to be so distrusting of the world. I wanted so badly for them to be real, that I believed they were real.   And so I told myself, the tickets could be real.   And honestly it was worth the risk. So I planned my trip with confidence and fervor. Only secretly wondering if the tickets were real.

However, When I arrived I realized that the “booth” did not exist and I had been scammed. I realized that I would not get these tickets and I had lost my money.   I felt foolish for being so trusting and naive.

However foolish I may be, I am also determined. I decided I had to try again. I used a European resale site and bought ANOTHER two tickets to the ceremony completely draining my savings. This site promised they would mail the tickets to my location in Rio by August 1st.   Yet, on August 1st, they did not arrive.   Instead I got word, through Fedex tracking, that they were still in France and would not be here until Friday the 5th….at 6:00 pm.   The ceremony is the 5th at 5:00 pm, and it will take a few hours to get there.

So, I am still waiting to see if they arrive. As of today they are in Memphis Tennessee ready to be shipped to Rio….. who unfortunately will be on a bank Holiday for the next two days.   So, the odds are stacked against me, but I have faith that everything will work out. I will keep praying and I know that God can pull this together.   Things always work out for the best!   And all I can do is trust and pray that the tickets arrive in time!   Keep tuned in to see if they arrive by tomorrow afternoon!

They next time I write, I should be able to tell you what it is like to attend an Olympic Opening Ceremony live in the flesh! ……….OR……… I should be able to tell you what it is like to watch an Olympic Opening Ceremony on a TV next to where it is happening live. Either way, God is good and I am blessed to be in Rio! And right now I am off to find the local Fedex site and try, through broken Spanish and Portuguese to figure out where in the world my tickets are!  Wish me luck and say a prayer!


Find out how it turns out at Fillingmymap.com or WIBC.com

Nothing But Love! My First Impressions of Rio de Janeiro.  

Use bug spray, don’t go out at night alone, don’t drink the water, don’t use your phone in public, don’t get stabbed. These are just some of the warnings I was given before I left for my solo journey to Rio de Janeiro.   Overall my friends and family seemed to be under the impression that Rio is an extremely dangerous place to visit, especially for a solo traveler.

This collective fear has been cultivated by the media who has spent so much time telling only part of the Rio story.  Everyone has been so focused on the problems and wondering if Rio will be ready for the Olympics, that they’ve completely missed the good.    Yes, there are scary parts of Rio. Yes, there are dirty parts of the city.   Yes, there are parts of Brazil that have contaminated water. But the same is true of almost any major city in the world.   And that is not the main story. When I arrived in Rio and really looked around I did not see fear. I did not see danger. I did not see corruption.   I saw love.

I saw love in the families eating picnics in the park and along the beach. I saw it in the old men standing outside their local botecos, passionately rehashing decade old debates over cervejas. I saw it in couples holding hands as they walk along the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon. I saw it in all of the helpful and friendly and welcoming Brazilians I have had the privilege to meet. I felt love with every taste of the homemade Feijodad and Pudim made especially to welcome me to the country.

I saw the overflowing love at the birthday parties I attended. Yes, plural…..I have been here three days and have already attended two birthday parties!   These parties gave me a glimpse of the real Rio. This is where families and friends get together and laugh and eat and enjoy being together celebrating life and each other.

At these birthday parties I saw love in the graciousness of the Brazilian people.   Everyone at the party made me feel welcomed and included. And Even though we couldn’t always understand each other, the language of love and kindness spoke for itself.   And through a strange combination of smiles, gestures, and a mix of broken Portuguese, Spanish and English, we were able to share stories, laughs and love.  The desire to communicate with me  even though it was difficult felt so dear and inviting.   I would have been content just being a quiet observer of their festivities, but their attention and hospitality gave me a glimpse at the heart of this city.
And the soul of this heart can be best described by the city’s cultural icon. Rio’s famous Christ the Redeemer statue stands as a beacon and symbol of hope, peace and love for its city.   Deemed one of the new 7 wonders of the world, this massive 124 ft statue is majestically situated at the top of the mountain peaks overlooking this unique city nestled between ocean and hills.   The statue of Christ, with his outstretched arms, expresses a sense of reverence, majesty, openness and love. Just like the accepting and open people of Brazil, Jesus’ open arms extend acceptance and grace to the city below. It is awe inspiring when you look up to the mountains and you see him there standing, loving, and redeeming his city and his people.

