Montana State University student Genevieve Walsh Chabot had been student teaching in a remote Maori village on New Zealand's North Island for about four months when the village's tribal chief approached her.
"Do you know how to ride a horse?" he asked.
"Absolutely!" Chabot responded, although she suspected he was talking about a different kind of horseback riding than she was used to.
She was right. The chief instructed her not to bring anything, so Chabot took only the clothes she was wearing and a rain poncho. The chief gathered together a few belongings and headed into the wilderness.
Leather hides provided some buffer between Chabot and the animal, but as they rode up steep mountain slopes, she gripped the horse's mane to keep from falling off.
"We were basically riding bareback through the bush," said Chabot, who was originally from Michigan but had moved frequently before settling in Bozeman. "It was very rainy, humid and wet. I remember thinking how refreshing the dry Montana weather would be as I clung to the hot and smelly horse in my jeans, T-shirt and poncho, trying not to fall off."
The two rode for three days, hunting wild boar. They stayed in huts along the way and drank water from the river. They gathered plants to make stew, but also fasted for much of the trip.
Chabot believes she was the first woman who had ever been allowed to visit the land, which was sacred to the tribe. She said it was an honor to be asked to go and thought the tribal chief had chosen to share the journey with her because she had earned his respect as a teacher in his village.
The two talked about many things throughout the journey: Chabot recalled that he wanted her to more fully understand the history and culture of the place. The chief was also grappling with a changing community; televisions in villagers' homes and more frequent trips to town were creating a new atmosphere and way of life. Visiting sacred land and talking about those changes was one way the chief was dealing with them, Chabot said.
"I felt alone a lot during those three days," she recalled. "I was trying to keep up and trying to figure out what this all really meant. It seemed to me that it was supposed to mean something, but at the time, I couldn't really define it."
"It was one of the single most transformative experiences of my life," said Chabot, who credits her time in New Zealand with setting her on a career in international education. Chabot now travels routinely to Pakistan and Afghanistan as an employee of the Central Asia Institute, a Bozeman-based nonprofit organization that promotes education.
Chabot is one of scores of MSU education majors who have traveled to New Zealand to fulfill their student teaching requirements. The Land of the Long White Cloud, as it is called, is MSU's most popular choice for MSU students wanting to student teach abroad. Many of them, like Chabot, say they had life-changing experiences there.
The MSU-New Zealand student teaching connection has been going since the mid-1990s, when MSU education professor Bill Hall, the university's director of overseas student teaching, started a program to place MSU student teachers on the islands. Since then, an estimated 300 MSU students have traveled to New Zealand to teach. Those students have been placed in more than 80 schools, with about half teaching in elementary schools and half in high schools.
"If Bozeman or Montana is the last best place, then New Zealand is truly the last best place," Hall said. "It's a good country with a great culture. It's a good place for our students to practice in schools that are similar, yet different."
Most students spend 12 weeks teaching in New Zealand. While there, they earn 10 credits from MSU and fulfill their student teaching requirements. Students are placed in one of three general areas in New Zealand--the Bay of Plenty, the Bay of Islands, or the far South. Most of them live with families while there, which Hall calls a critical part of the experience for the connections it enables. Students pay about $120 per week in room and board, a modest amount that helps offset the high cost of airfare to New Zealand.
To prepare them for the experience, students must complete a seminar class with Hall before going to New Zealand.
"Overseas student teaching is one of the hardest things a student will ever do," Hall said. "They remove themselves from their family, friends and support. They're foreigners. They're alone. They're confused. Slowly, they gain confidence and respect.
"Almost all of our students who teach abroad say, 'if I can be successful here, I can teach anywhere in the world,'" Hall added.
Martha Palmer, now Martha Krein, was the first MSU student to teach in New Zealand, about 15 years before the exchange officially started. In 1979, her parents were living in Wellington, N.Z., because her father's job took them there, and she considered taking time off from school to visit. Hall suggested that she student teach in New Zealand instead.
With Hall's help, she found a placement in Auckland, New Zealand's largest city.
Krein taught the equivalent of fifth-graders in New Zealand, and even now, more than 30 years later, she remembers some of her interactions with them.
"I was helping a kid with a writing assignment," Krein recalled. "I told him, 'You need to put a period there.' And he said, 'Do you mean a full stop?' And I said, 'No. A period.'
"Another teacher overheard us and told me that they actually call periods 'full stops.' So I pointed to a comma and asked, 'What do you call that? A half stop?' And she laughed and said, 'No, it's a comma!'
"There were lots of little things like that to get used to and adapt to, and they made me a better teacher," said Krein, who is now a kindergarten teacher in Gillette, Wyo.
"My goal was to find school systems that are similar to what we have here in the U.S., and New Zealand meets that requirement," Hall said.
And New Zealand works logistically. The exchange rate is favorable and student visas are relatively easy to obtain, even in post-9/11 travel.
MSU now also offers exchanges at locations in Australia and Ireland. But New Zealand is the most popular, with 80 percent of MSU students wishing for an international student teaching experience opting for the land of the Kiwis.
William Fuller, a principal in New Zealand who has supervised numerous MSU students over the years at three different schools, says the MSU student teachers greatly contribute during their time in the country.
"Our children like the Montana students, in particular the stories they tell," Fuller said. "This really broadens our students' knowledge and makes them think beyond New Zealand.
"Having the MSU students in my classes challenges me to reflect on my philosophy of teaching, and often my philosophy of life."
Like Chabot and Krein, other students from MSU who
have taught in New Zealand say it has greatly influenced
Staci Rust student taught in 2003 in Kawerau, a small community of about 5,000 people on the North Island's Bay of Plenty.
"Tempers were quick, and my students sometimes fought physically," she said.
A petite young woman, she would have to break up fights between students, who sometimes towered over her. However, Rust said those experiences were valuable because they helped her decide how she wanted to address discipline issues in future classrooms.
Rust is now in her fifth year as a teacher at Anderson School in the Bozeman area.
Lauren Harvey student taught in New Zealand in 2007, and she is now in her third year as a teacher in Gallatin Gateway, just outside of Bozeman. But her experience as a student teacher was so wonderful that she dreams about returning to New Zealand for a permanent teaching job.
Many students say they also come back from New Zealand personally transformed.
When Sarah Myers traveled to New Zealand in 2008, she taught in a three-room schoolhouse, and about 75 percent of her students were Maori, the indigenous Polynesian people of the South Pacific region. In fact, all MSU students who teach in New Zealand have at least some, if not a large percentage of, Maori students, Hall said.
Myers lived with a Maori family, learned Maori terms and used them in her classroom, and completed an independent study on Maori culture. One of the most moving parts of her experience abroad involved her students' performance of Kapa haka, or a cultural song and dance. After she helped them prepare for it, they performed Kapa haka for her out of respect and thanks.
"I can still see it in my mind," she said. "It was really powerful."
And Rust, who grew up in Bozeman, jumped into all kinds of new adventures during her days off in New Zealand. She went skydiving twice. She spent hours and hours in the water, whitewater rafting and jet boating. She learned to surf and ventured into sea caves on an inner tube to view glowworms.
"The world opens up to you when you're in new places," she said. "I never would have dreamed of doing most of those things."
Hall, the professor who started it all, isn't surprised at the participants' enthusiasm. The strength of the program, both as a teaching experience and as one that changes lives, is simply in that--the experience.
"A lot of students say to me that as a teacher, you have two things--education and experiences. Those combine to make you who you are as a teacher," Hall said. "Do you watch TV shows and movies and read books? Or, do you seek out experiences for yourself? Student teaching in New Zealand gives our students connections through their international experiences. That's a really strong part of it."