Meet the Team behind Bookbag Tours

We are all Educators, Helping Other Educators Connect Around The World!

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Why Bookbag Tours

Brad Henry once said, “A good teacher can inspire hope, ignite the imagination, and instill a love of learning.” As an educator, it can often be more difficult than it would seem to inspire, ignite, and instill. While this would be the ultimate goal of effective education, teaching is much more than being great and waiting for students to follow our lead. Teaching is about seeking to understand each individual student, searching for the best teaching methods to use, and soaking up new information at every opportunity.

If we are seeking, searching, and soaking, then there is no better place to improve our classroom practice than the international platform. Through travel, we seek to make new connections, explore new places, and collect new stories to inform and report to our students. Through international trips, we search to compile new strategies, new accommodations, and new research in order to better serve our students. Through international classroom experiences, we soak up information about other cultures, other professionals, and other parts of the world in order to better inform and transform our own classroom practices and procedures.

Through BookBag Tours, educators have the incredible opportunity to spend time in an international classroom for a minimum of 3 days. Traveling with BookBag Tours also affords educators the unique experience of staying in the home of an international teacher in the same field. During classroom time, BookBag Tours teachers have the ability to assist, observe, and partner with an international teacher in hope of learning as much as possible and establishing as strong of a networking connection as possible. Our trips also allow teachers to immerse themselves in the culture and to engage in sightseeing in order to more fully experience an exciting new country.

We facilitate trips to other countries in order to benefit teachers, classrooms, schools, and, ultimately, students. Travel educates, enlightens, and encourages exploration. Embrace the spirit of travel to experience international classrooms and begin the journey of inspiring, igniting, and instilling through seeking, searching, and soaking by signing up for a BookBag Tours trip today!

Meet The BBT Team!



With over 15 years in education, Ken is a former special education teacher, assistant principal, and principal. His wife, Jenny, serves as a 4K teacher and they reside in Greenville, South Carolina. Ken currently works with developing teachers at Anderson University in South Carolina. If you don't catch Ken in the classroom, you might find him sitting by a fire, playing sports with his two sons, Logan and Bailey, or watching hockey.

Education and travel are Ken's passion and Bookbag Tours, LLC was a long time in the making. He continues to not only run the company, but leads trips and communicates with every individual in the Bookbag Tours family.

"As I have taught and observed students learning, I believe now, more than ever, that the world is a huge classroom and the greatest venue to not only learn about ourselves, but also about the people around us!"

Insta: @bookbagtours


Taína Benitez-Coté : Director

Taína is a Spanglish-speaking advocate, speaker and educator. A true lover of helping people, she has been an advocate for inclusivity and bringing opportunities to underprivileged students, for over two decades. While working to bring a perspective that has historically been missing in higher education and travel education, Taína founded 'Teach With Love,’ a non-profit organization dedicated to transforming student’s lives with educational travel scholarships. Best known as a people-connector, Taína, an Instructional Leader, has spoken at over 20+ conferences giving workshops and creating professional development that have been featured in many media outlets, including recent feature on MSNBC Latino.

A first generation college student, Taína has her Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership and a Bachelor’s Degree in Business and Relational Communications. Taina's travel bug originated from her former career as a Magazine Creative Director and well-published Photojournalist. A wife and mother of three really cool sons, when not working for Bookbag Tours, you will find her with her family of five who have been traveling since 1995!

Insta: @taina.benitez

Insta: @bookbagtours



Carolyn attends the University of South Carolina and majors in Early Childhood and Special Needs Education. A member of Teaching Fellows and Alpha Delta Pi, she's a participant in Students Help Honduras. Some of Carolyn's favorite things to do include spending time at the lake, exploring with her friends, and traveling the world!

Carolyn's main passion is to help children with special needs. She wants to help them with simple tasks, like teaching them how to wash their hands, and difficult tasks, like helping them see a difficult math problem in a new way. Her goal is to be the positive influence in each child's life. As a special needs teacher, Carolyn wants to be the voice for her students, to help them when frustrated, and stand up for them when something happens out of their control.

"I feel that no matter their disability they should have that one person to help push them toward their goal and to be successful. I want to live out my passion for special needs students in my everyday life, so that students like them will change the world."

Insta: @justkeepguessin

Insta: @bookbagtours


(click on names to see which tour they are leading!)

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Mark A. Joseph

Mark currently serves as an Assistant Professor at Anderson University, as well as the Site Coordinator for the Call Me MISTER Program. It's Initiative is to increase the pool of available teachers from a broader more diverse background particularly among the State's lowest performing elementary schools. Mark graduated from Claflin University in Orangeburg, SC and began his teaching journey in his hometown of Greenville, SC.

Mark have served as an elementary school teacher, middle school Assistant Principal and Principal during his educational journey. Mark has the distinct pleasure and opportunity to prepare Pre-Service educators, to best serve our students in the state of South Carolina. In addition, he facilitates the development of servant leader educators, who have made the commitment to become effective educators and change agents in the state of South Carolina.

