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MUSCATINE — Laura McDonald almost leapt from her chair when she heard her name announced.

"Seriously?" she said, excitedly.

McDonald said she usually never wins anything. "I don't even win scratch-off tickets," the fifth-grade math and science teacher at Mulberry Elementary School in Muscatine said after she was selected to receive an all-expenses-paid international study trip as part of the Catherine Miller Explorer award from the Stanley Foundation. 

McDonald was the first teacher from the school to receive the award. She could not express enough how excited she was to receive the award and begin planning where she'll go.

"I didn't in a million years think I would win," she said.

Jill Goldesberry, program officer with Community Partnerships at the Stanley Foundation, presented three teachers at three schools with the awards Monday.

The program is all about global education and includes the award to enhance teachers' professional development. The trips are to be taken during the summer. Goldesberry said she read research on the difference that it can make in a teacher's professional development when they have had a chance to have a study tour in another country.

Providing those opportunities to teachers "really changes their perspective and gets them started on being more globally minded if they aren't already or enhances what they are already doing in teaching about the world," she said.

The award, established in 2005, was named for Miller in 2008 because she was a long-serving educator in the community who traveled a great deal and was always trying to broaden the perspectives of her students, Goldesberry said.

Teachers may choose any foreign country they want except those in Western Europe, Goldesberry said, because those countries are tourism heavy and teachers would not necessarily get the chance to meet people from that country or learn about a local culture that is different from their own.

Goldesberry then helps find tours of the destination country to get teachers the best learning experiences during the approximately two weeks they spend there. A range of topics and countries have been chosen by teachers in the past. Some may focus on social culture, history or the environment.

"(Applying for the award) really did make me think about, if I could go somewhere to help me become a better teacher or have learning experiences that I could bring back and share with my class for global diversity, where would I go and what would I do?" McDonald said.

In her essay she wrote about visiting the eastern part of the world. As a math and science teacher, she said, she wanted to see the origins of mathematics in China and India. But Goldesberry said even though teachers write about specific places in their essays, they aren't tied to them.

Originally from Missouri and living in Muscatine for the last five years, McDonald said she has had fun and memorable vacations around the country but has never visited anywhere outside of the lower 48 states. She has also never seen the ocean, which may be a factor in deciding where she'll travel. She said she's overwhelmed by the possibilities and responsibility of the trip and will ask her students where they think she should go. 

"It's one of the coolest things that has ever happened to me," she said.

Goldesberry said each year there are typically 65-75 teachers from the district who "put their names in the hat" to be selected to submit an application. From the lottery, 15 teachers are chosen. Applications that include an essay of where teachers would want to travel and why are blindly submitted to a panel of four judges outside of the school district and the foundation. In past years, two teachers were given the award, but in 2018 and now this year the foundation was able to award three teachers with the opportunity.

First-year teacher picked

First-year teacher Kayla Bentz doesn't know where she's going to go, but she's excited to get there. The second-grade teacher at Grant Elementary was surprised with the award during the school's leadership assembly with students clapping and cheering for her.

"South Africa has always been a place to go," she said. "I really love penguins so it would be great to see penguin beaches and just one of the places that's always popped up and so has Romania and who knows where else," she said smiling.

She said as a new teacher and with less experience than other teachers in the district, she wasn't sure she would be one of the teachers to win.

"I hoped for it," she said.

For third winner Allison Coffman, Monday was not the best day to be out sick. The science teacher has been applying to the program for five years since she started teaching at Muscatine High School. She said she had some of her colleagues represent her at the school when the award was announced, but that hearing the news was "surreal."

"All of those years seeing everyone's trips, and now it was going to be my turn," she said.

Coffman "put her heart and soul" into her application and essay about wanting to study the changing climate through research in Svalbard, an archipelago near Norway and the North Pole. Through her travels she's hoping to bring back a "real life" experience for her students because "not many people would have the chance to do this," she said.

Being able to share how science is done and what kinds of opportunities are available to students, she said, are her goals as a teacher. Though traveling to a destination with highs around 36-40 degrees during our summer isn't everyone's idea of a good time, Coffman is ready to go.

"I'm just excited," she said, "and I'm ready to tackle this adventure."

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