Dear Fellow Teachers,

You have one month to apply for a Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching. The deadline for the 2016-2017 program is November 4th. My advice to all of you: get going on it.

Last October, I was thinking about applying. After so many years in the same classroom, some research and travel time seemed like it would reinvigorate my teaching practice. So I worked on the application. Yes, it was long, calling for research, essays, annotated bibliographies, school and personal profiles. Yes, it was complex, requiring my passport, all my transcripts, and multiple recommendations.

But it was worth it.

Because of that effort, one year later, I’m preparing to spend much of the spring semester 2016 studying poetry and education in Puducherry, India.

But as you think about applying, know that the Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching is about more than the time abroad. I haven’t even left yet, and the program has changed my perspective on the profession. At the Fulbright orientation in Washington DC in August, I met educators from all over the U.S. and the world. Among them, I found antidote to my growing burnout.

Burnout is hard to avoid for a public school teacher in the US. You’ve likely felt it too, listening to the rageful screed about teachers on the radio, being asked to write another letter to a legislator justifying your role in society, struggling to learn the fresh crop of acronyms brought on by your district’s mass purchases from edu-corp giants over the summer. Teacher morale in the United States is a smoldering ashtray on a 70’s era coffee table, slow consumption of fuel and lots of stink as by-product. My morale was smoldering too.

FulbrightPinNot any more. Post-application, post-acceptance, post-orientation, and in the pre-research and travel mode, my energy is back in the classroom. The Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching renewed my commitment to helping young people (especially struggling ones) learn. You could feel that way again too.

1. Don’t be shy about exploring the application if you don’t yet have a project in mind. You don’t need a project formed before you begin the application. The application is an opportunity to explore and create a project. Think about what parts of the world you want to visit and consider what you might be able to do in your content areas in that part of the world. Next year the participating countries are Botswana, Finland, India, Israel, Mexico, Morocco, New Zealand, the Palestinian Territories, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, Chile, and Vietnam. I had always wanted to go to India, and with Indian culture’s focus on poetry and the fact that the colonial influenced curriculum reflects the curriculum we teach in the US, I found lots of connections.

2. Talk to your district early about your project. Before your application will even be considered, you need an official from HR to sign off on the project and agree to grant your leave (either paid or unpaid). Schedule a meeting early in the process with an HR official. Think of this as a “pitch” meeting. Show up informed.Research your district’s sabbatical and professional development policies. You need to highlight how your district will benefit from your project. Yes, it is likely that you’re going to be offered leave without pay, so be prepared to seek alternate funding, but that’s something you will have time to work on in March once you receive your acceptance.

3. Help your recommenders to be specific. You need three detailed recommendations. One has to be from your principal. If you work in a large traditional high school, as I did when I applied, your day might be structured in such a way that you don’t see your principal much. Perhaps he doesn’t know about the great project your were involved in three years ago, or perhaps she’s unaware that last year you served on a curriculum committee. Don’t be shy about providing that information to any recommender. Once my recommenders agreed, I provided each of them with a copy of my CV. That way they had access to dates, titles, and details as they wrote.

4. Reach out to teachers and researchers in other countries. Email experts in the country you’ve chosen to make connections as you work on the application. As I worked on my application for India, I read articles Indian teachers had written about the curriculum there. I found one of the authors on Facebook and started a correspondence that helped me shape my application. Whatever topic you’re studying, you’ll find educators in other countries who are interested in the same thing.

5. Seek out feedback from an education researcher. Invite a university professor to consult on your application. Because I live in a university town, I was able to find an education researcher who was willing to look over an early draft of my project proposal. While I’ve spent 16 years in the classroom, this is my first educational research project. She had excellent suggestions for action research and for methods I could use. My discussions with her shaped and changed my project and made it stronger.

6. Be thorough. Take the application seriously.  The applications that aren’t filled in all they way, that seem off the cuff, that lack development do not make it past the first round. Your application should be detailed and thorough. Don’t consider any part of the application optional. In the application the year I applied there was a space for an “optional” annotated bibliography that could list up to ten sources. If I hadn’t filled that in, I would have missed a chance to communicate with the Fulbright Selection Committee. I turned in a detailed annotated bibliography with the maximum number of sources. Each one of those paragraphs was another opportunity for me to demonstrate my skills and enthusiasm to the members of the selection committee.

7. Read some of the blogs of previous Fulbright Distinguished Teachers who went to the countries you’re interested in. Those blogs are helpful in so many ways, but during the application stage, they’re especially helpful in giving you a close up portrait of the country you want to explore.

Do it. Start the application. Dream about where you want to go, figure out what you want to know, make a plan for how you’re going to find it out. You have until November 4th to apply. It’s worth it.

Good luck! I hope I’ll have the chance to meet you at orientation next year as a returning Fulbright Distinguished Teacher.

Best wishes,


Join the Conversation


  1. Thanks for this motivational post. It’s just what I needed to jumpstart my stalled application!

  2. Thank you for this post. I’ve been working on my application but have run into a wall with the wonderful world of HR this week. I’ve been really frustrated and ready to give up on the whole application but I will not give up! I would love to hear your ideas on alternate funding because it is looking like I will likely have to take an entire year of unpaid leave if I get the Fulbright.

    1. You can do this! Honestly, many of the teachers from the United States struggled to get district support. Of the 47 of us this year, 40 were getting nothing from their districts in terms of support. Most of us got unpaid lave for the duration of the travel, no health insurance, and the loss of time in retirement systems we are in. None of the international teachers had this problem. The Fulbright staff was shocked by the response from US schools. I believe this is a reflection of the low status that teachers have in the US and of the fact that teacher’s professional knowledge and growth are discounted by our overall education system. It’s a product of the edu-corp mentality that pervades US school systems.

      A little of my burnout is showing, huh? But you’ve hit on the biggest glitch of my experience receiving a Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching. The health insurance issue is one I’m still struggling to solve before I leave in January.

      All that said. The education system in the US is what it is. So the question is how can we work within in it to grow and develop (and to serve our students). If you can acknowledge the frustration, know it’s there, and breathe anyway, you can move forward. We’re in the system we’re in. Sigh. Deep breath.

      My advice would be to work hard to get unpaid leave for the duration of the travel. For me that’s going to be four months. In terms of insurance, that’s more doable than taking the whole year off. If your district will agree to a shortened unpaid leave, that might help. If you have a union, see if they will help advocate for shortened unpaid leave. If you could secure leave for only the duration of your travel, it would be more affordable. In addition get in touch with Jessica Stovall. If I remember correctly, she had to take the whole year in her district. She might have some good advice.

      In terms of alternate funding, my union served up a heaping plate of disappointment by suggesting a go-fund-me. But there are other ways. Research grants for teachers in your state. Research other opportunities related to your content area. The drag is you’ll have to apply for other grants before you know from Fulbright. I applied November 4th and was notified on April 17. In the interim, I applied for other grants. It depends on the state and your content area, but there is some support out there.

      I hope that helps a bit. If you can make it work, it’s well worth it. Like I said, I haven’t even set foot in India yet, and my relationship with the profession has been transformed.

  3. The waiting game is killing me. 🙂 Could you tell me when they ACTUALLY notified you last year? The previous years it was mid-April, but they turned in applications in December. Our timeline says March, but my calendar says…

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