When I first arrived the city was having an unusually foggy day. The Statue of Christ the Redeemer was hidden behind the clouds. My friends took me to a vantage point of this amazingly beautiful city. I was in awe of the beauty of the city itself. It is perfectly situated. Not only does this city have incredible beaches along its entire coast, it is also amazingly sprinkled with impressive and beautiful mountains. I was looking to the hills and suddenly the clouds moved and he was there. The statue appeared in the sky from behind the clouds and I was struck with a since of wonder and awe. As a Christian, I was brought to tears as I thought about the promise of Jesus’ return and I had chills. I know that this is just a statue and my savior is real and alive and not made of stone. But this symbol stood as a reminder to me of God’s promises and love. When you look at the statue in person you can’t help but stand in wonder and awe of God’s love for his people and his promise of redemption for those who accept his open embrace.

So, Rio is not scary. It is beautiful and warm and accepting. It really is one of the world’s hidden gems. It has its problems, but don’t we all. That is why we are in need of a Redeemer. I have really enjoyed my time here so far and I highly recommend a visit to this incredible and interesting city that is bursting with so much heart!  To sum it all up,  I have nothing but Love for Rio de Janeiro.

Check out my blog fillingmymap.com to see more.   Also check out to WIBC.com to see other Olympic updates.

Will They be Ready?

maxresdefault.jpgMy fascination with the Olympics begins with the dramatic selection of the host city. There are so many questions, so many big promises and so many people riding on the success of this anointed city that has suddenly been crowned with the mighty and terrifying honor of playing hostess to the entire world.

There is always that suspenseful question hanging in the air…Will they be ready?   Everyone always waits with baited breath to see if the city will be able to pull off the impossible and fulfill all of its lofty promises. It is part of the Olympic drama and charm. There are always many critics and skeptics, yet in the end it usually comes together.

Rio has had its fair share of critics. There are many who prophesy failure.   There are many who are waiting to point out the weak points and predict disaster. And right now those weak points seem to be stacking higher and higher for the large city in Brazil.   The Olympic Village has plumbing issues (Why is it always the Plumbing?!) and there are reports that the sewers can’t hold all of the extra waste. They are also saying that the already bulging infrastructure won’t be able to keep up with the added traffic, there isn’t enough security (Is there ever enough?), the water is dirty, and the mosquitoes will most assuredly give you Zika. Oh and don’t forget that there are dead bodies in the Beach Volleyball pits.

We have heard this all before…. (Well maybe not the corpse infested sand pits.) Yet Sochi, who had a very similar list of problems a few weeks before the Olympics, was able to pull together some spectacular and relatively flawless games two years ago. (Insert cheeky nod to the defective 5th ring at the Sochi Ceremony….oh and I am sure we all still cringe when we think about Bob Costas’s Pink eye).   Ok, nothing is ever perfect. However nothing is ever as bad as it is made out to be either.  The pictures of the polluted water are miles away from where the sailors and swimmers will be competing. And unless you’re a pregnant, the Zika virus isn’t the life threatening disease the media would have you believe.

The world likes the “Sky is Falling” reports. The truth is nothing of this magnitude will ever be flawless, but this city is going to do its best. People will be able to cope and make do with what they have.   I think Rio will rise to the occasion and exceed everyone’s expectations.

I predict the Olympic Games will have a personality very similar to its host city.   I think these games may not be perfect, they may be a little scruffy around the edges, but will be remembered for being the most fun, vibrant and laid back Olympics in the history of the games.   So, will they be ready? I don’t know. However, the people of the world, myself included, are on our way. So, “Ready or Not, here we come!”

Find out how it turns out when I arrive in Rio. Follow me at fillingmymap.com and WIBC.com

Breaking Through the Math Ceiling: Exploring Female Achievement in Mathematics


Day Capstone-Breaking through the Math Ceiling.docx

While I have shared many of my thoughts and opinions on Finnish Education systems, I have not, as yet, shared my actual research. I did not think it was finished or perfect and so I kept the project to myself. My four short months in Finland were not suitable to produce the type of research I wanted, but it was enough to give me an overall picture of the problem, which you can explore by reading my report as posted above.

I went to Finland with the intent of studying female achievement in mathematics after discovering that Finland is one of the few countries where the girls outscored the boys in mathematics. Finland’s girls especially excelled in PISA’s problem-solving category. They performed much higher in this category than even Sweden their “sister” nation to the west. As a female math teacher this information intrigued me. I wanted to know what Finland was doing to promote female achievement in mathematics and problem solving.The above and adjacent link is the PDF of my research report. Day Capstone-Breaking through the Math Ceiling.docx

The purpose of this Fulbright Grant was to give girls the confidence in their abilities to think and express themselves mathematically. My objective was to study the cause of the widespread gender disparity in mathematics education, learn best teaching practices from Finland, a country internationally acclaimed for supporting female development in mathematics, and create a stateside program that empowers and supports girls and teachers within the mathematics field.

