By Allie Cavallaro
Allie is a 2016 Trek to Teach alumna who has a passion for the program and for helping others find their paths to impactful adventures. She currently is a jack-of-all-trades, and master of none, on Trek to Teach’s North American team and is living in San Francisco
After a directionless beginning, in 2015 I realized that despite everything my parents, peers, counselors, and teachers had told me, I wasn’t ready for college. I’d worked hard to get there. Then, standing on the threshold of another academic journey after high school, I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do with my life.
A long series of events and some soul searching led me to leave college at the end of my first year. I knew I needed a change, a hard reset, and you know what? I was right. One thing led to another, and by springtime I was teaching in the mountains of Nepal with Trek to Teach.
If you too are considering the hard reset and have ended up on this page, I commend you. It’s not an easy thing to start thinking about the ways you can most tactfully uproot your life to begin a new journey, and while I don’t think there are many wrong ways to begin anew, I certainly think that teaching abroad can be one of them.
So what is there to consider, when deciding whether or not to leave the comforts of home behind and give your time and energy elsewhere? Beyond the tactical what-to-pack lists, there’s a lot of larger scale questions I suggest asking yourself, not just about why you want to teach abroad but also how you’re going to manage it.
With a whole wide world out there, it’s hard to choose where to go, and from there the floodgates open into hundreds of programs all vying for your attention. So, after you’ve chosen what part of the would you want to be in (you seem to have a slant toward mountains…), what’s next?
Support Networks in the Mountains
One of the most vital things, I think, that you should consider when weighing the pros and cons of different opportunities for teaching in rural or mountainous regions is what your support network looks like. This goes beyond the support network of your hometown doctor, or your crowdfunding page -- this is about who it is you’ll be interacting with on-the-ground in your destination country. Who is going to have your back if things go south?
Who is on your team?
Putting a good amount of research into the programs you’re considering is vital, but something I didn’t appreciate until I arrived in Nepal with Trek to Teach was that having an amazing local team makes a huge difference. While through Trek to Teach my village placement for teaching was solo, the availability of the local team in Kathmandu was a game-changing resource. As a first-time solo traveler, having amazing people who could help me with everything from buying slippers to overcoming sickness was absolutely invaluable. Basic logistics, translation needs, and general cultural adjustments were so much easier with a team to ask questions to. Beyond the essential logistics of first arriving in Nepal, I was really grateful for local program coordinators who could help me navigate the inevitably confusing situations which cropped up during my time teaching in the mountains-- the random school closures, announcements made in Nepali that slipped by me, and much more.
Whatever programs you look at, I encourage you to look into the team that’d be supporting you-- what experiences do they bring to the organization? What can they offer you? What evidence or testimonies ensure that you can depend on them during your time teaching? Do they have specific cultural knowledge? An educational background? How long have they been with the program and how have their roles changed over the years?
Beyond the core program members, it’s also helpful to consider your fellow volunteers. Whatever program you’re looking at, consider who your cohort is likely to be. Who have other teachers been? What are their backgrounds? What experiences have past teachers shared? Do they seem to get along with each other? See if you can find some on social media -- How do they present themselves? Do they share photos of other people in their cohort? Do you think you could be friends?
Planning for the Worst
In addition to everyday concerns, considering emergency situations is a must when spending an extended amount of time abroad, especially while doing something like teaching in the mountains in rural Nepal.
Considering and managing health risks
I think the first step of this is to be realistic about your health. Are you fit or do you like to believe you’re fit? Who or what are your points of comparison? Do you have a lot of pre-existing conditions that tend to need attention?
Something a lot of people fail to talk about is that small issues (like dental problems, for example) become big issues when access to medical care is very limited. If you’re considering teaching in a remote region like the Himalayas, it’s vital to get all your ducks in a row health-wise. This goes beyond your routine vaccinations. Wherever you’re going, be sure to visit a local travel clinic or the CDC’s website (or, ideally, both!) so that you can prepare yourself for any health risks you might encounter in your destination country. Additionally, discussing your health with your primary care doctor is really important.
After telling my doctor about my trip, he and I were able to discuss different medications to bring with me in case I got sick while I was away. I knew that the village I was teaching in was remote, and that I could be a couple hours away from the health posts, the Nepali equivalent of walk-in clinics and the only ways to access any sort of healthcare, in neighboring communities. We were able to talk through the emergency medications he sent me with and make plans for what I’d use when, even if I was outside the range of cell phone service. Having the antidiarrheals and antibiotics he sent me with was truly a lifesaver when I did get sick. Without this planning, I would have had to walk three hours to the nearest health post.
