Russell County educator Pam Williamson recently returned from 17 days in Europe where she country-hopped from Germany to France to the Netherlands in an RV alongside her husband, Steve.
But this trip was not a jet-set vacation. It was more of an extended field trip for a veteran teacher in the name of lifelong learning, which was funded by a nonprofit that helps educators follow their dreams.
Williamson, a media specialist at Russell County High School, applied for and received a Fund for Teachers fellowship. The group awards teachers funds to pursue experiences to enhance their teaching.
Williamson’s fellowship included visiting WWII sites and locations where fairy tales originated, a.k.a the Fairy Tale Trail.
“I will never teach fairy tales or WWII again in the same way,” she said. “I just have a whole different view.”
Williamson said she saw information about the program in her school’s office and decided to apply. She started her application in September and finished in February. During the lengthy process, her application evolved from simply following the Fairy Tale Trail, as other fellows had done, to incorporating WWII sites.
She said she was writing the grant while students were learning about WWII and were required to create a presentation on the war. Williamson said she could help them develop the visual components but when it came to the subject matter she felt inadequate.
Her grandfather fought and died in WWII, and Williamson wanted to learn more about the area where he had spent so much time before his death.
Williamson’s grandfather was killed in the Battle of Philippsbourg, which she visited on her trip.
“Being in those places, especially WWII sites, was a really moving experience, being able to walk where my grandfather had walked,” Williamson said.
In her travels, Williamson happened to meet a woman from Philippsbourg who remembered the liberation by American troops.
“Meeting her and getting to talk to her and getting to find out my granddaddy was part of something more than the war. He was saving families’ lives,” she said, later adding, “It was just so moving to know. I will never talk to kids about WWII in the same way.”
Traveling by RV also gave Williamson a memorable experience she’ll take back to students. It gave her a real taste of the culture, she said. Her husband, who paid his own way on the trip, did all the driving. They navigated through obscure countrysides and winding roads with the help of GPS.
She also made a point to blog the entire trip, no small task considering the busy schedule.
Williamson said without the Fund for Teachers fellowship that experience wouldn’t have been possible.
Carrie Pillsbury, a Fund for Teachers spokeswoman, said the fellowship serves “teachers who are lifelong learners seeking out opportunities to grow and explore so they can bring that back to their classroom.”
Her organization, which is in its 10th year, has given $14.2 million to 4,000 teachers since its inception. Participants are eligible for up to $5,000 for individuals and $10,000 for a group.
“We really validate teachers’ visions, visions for their classrooms, and we empower them with an opportunity they might not otherwise be able to experience,” she said.
The group will begin accepting applications for next summer in October.
Selection committees across the country evaluate the applications and choose recipients.
In the past, Fund for Teachers has had fellowships include everything from conferences and seminars to global exploration.
“I think nationally we are unique because we trust the teachers to propose what they need,” Pillsbury said. “Many other fellowship programs or grants restrict a teacher.”
She said there are no restrictions or stipulations on what teachers can do or where they can go.
Williamson, who was among 400 fellows selected to complete projects this summer, said her trip was the “chance of a lifetime.”
“It was an unbelievable learning experience. The one thing for kids to know is teachers keep on learning also,” Williamson said, adding it’s crucial to be a lifelong learner.
“That’s something we all really need to stress for kids. We all keep on learning and teachers, most importantly, need to keep on learning.”