My time in Helsinki was spent studying how Finland’s school systems teach and train young girls and their teachers to be confident in mathematics. One of the main reasons girls struggle with mathematics is due to their crippling fear of being wrong. This hesitancy to take risks is a cultural issue that is fueled by certain educational practices. I elaborate on this psychological phenomenon in more detail in the report.

I also discovered that girls learn to have a negative attitude towards the subject from parents and sometimes even teachers who themselves suffer from math anxiety.   I desired to learn how to  create a positive learning environment that allows girls to feel safe, work together, take risks, and learn in a way that will empower them to think mathematically.

I believe that lack of confidence in mathematical ability is the biggest obstacle to female success in the mathematics classroom. I had several theories as to how Finland combated this fear and disdain for mathematics. My hypothesis was that it was a combination of classroom environment, cultural biases, learned math anxiety and teacher training that contributed to Finland’s success in promoting female achievement.

I discovered that one of the largest contributing factors to student attitude  towards mathematics was a teacher’s own opinions, attitude toward and ability in mathematics. Female students are more perceptive and aware of others feelings and attitudes.  Many female students have been trained to believe that math is difficult,tricky and obstinately rigid.  Female students are not taught to think of math as the beautiful, fluid and flexible science that artfully and creatively explains the world around us. 

Finland has a lot of great things going for its education system. It provides fair equitable education to all students. They also do not over stress their students and have truly mastered the concept of “less is more” which I wrote about earlier. They are able to achieve great things with fewer formal lessons and classes.   Their kids are not over worked to the point of exhaustion or surrender.   Finland has trained its students to be independent self-motivated individuals.

However, when discussing female achievement in mathematics, I am not sure that Finland has the overall answer.   While Finland’s low stress, slow paced classroom environments give girls overall less anxiety and apprehension towards the subject, I do not think they are actually out performing highly motivated U.S. Students. I suspect that the Law of averages is allowing Finnish students to stay on top of PISA scores, which I have explained in my blog post about The Three Real Reasons for Finland’s Success.   Everyone in Finland does well- a little bit above average.  Yet very few do extremely well (by American standards anyway).  On the flip side very few fail either. Finland has found a nice sweet spot where everyone can learn and achieve. However, few are being pushed to reach his or her highest potential either. Finland’s collective average is high because everyone does at least okay.

Through my observations and interviews I began to feel as if instead of discovering an unusually high level of female achievement in Finland I was actually uncovering a lack of male achievement.   Globally, the difference in gender achievement in mathematics is at the high end of the spectrum. There are the same number of girls and boys struggling with mathematics at the low end of the achievement spectrum.

Males tend to be the most gifted mathematically and that high achievement in math is not to be found in Finland. I did not find mathematically gifted and talented males or females in Finland. The Finnish students are simply not pushed to reach those extremes. And so, without the usually highly gifted few male to bring up the male average, we see the highly motivated hardworking girls take the lead for its country.   This is perhaps something Finland needs to further explore.

The below PDF was my research report submitted to the Fulbright department.  I am not oblivious to the fact that it isn’t perfect research.  I need to do so much more work  in order for it to be complete and publishable.  My vanity was perhaps why I waited so long to share it with you,  but I decided it was better to share than to keep to myself.  I hope to one day continue this research, but for now this will do.

Day Capstone-Breaking through the Math Ceiling.docx





I’m a Teacher- What I learned from my Fulbright Experience.

11659426_10100132656593536_6404291644614424767_nWhen I left for my Fulbright experience at the University of Helsinki I fully expected the experience would change the very course of my life.   I had begun to stagnate and feel restless in my teaching position. I had always loved my job as a teacher but after an unusually difficult year, I began to wonder if it was time for me to move on and pursue other opportunities.

When I received word that I was selected to receive the great honor of being a Fulbright Distinguished Teacher, I saw this experience as an opportunity to take a breath, step back from teaching for a time, recollect and reevaluate my life. I felt like I was approaching a symbolic fork in road of my life.   I was certain I would return from this experience a changed person with a renewed sense of purpose and direction.   When I left for Finland I prayed I would gain a clear picture of what I should do next and how I was to move forward.