The bottom line? Know what sicknesses you might come up against in your destination country. Be realistic about illnesses you frequently battle (colds, allergies, asthma, UTIs, dietary restrictions) and know how you can prepare for them, if you can.
For what you can’t prepare for, have travel insurance. Travel insurance is for more than just trip cancellation. If you’re going to be spending a significant amount of time teaching abroad, and especially if you’re going to be teaching in the mountains or somewhere else remote like the Himalayas, travel insurance is a must.
Let me say that I am a very frugal traveler. If I choose to spend money, I want that to be on food, drinks, and museums (typically in that order). I fly budget airlines, and I have more than once flown to Europe from the United States with only a small green backpack. I get it. But if something goes awry, I’d so much rather have spent $120 on travel insurance than $15K on a helicopter ride back to the nearest city. In less extreme situations, what travel insurance basically does is help you navigate a different healthcare system.
While setting such a thing up may seem intimidating, most travel insurance companies try to be straightforward with what they offer. Price-comparing across a few options, I’ve found that it’s pretty easy to select a plan that covers my needs, which certainly change from trip to trip. If I’m going to sit on a beach in Tulum, my travel insurance needs are much different than when I was teaching in Nepal. You can select for these differences, of course, and the pricing will change accordingly.
One thing to note: if you are teaching in the mountains, be sure to check the altitude of helicopter rescues and of your teaching destination. If your village is at 2000m and your insurance won’t pick you up at anywhere above 1000m, well, that won’t be a fun trek downhill with a broken leg. I really dig World Nomads for the more adventurous stuff-- trekking in the mountains, even after my time teaching, it made me feel comforted knowing that if something did go wrong, I could get the help I needed.
Mission, impact, & more…
Beyond having a great team to work with as I mentioned above, I think that in choosing a program, it’s important to consider not just the program’s mission, but also how they go about achieving their goals.
There are lots of programs out there, all over the world, doing great things. But there are also programs which, frankly, are not. Look for numbers, look at impact, and talk to past volunteers about their experiences teaching in that program and see if the website’s portrayal of the program aligns with others’ experiences.
For comparisons there are also great websites, external from program-specific sites, like VolunteerMatch, Go Overseas, and IE3 Global which allow you to quickly page through programs that meet your specifications. A lot of these allow you to filter by cost, requirements, and country, so it’s easy to find a program that fits your needs. This can be a great, tailored resource which gives you less garbly-gook than your standard web-browser-- not only are these programs vetted by the above organizations, but many include reviews directly from past participants so you can easily get an idea of what the experience of living in that culture was like for someone else.
Additionally, how does the program work? What about its logistics set it apart? What about it specifically is compelling? Does it offer educational credit? Is it tax deductible? What are you looking for, specifically, and what does the program have to offer?
But most importantly, consider the ways you’d be impacting the local community you’d be serving. What say have they had in this program you’re applying to? Are you qualified, or trained for your efforts? Does the community want your help? Are you swooping in and disappearing after two weeks or are you a part of a long term, much needed change? There are a lot of great resources out there about avoiding voluntourism, and it’s important to realistically evaluate your program choices and your own motivations before stepping in to solve a problem you’re ill-suited to solve.
Some programs, like Trek to Teach, are TEFL- certifying both its own teachers prior to their placement teaching in Nepal, and local Nepali English teachers so that there is a shared dialogue between the communities and both are more empowered to provide the best education they can to their students. This is an effort put forth by many programs to hold volunteers to a higher standard, and enrich the toolset of partner communities as well, making the impact a longer term change that just a three to six month placement. There’s still work to be done here, of course, but I think this, and encouraging teachers to stay longer in the villages, is a step in the right direction.
Speaking of impact, this is perhaps the time to consider your reasons for considering teaching in the mountains.
I think one of the mountain-specific reasons I chose teaching in the Himalayas was the challenge of it. I loved the idea of being at altitude, of being isolated, and I loved that my students’ school being isolated meant that they were less likely to receive the English education that some of their peers in less-isolated places received. A lack of roads limited access to my village and meant that after a certain point, anything and everything that anyone needed in the village had to be carried in on the backs of people or donkeys.
Because of these logistical challenges, my students’ school was perpetually under-supplied and understaffed. Teachers, motivated to teach motivated students but placed there by the government to fill quotas, were constantly applying for transfer to less isolated locations, often to live closer to their families. The turnover was intense. Children who didn’t have an instructor roamed in and out of my classroom as I was teaching.
