In their yearlong trip abroad, Will and Elizabeth Bartlett Minton have seen the world’s deepest canyon in Peru and its biggest waterfall in Africa.
But the two educators have learned the most by visiting schools on five continents and talking to teachers and students in classrooms, be it a hut in Africa or an elite private school in Switzerland.
Both of the 32-year-olds have dedicated much of their adult lives to education, joining the Teach for America program after college. So when it came time to travel the world, they chose to see schools as well as landmarks.
“In the United States — as rich as the education discussion is — it is rather insular and there is a lot that can be learned from looking outside of our borders,” said Will Minton, speaking by Internet video chat from Istanbul.
Observing students and teachers worldwide serves two purposes. As education professionals, they can glean fresh ideas for new programs and types of instruction.
However, as travelers, talking peer-to-peer to other teachers has helped the couple move beyond the regular tourist attractions and restaurants to see authentic life.
“It gives us a chance to talk to local people about something they really care deeply about, and that just adds another dimension to our travels,” Elizabeth Minton said.
The couple started dating in 2010 and married in April 2014. After college, both taught with Teach for America, a program that places promising college graduates in urban and rural schools with few resources.
Will Minton taught in New York and came to Baton Rouge to help a friend start the Baton Rouge Youth Coalition nonprofit. Teach for America brought Boston-born Elizabeth Bartlett Minton to Baton Rouge. She left to attend law school at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and then returned to Louisiana.
Before their trip, the couple worked in Baton Rouge training teachers for Teach for America.
They both longed to travel the world, and when they met, Will Minton was already planning a long trip. They decided to save money together, setting up an automatic withdrawal from their paychecks to build a savings account.
After almost four years, they had saved $50,000.
In June 2015, they left Baton Rouge and traveled the United States before heading to Peru. They visited Chile and Argentina and then flew to South Africa. They spent two to three weeks in each country, staying in hostels and hotels.
After seeing South Africa and Zimbabwe and Zambia and viewing massive Victoria Falls, they took a bus to Malawi, one of the poorest countries in Africa. They were in awe of the poor villages that make education a priority.
“They decide they want a school in their community and can’t count on the government, so they started making bricks, mixing water and dirt,” Will Minton said.
While the community prized education and students there walked several miles to get to school, the quality of instruction was poor, Will Minton said.
They continued through Africa to Europe, visiting one of the best schools on the continent in Switzerland.
Students there were given great amounts of responsibility, planning their own retreats and, once every four years, running the school for days with no adults.
In Switzerland they witnessed an apprenticeship program where 75 percent of students work jobs in high school to learn a trade. Americans hear about these European programs and assume it diverts low-scoring students to blue collar work. But that isn’t the case.
“It’s pretty much anything except a doctor or a lawyer or a pharmacist,” Elizabeth Minton said.
Such programs could work well in Baton Rouge, with a few adjustments, Will Minton said.
“It needs to become American when it comes to a place like Baton Rouge,” he said. “It can stretch your thinking a little bit and get you to start thinking more creatively.”
No matter how rich or poor, students are the same, the couple found.
“Young people are very similar as far as what they care about, how they act,” Will Minton said.
Soon they hope to visit schools in India, Japan and Cambodia. They want to see the highest scoring schools in the world in Singapore as well as the colleges that produce their teachers.
The Mintons plan to return to the United States in May. But they don’t want to ever stop traveling.
“We realized there are always more places you’re not traveling than places you are going,” Will Minton said. “Our list of ‘next time’ trips has only gotten longer.”