Getting Lost to Find Myself. Taking A Leave of Absence from Teaching.

Uhuru  Giza  LuanPrabang

On February, 2007, I witnessed one of the most glorious sunrises I would experience in my life atop Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.  Our group, which started at midnight in a classic alpine start from our high basecamp, pushed upwards, climbed, and scrambled the rocky fields over the last remaining several thousand feet towards the highest place in Africa.  It was bitterly cold that night and the high wind speed constantly swept down from the mountain top, pushing back climbers like an invisible hand.  As I grabbed onto my jacket hood, turned away, and shielded my face from the gust of wind, I was greeted with headlights from individual climbers dotting the trail beneath me.  Like a moving stringed pearl necklace, we all sludged forward, one step at a time.  When the wind finally stopped howling, I remembered looking up at the intermittent thin veil of clouds that occasionally lifted, and revealed the full moon rising and its light reflected off the snows of Kilimanjaro.  That moment, my exhaustion and cold was overcome with euphoria and gratitude.

It was not too long ago, about six months earlier, when I wrapped up teaching summer school to a class of students taking the course for credit recovery for earth science.  No teacher in his or her right mind taught summer school for the joy of it.  It is purely mercenary, but I knew I was not returning the following school year.  By then, I had already put in with my district a request for a leave of absence after ten years of teaching middle and high school in Southern California.  At the time, I was not too sure if I wanted to return to teaching and needed time away from the daily grind to find some answers for myself.  I was also restless and the desire to explore the world was important to me.

In the final few years prior to my leave, I knew I was burning out and had less passion and patience for the routine.  I grew increasingly frustrated with shortsighted national educational policy, frequency of pointless staff meetings, negativity in the staff lounge, decreased funds for valued programs such as music, art, and athletics, then watched dedicated teachers released due to budget cuts.  As a result, class size ballooned.   At one point, during the start of the school year, some classes with over 40 students, simply did not have enough chairs and desks for students.  Nevertheless, I enjoyed interacting with my students, and their hard earned trust was the only thing that truly mattered and what kept me honest and sane.

I first learned about taking a leave of absence from a fellow colleague at another school, who as an avid sailor, took several months to sail across the Pacific.  I just thought that was the coolest thing!  During my research, I found out my district actually paid a portion of salary to its employees on sabbaticals.  There is one main difference between a sabbatical and a leave of absence.  A teacher on a sabbatical will still get a portion of his pay, while on a leave of absence, you are not, however your position is secured upon your return.  What is the incentive for your district to pay you while on a sabbatical?  They may value your research during your time away and have you share your findings district wide.  

I have also run into others who have taken a leave of absence.  While living in Washington DC, I met an aspiring writer who needed a break from his work as an accountant and finally started to pursue his dream to write.  An intrepid friend in the Midwest took a year off to build his dream house and after five years, it is still a work in progress.  He is back working full time, but his beautiful house is almost complete.  I am promised to be the first guest in the house once completed.  Finally, A Danish friend took a gap year to ride his motorcycle around the world.  As a geography major he somehow finagled his way to a sponsorship with his university and after his first circumnavigation around earth, decided to do it again;  this time riding his BMW Enduro from Tierra Del Fuego, Argentina to Alaska.  He was just an ordinary Danish Viking out to conquer the world in a kinder and gentler way.  They say you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with and surrounded by average people who have accomplished extraordinary things, I was inspired.

I hatched the idea of a comparative educational study between different nations for my sabbatical.  I would visit classrooms and report back my findings upon return.  I thought what a great way to share what I have seen and experienced in classrooms all over the world and implement the best ideas into lesson plans.  Plus, I would receive a stipend for taking time off while being an academic explorer around the world.

I enthusiastically applied for a sabbatical and waited patiently.  After not hearing anything back for several weeks, I called and was told that they lost my application.  After rolling my eyes, I applied again and after few more weeks, I called and once again to my disbelief, was told they misplaced my application.  “You got to be kidding me!”  I exclaimed.  Third time was not to be the charm either.  I sent in the application, paperwork was lost again.

I visited the district personnel office, asked if I can still take a leave of absence and after referencing few pages of our contract, the clerk enthusiastically smiled and said, “Why yes, you still can!”  I filled out the paperwork on the spot and asked for a copy.  Nothing was going to stop me from seeing the world!

Many do not have the luxury of time to take a sabbatical or a leave of absence unless finished with college or retired.  I did not want to wait until retirement.  I was restless and half of my bucket list at later age would have been more challenging or dangerous to my health.

Recently Dr. Thomas Gilovich along with his colleague Amit Kumar published in “Experimental Social Psychology” journal about why we should spend money on experience rather than objects.  They pointed out the the enemy of happiness is adaptability.  The excitement of a new purchased car or the iPhone you have waited in line for two days you will  never get back, quickly fades while the experience of attending a concert, going on a cruise, skydiving, learning to surf, or visiting a foreign city becomes part of your identity.

