What two local teachers did on their summer vacations will impact their social studies classes for years to come.
Pomona resident Cameron Sanchez and Apple Valley resident Anita Tucker were among a group of teachers who visited Turkey from July 21 through Aug. 4, on a trip sponsored by the private Turkish Cultural Exchange.
“I’ve always wanted to go to Turkey forever,” said Tucker, who teaches at the Cobalt Institute of Math and Science Academy in Victorville.
She’s a veteran traveler, and takes her students every two years on international trips, many of them to Europe, but has never made it across the Bosphorus Strait before this summer.
“The people I’d heard were very warm and welcoming and that was definitely the case,” she said.
Forty-eight middle and high school teachers from across the United States participated in the tours, visiting Istanbul, Gelibolu (Gallipoli), Troy, Canakkale, Bursa, Kusadasi, Pamukkale, Ephesus, Konya, Catalhoyuk, Cappadocia and Ankara.
“It was an incredible trip,” said Sanchez, who teaches at City of Angels, a Los Angeles Unified school. “We barely had time to breathe.”
After a day of climbing through ruins in the hot sun, the teachers returned to their hotel to discover a wedding and reception taking place there. Despite being strangers — as well as sweaty and dirty — the wedding party invited the teachers to come to their reception and made them feel like old family friends, Tucker said.
“People are people wherever you go,” Sanchez said. “And I think that’s the best thing.”
He’s traveled to Central America, Mexico, Italy, Spain and Australia, but this was his first visit to Turkey.
“When you teach about Turkey each year, it’s the center of history,” Sanchez said. “Literally.”
There were some surprises for the teachers, despite their previous knowledge of the region.
“You think of Turkey as a Muslim country, but it’s a very secular country,” Tucker said. “But everyone is Muslim and you hear that call to prayer five times a day.”
Something else new for Tucker: Some of the hotels she stayed in had signs pointing toward Mecca, so that Muslim guests can pray facing that direction.
Although Turkey’s democracy has its critics and challenges, Tucker said there are things that Americans would do well to emulate.
“I was surprised by how many people vote in an election,” she said. “I think it’s something like 83 percent.”
And although President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been pushing back against dissent, tour guides at the sites the teachers visited were comfortable criticizing him and speaking frankly about their hopes and fears about the nation’s future.
“We were there at such an interesting time, with the bombing in Syria,” Sanchez said.
Both teachers hope to visit Turkey again.
“I would go back,” Sanchez said. “I would love to go back to Istanbul and the cities.”
Next time around, he hopes to visit some of Turkey’s estimated 160,000 Christians.
“It’s pretty phenomenal,” she said. “It’s one of the best places I’ve ever been. I’d go there again in a heartbeat.”
About 527 American teachers have visited Turkey under the auspices of the program since 2007, according to the Turkish Cultural Exchange.