In many ways I saw this experience as a stepping-stone in my path towards a formal research career. I thought perhaps earning a PHD in education would appease this restless desire growing inside myself to do and accomplish more in my life. I felt like I had more to give and it seemed like the logical next step. I could see myself, armed with the power of the Fulbright crest gleaming on my resume, ready to enter into the world of formal academia and research. I had great dreams and plans to go get my doctorate at an impressive university, like Stanford, Harvard or Yale. I had decided I would spend my days being important, highly admired and respected. I was ready to start an impressive research project that would prove my intelligence and importance to the world and springboard me into a life of lectures, conferences and publications.

However my time spent in Finland taught me that, while I could be successful in the world of formal academia, it was not where my heart resided.     I learned quickly that my heart was not in formal research. My heart is and will always reside in the classroom. My most favorite days in Finland were the days I spent playing with the 3rd graders at recess or teaching my group of 7th grade Finnish students the intricacies of geometry. I am so thankful for the opportunity I got to co-teach a 7th grade geometry course at an English speaking school in Helsinki. I looked forward to this weekly class and it became one of the highlights of my experience. Not only did it give me a very valuable glance at the teacher’s perspective of Finland’s education system, it also demonstrated my need to be in front of a classroom.

When I was observing other Finnish classrooms I often felt a surge to stand up and teach. It was hard sometimes to not step in and interject some of my thoughts on a certain topic. I also kept thinking about the amazing ways I would improve my own teaching when I return to my school this fall. This experience, taught me that my passion resides in front of a classroom.

I am a teacher. I am a practitioner. I do not belong in an office reading studies, collecting data and analyzing survey results. I belong in the classroom. I come alive there. When I attended formal doctoral lectures, or attended PHD seminars and conferences I learned valuable information but I also felt restless and confused. I met some very intelligent individuals with impressive theories and theological arguments. I learned a lot of facts but nothing that seemed applicable or helpful to an actual living-breathing classroom.

I often sat there pondering the applications of these theories, projects and papers. I wanted to see them put into action instead of being merely discussed and debated.   I realized there is a huge difference between educational researchers and practicing teachers. Many educational researchers had spent years studying education, but had never actually taught a classroom of students. And while they have many theories (some good, some bad) about how teaching should be done, they have never experienced the joy of actually watching their students learn and grow throughout the course of a year.

Researches don’t know what it is like to be entrusted with 180 beautifully unique and talented individuals whom I write on my heart each year.   They don’t know what is like to have these students consume my thoughts and actions. Yes, as a teacher I stress and constantly think and worry about my students. I pour my heart and soul into them and serve them with everything I have. It is stressful, it is time consuming and it is hard. But I love it. At the end of the day the research may not have the stress, the anxiety and the pain of a practicing teacher. However, researchers are also missing out on the joy of knowing they are helping young individuals become who they are destined to become.

10257048_10100130081783476_5627855949294620207_n I am so thankful for the many experiences I had during my time in Finland that reminded me of that joy and the passion I have for my chosen profession. I am a teacher, not a researcher. That is what I have learned and knowing that I am doing what I am supposed to be doing with my life is an invaluable gift. I cannot wait to start applying what I have learned about education in Finland to my classroom.

         I also learned that I am a writer. I have something to say and people who are willing to listen.   While In Finland I started writing about my experiences in my blog. This blog usually has a small readership that extends only to my mother and a few dedicated friends. However suddenly, because of this Fulbright experience, people became interested in what I had to say and I was able to share my thoughts and experiences in Finland with several thousand people.

Because of this incredible exposure, I was able to meet with and share educational ideas with people from all around the world. My article was published in an Australian Education journal, was listed among the top 100 educational blogs in the U.S. and was also mentioned in Finland’s most prestigious and wildly circulated newspaper.   My article about Finnish education has now been translated into Portuguese and Korean and is being distributed as part of teacher training system at a Korean university. I have had so many doors and opportunities opened and presented to me because of this Fulbright experience.

This has taught me that I do not have to be in the world of formal academia to have a voice. I can express myself and change the world by being myself, doing what I love and sharing my experiences and ideas with others. I can teach and make a huge impact on both my students and the education world by sticking to my talents. I am a teacher and a writer and this experience in Finland has taught me how to balance both of those skills.

I hope to take what I have learned in Finland and become an even better teacher to my students. I also intend to continue to write about education and hopefully promote educational change and reform in my school, state and perhaps one day my country. I believe, however, the best way to do this is to remain in the trenches so to speak. I do not feel like a higher degree is in the cards for me at the moment. Instead I realize I can make the greatest impact in front of the classroom and in the hearts of my students.