There are many mental obstacles against a leave of absence: money, kids, pets, significant other, finding work upon return, etc.  You can definitely beat yourself into submission, wave the white flag, and buy a Porsche instead.  Fortunately, I only had one thing to worry about.  I had no kids to take care of except for the kid inside.  My ex-girlfriend did not want anything to do with me, and as a tenured teacher my position was secured and available upon return.  I just needed to save money for one year.  It is definitely easier said than done, but the leave was important to me, and I was willing to make some changes and sacrifice.

My nine year old car was long paid off.  I stopped visiting Starbucks paying almost $5 for a latte every morning and made my own coffee instead.  I cut cable tv (still no cable tv in my household), and cooked more for myself.  I also worked extra assignments such as coaching tennis, Saturday work program for students, and taught extension classes for local community college.  I also tutored neighborhood kids.  During the course of saving money for my trip, my lifestyle actually improved!  I was more efficient, eating healthier, working out more on a regular basis, lost weight, mentally gained more clarity, and I had this incredible adventure that was waiting for me.

In the final weeks before my departure, my colleagues threw a small get together to say bon voyage. I made sure all financial stuff were taken care of and notified credit card companies that I will be using my cards outside the country.  “What country will you be using your cards?” they asked.  I had fun with that question.  One of the most annoying and inconvenient experience I faced while on the road was making a frustrating long distance call from Tanzania to my credit union after they cancelled my debit card.  Certain places in third world nations do not accept credit cards and accept cash only.

You also lose your medical benefits on leave, so I purchased the “oh Jesus, DEFCON 1 level only” insurance for cheap.  I got my shots, because I was covering developing countries in Africa, South America, and Asia.  I read about some really exotic diseases you can catch.  The photos and where certain parasites crept into your body were disturbing.  Look up candiru and human botfly to entertain yourself and students.  Surprisingly, I only got sick once (if you do not count the hangovers), food poisoning on the island of Mauritius.  I hate mosquitos but they love me and malaria and dengue fever is nothing to take lightly.  One of the most essential gear I picked up was a mosquito net (worth its weight in gold) from REI along with a small emergency medical kit.

My family and friends were excited for me and also concerned.  How will you survive on your own?  What will happen if you get into trouble: mugged, run out of money, kidnapped, lost in the middle of the desert, or fall in love and never return home?  Risk is entangled with reward.  I know this from participating in extreme sports such as rock climbing and flying.  Perhaps more relevant are other risks we take, intellectually and emotionally.  The more audacious the dream and the risk, the greater the reward.  Even in failure, I learned valuable lessons through the process.

When I think about those who accepted great challenges in life, succeed or fail, I admired their courage for trying.  My goal was hardly extreme or unique, but nevertheless it was a challenge for me to follow my heart.  I did my homework and researched testimonials by other vagabonds and corresponded by email to clarify specific questions I had.  I even met one of the travelers, an Aussie, when our paths crossed in Budapest.  In the end, I felt confident, and ready as I will ever be.

I thought about what made some shy away from going overseas, especially off the beaten path, and the source of my own fear.  Language and the inability to communicate always came up, but that was the least of the worries.  Every place I have visited, there was at least one person who understood enough English to get the point across.  You are not going to have a great discussion on quantum mechanics or debate geopolitics, but if you are friendly with a quick smile, somewhat animated and patient, you will do fine.

The ubiquitous nature of modern smartphones nowadays with fancy apps to help translate words, even speaking whole sentences, does take some of the magic away.  I played the lost tourist on purpose, to strike up conversations with strangers.  A Brazilian friend taught me how to make a paper napkin rose, and I went on to make many little and big girls smile.   With free online programs such as Duolingo and videos on Youtube these days, it is so much easier now than ever to pick up a language.  Recently, I have been dedicating half an hour everyday and attempting to learn Danish.

Only guys travel alone.  This can hardly be the case as I have met plenty of intrepid female travelers, though I still think it is easier to travel alone for a guy.  In Cape Town, I met an 18 year old Swiss girl traveling by herself for extended period of time around Africa.  An unthinkable horror to all helicopter parents, the trip was a graduation gift from her parents.  On the other end of the spectrum, I have met retired couples traveling together; life partners in globe trekking since young age and never lost their enthusiasm and love for adventure.

I have also met parents traveling with their children.  I met a single British mom in Tanzania traveling for extended period of time with her young three year old daughter, French parents with their five year old son in Laos, and an American couple with their two young children in Peru.  I hear a lot about diversity in education.  Crossing paths with so many cultures and learning about their ways of life, I truly came to appreciate what diversity meant.

I had a three part template for each new destination.  Where to stay, how to get to and from places, and what to see and do.  It was a common theme from one place to another.  Some research ahead of arrival and especially tips from other travelers decreased any chance of over paying unscrupulous taxi drivers or staying at the wrong bedbug infested hostels.

