Charlotte Dungan Discusses the Wonder of Travel and the Joys of Teaching

Noodle Expert Charlotte Dungan discusses travel, teaching, and eating local.

Who would you pick, alive or dead, to be your teacher for a year? What would you want to learn?

I would like to travel with Sacagawea on her adventures with Lewis and Clark. We would be immersed in the natural world, venturing across thousands of miles of native habitats in areas that will later become the United States. Imagine learning native languages, cooking outdoors from wild catches, seeing herds of buffalo, paddling on the Missouri, traversing the Rockies, and finally watching the Pacific Ocean come into view. I'd love to come back and teach history and ecology after that experience!

What is one small piece of advice that has had a big impact on your life?

"You cannot change your circumstances, only your reaction to whatever comes your way." It is easier to focus on what I can control, such as my emotions, the words that tumble from my mouth, or a plan to prevent further difficulty, than the things that are out of my control.

Where would you send a student who hasn't traveled before?

I grew up in the inner city, and my travel opportunities were limited. If I had a student in similar circumstances, I would encourage her to view her own city through new eyes. Take a camera and photograph beautiful graffiti, quirky manhole covers, and the faces of the people who are powerful in your life. Eat at authentic ethnic restaurants in your city, visit the museums, explore the parks. Then, I would encourage her to dream where she wants to go and to make a plan to get there.

Travel can be inexpensive or luxurious — the point is to go and keep those eyes fresh. Commit to eating only local food wherever you are, even if it's just one state away, and always make a sincere attempt to speak the native language and follow the local customs regarding manners, especially at the table. I have four kids, and our travel budget is very small, but we've been to 37 states in my old minivan and are committed to going to all 50 before the oldest graduates from high school. We made it a priority and made a plan. It can be done! (Pack light — trust me.)

When was a time that you failed academically, and what did you learn from the experience?

I got a full-ride to my local community college after I graduated from high school — and promptly flunked out. My mom was very sick, and I was working full time, caring for her, and trying to do school. I felt that I had to go because of the scholarship, but my priority was my family rather than my studies.

Still, I don't regret my choices one bit. Once her health stabilized, I went back and got my degree. Knowing the right time for schooling is integral to success, and I was a more focused learner when I finally returned to the classroom.

Why did you go into your field, and how is it different from what you expected?

I love being an educator! I've always loved kids, and I feel that learning alongside young people is a wonderful gift. I'm surprised at how much I feel invested in these kids and how much I care about them as the years pass.

Social media has been a great blessing, allowing adults to keep in touch with young people online; I continue to see pictures of my former students as they grow and accomplish so much. The first girl I mentored through Big Brothers Big Sisters has a son, several of the young people I knew are headed to college, and other children I'm close with have just taken their first steps. I'm surprised at the sense of community I have from these relationships that span such a large range of ages. I can't imagine any other sort of profession. I'm so very fortunate to do what I love every day.

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