But it’s easy to romanticize these challenges. I’d be a hypocrite if I told you I hadn’t during my time there, but it’s important to look at any opportunity you have to provide knowledge to a community as just that; you are not the hero of the story, going into a face the difficulties of a place to teach for a few months when people spend their lives fighting those same challenges. This isn’t to say that there’s no nobility in uprooting your life to become a source of educational enrichment to an isolated community, but what it does mean is that this is a job which should be taken seriously.
While living and teaching in a place like this that was so drastically different from where I’d grown up was a truly amazing experience, I want to caution anyone considering a long stint teaching in an isolated region, especially teaching in the Himalayas, to consider their own motivations and strengths and evaluate whether you are willing to adapt to life’s challenges there, meet cultural expectations for your conduct, and provide a resource that the community wants and has difficult acquiring by other means.
As I mentioned before, the world is abound with teaching opportunities, and trying to find one that’s a good fit might feel kind of like apartment shopping or trying on jeans-- confusing and sometimes uncomfortable. But I think that following the advice I’ve given above, by paying attention to your expectations and asking good questions during interviews will allow any uncomfortable discussions to happen prior to your landing in another country.
My Own Experience in the Mountains with Trek to Teach
For me, Trek to Teach was a great fit and through its thoughtful placement of me in my village, the lovely network of people it introduced me to, and the majesty of Annapurna mountains, gave me the experience of a lifetime.
One of the reasons I think my particular program choice of Trek to Teach was a great fit for me is that the Trek to Teach team was able to place me in a village where I was well-suited to teach. One of the things I love about the program, especially now in my more behind-the-scenes role with the program, is the way that we try to align the personality types of teachers with the village culture they seem best suited to teach in.
For me, teaching younger grades in a less organized setting worked, and my headmaster, students and fellow teachers all appreciated the sort of Miss Frizzle-energy that I brought into the classroom. Other teachers in my cohort or even many of those who have gone after me would not have been as comfortable, and therefore, as well suited to teach in such a small and isolated school, and that’s okay! I much preferred my classroom of five to a classroom of thirty students!
I loved being able to learn the names and personalities of all of my students, and observing their interactions with each other as we learned and created together. For me, the smaller classrooms, and the school’s willingness to let me do what I wanted with my extra teaching blocks, allowed me to feel like I’d really gotten to know and engage with all the wonderful, creative sides of my students. We painted a lot, did art projects, and seeing the pride they took in their creations was incredibly rewarding. I liked the spontaneity of it
all, despite all the challenges and scrapped lesson plans that came with it.
As I mentioned above, our team in Nepal was amazing. They gave clear instructions, helped me both experience and understand the culture, and guided me so that I could meet the expectations of my headmaster while I was teaching. My cohort of fellow Trek to Teach teachers, each struggling with their own versions of my situation in different nearby villages, provided a great sounding board for me as I adjusted to life in Nepal and navigated the new normal of six-day work weeks and living in a different language. My host family, whose sole goal was to fatten me up during my stay, became surrogate parents.
I still think of cooking with my Ama in the stone kitchen over wood fire, each time I make dal bhat at home in San Francisco. We toast the coriander seeds and I’m taken right back to sitting on a pillow sipping tea in that stone kitchen.
Beyond the people I met and got to know from all over the world, I also had a lot of extra time to spend by myself, and this was a really important component of my experience as well-- getting to know and trust myself, my feelings and choices when I was so far separated from my usual support networks.
Beyond the amazing teaching experience and the people I met though it, the mountains were utterly unbeatable. Even years later, I still miss seeing the reflection of Annapurna in the mirror behind me as I brush my teeth each morning. There’s something indescribable about being so close to something so massive, to existing in the shadow of something so beautiful. Sometimes, the hills here are damp and the dirt paths I run each evening remind me of my walk to school with my students, their small hands pressed into mine as they drag me up the hillsides through patches of potato fields, and past yawning buffalo. All these years later, my three months in Nepal are still very much a part of me.
So whatever adventure you’re seeking, whatever impact you’re dreaming to have, do your due diligence, evaluate your options, be honest about your skills and impact, and then, take the plunge and do it.
Questions about Trek to Teach or trekking or teaching abroad in general? Questions about teaching in the himalayas, or teaching in the mountains in general? Feel free to email us, drop us a line! We love to hear from fellow adventurers. Inspired to join the team? Apply to Trek to Teach today!