The hostels were the best places to meet new friends to explore places together.  I have made some amazing friends by opening my mouth and simply saying hello.  Most travelers, especially those traveling alone like myself, were eager to engage in conversation.  Whether for a day or evolving into lifelong friends, I enjoyed exchanging ideas, sharing a meal, and exploring the city with my newly found travel partners.  You are never alone and you meet more people when traveling by yourself.

I felt generosity everywhere.  I have no ill to speak of any nationality, culture, religion, race, or ethnicity.  A smile and a hello was always returned in kind.  In modern times when our news is littered with negative press and our culture is fear driven and paralyzed with personal space and gains, the trip around the world was truly in all senses of the word, gave me a renewed hope for humanity.  I felt I was more than a traveller, but a goodwill ambassador of the United States.  I was humble and recognized the shortcomings of our own culture, gave my perspective to misunderstandings, but also fiercely defended my home when ignorant viewpoints came up.  There were many misunderstandings on both sides of the fence.  This was the experience I craved, and I was getting an education no classroom can offer.  This was what I wanted for my students.

There was a lot to process and I wrote back to friends about my experience and thoughts on the road and shared photos.  Facebook was just coming on to the scene and not widely used, and I had no idea or concept of blogging.  Instead, I wrote emails, shared my observations, expressed my amazement, and the unfiltered euphoria spilled into my writings.  Even with all the Discovery and Travel channels, there is simply no substitute to standing in awe in front of the great Pyramids of Giza, surfing at the island of Mauritius, kayaking and enjoying the calm of Mildford Sound in New Zealand, walking the grounds of the lost city of Petra in Jordan, or watching hundreds of saffron robed monks collecting alms every morning in Luang Prabang, Laos.  My emails to my friends became my journal, all typed and sent on my Blackberry.

As expected, time went by quickly.  I was in Siem Reap, Cambodia and close to the end of my year of leave.   After saying goodbye to new friends from South Africa, I spent more time wandering around the ruins in Angkor Wat.  Angkor Wat is a stunning ancient temple complex built in the 12th century and the largest religious monument in the world.  The ancient city was the perfect place to capture photos and find a hiding place away from other tourists and process my year off.  You have to be careful going off the beaten path as posted signs remind all, there are landmines still yet to be found; an unfortunate and sad legacy left from the Vietnam War.

As I sat on the ruins and stared through the long narrow path into the beautiful and lush dense forest, I thought about returning to teaching.  I had a great time off, visited some of the most beautiful places on earth, met some fantastic group of international travelers, made new friends, and had enough experience to last a lifetime.  I wanted to share the journey with my students and bring the world into the class.

My final destination was LAX and two weeks after the end of my journey, I returned to teaching at the very high school I graduated from.  Talk about coming full circle!  It was different and a shock to the system wearing a tie and dress shoes once again, but as we humans adapt quickly, I got back into the groove of things.  Well, sort of.  I will never get used to staff meetings and probably never will.  However, my outlook was different, and I felt more at ease and enjoyed interacting with my students once again.  Nothing changed too much at work, but I have changed.  Over time, I acclimated more to life back in California.  One of my friends told me, it was a once in a lifetime trip, but I did not want it to be just once.  I promised myself to do it again in five or six years time.  I am writing this as I have moved on and currently coming to the end of my second leave of absence.  I also have a huge decision in few weeks time; stay or leave teaching.

The world was pretty clear from the summit of Kilimanjaro, aptly named “Uhuru”, Swahili for freedom.  A group of international climbers and I made it to the summit just in time to catch our breath and watched the sunrise, while an Irish climber face planted into the snow from exhaustion.  For some reason, we just laughed as he mumbled incoherently in exhaustion.  You had to have been there to know what I mean and maybe you will.  While I continued to welcome the warmth of the rising sun, I recalled a wonderful quote by T. S. Eliot that I think about often to this day:  “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”


5 responses to “Getting Lost to Find Myself. Taking A Leave of Absence from Teaching.”

  1. Linda Krenz

    Brought me back to the days at Spurgeon when you would wander the halls playing your violin…I knew you were a special person back then…Thanks for posting…I felt as though I’d been to some of those places, even if I hadn’t….Loved hearing about your experiences in Portugal…Let’s keep in touch…

  2. RC

    Wow! Reading about your experience was powerful to me because I will begin my leave of absence from Hillsborough county school district in Florida soon! I have a few things planned but I see that I should have dreamt a tiny bit bigger. I am also on a professional quest to find my answer on weather to stay or leave teaching after 4 years????

  3. Jessica Borgerding

    Having been a teacher now for 3 years, I’m feeling the itch to refresh. I am also one of those young ladies that up and traveled to Cape Town alone to the horror of friends and family (until they got to see me land safely again in America.). It was the best thing I could have done. I never felt more alive than when I was there sleeping under the moon in S. Africa and watching the whales splash beside the boat I was in … Tasting wine at a vineyard overlooking mountains and trying biltong and other new foods … Conversing with the natives and laughing with them … But when I came home I appreciated it even more. Thanks for sharing! Now I am sitting in the sun feeling like August is a bad word and trying to think up the next adventure. Ha!

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