Insta: @mstrjoseph



Over her 23 years as an educator, Jen has taught 1st-8th grades. She is trained in Reading Recovery, Kagan Cooperative Learning Structures, and Common Core for ELA. Jen is a K-12 Reading Specialist, has a Bachelor's in English and a minor in Psychology from California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo, and received her Master's Degree in Reading Education from East Carolina University. She taught in the San Luis Coastal Unified School District in California and at PK Yonge Developmental Research School at the University of Florida. Before she stepped into Hello Literacy full-time, Jen was the RTI Coordinator, Marzano Trainer, and Intervention Director for her school as well as the Literacy Coach and School Improvement Chair at Lake Myra Elementary in Wake County Public School System, the largest school district in North Carolina. Since 2012, Jen has traveled the country providing positive, engaging, and relevant professional development to teachers in schools and districts in 21st century literacy instruction. She has racked up miles in California, Nevada, Idaho, Arkansas, Kansas, Utah, Texas, Tennessee, Illinois, Indiana, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Ohio and New York. Additionally, Jen writes for the International Literacy Association and Parent’s Magazine. She is a champion of Donors Choose and Facebook Live. Jen has a Teachers Pay Teachers store called Hello Literacy, where her mission is to create products that make kids think and make teachers better teachers. She currently lives in Raleigh, NC with her husband and two daughters.

Insta: hellojenjones

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Mike Soskil

Mike Soskil, the 2017-18 Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year, is determined to make learning meaningful for every child and to empower students and teachers as positive change agents in their communities.

In 2012, Michael's innovative work was recognized by the White House and National Science Foundation with the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching.

In 2016 he was named a Global Teacher Prize finalist and one of the Top Ten Teachers in the World by the Varkey Foundation. Regardless of the setting, whether working with kindergarten students in rural Kenyan villages or school leaders and policy makers in Dubai, Mike's passion for affecting positive change through education always inspires those around him.

Insta: @metsoskill


Michael Wamaya

Michael Wamaya was recently named one of the "Top 10 Teachers in the World" by the Global Teacher Prize in 2017. He is an instructor to orphans and vulnerable children in one of Africa’s most desperately deprived areas, Kibera, Nairobi. Kibera is the slum home to 700,000 people, the most unlikely setting for a ballet school like Michael's. But with the help of Michael’s dedicated teaching, under the tin roofs of community buildings in the slum, students have become accomplished dancers, winning scholarships to further their education.

Insta: Projectelimu

Eric Crouch

Eric Crouch

Eric Crouch, a fifth-grade teacher at Double Churches Elementary School, Columbus, Georgia, is considered one of the top 50 teachers in the world as recognized by the Varkey Foundation through the Global Teacher Prize, considered the Nobel Prize of teaching. Other prestigious awards included the National Milken Educator, a Harvard Project Zero Graduate Fellow and a Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes Fellow.

Due to Eric's own educational challenges growing up, he has set himself the task of not letting any of his students' learning disabilities arrest their academic progress. This work has been recognized and featured by the National Center for the Learning Disabled and where he currently serves as a fellow/advisor.

Eric's classroom is full of enthusiasm and tasked with a design thinking / Project-Based Learning model that allows students to find out what they are passionate about. As a Skype Master Teacher, his students have engaged in Skype collaborations with others from around the world, including schools in Kenya. Just a few of his PBL projects were to build a school in Kimilili, Kenya, created 3D prosthetics for pets, serve their local community by providing family photos to families who cannot afford them, and worked with engineers to create a robotic stuffed animal to help teach students how to regulate and share their own social and emotional needs. Eric's knack for fundraising, allowed him to bring awareness to the destruction of Hurricane Michael on Bay County school District by raising over a million dollars to repair and refill teachers' classrooms. He also raised over 1.5 million dollars through Social Media campaigning to provides resources all over the world!

Insta: @adventureswithmrc



Amittia Smith is a wholeheartedly passionate, innovative, and loving soul. With her experience in Atlanta Public Schools, Dothan City Schools, Muscogee County schools, and in a correctional facility, Tia is currently a high school teacher who believes that all students are deserving of the opportunity to receive a superb education. With grit, guts, and the gifts entrusted to her, she allows herself to speak life and educational success into all the students she comes in contact with in hopes that they will one day be agents of change in society. Affectionately know as Tia, she has facilitated numerous workshops for students and adults. Tia is best known as the “inclusion guru”, as she loves to make certain every child feels included in the classroom and has the opportunity to learn alongside their peers. Tia holds a Bachelor’s degree from Morris Brown College, a Master’s degree from Clark Atlanta University, and an Educational Specialist Degree from Columbus State University.

Insta: @tiabsmith



Jill Shafer, best known as Hello Fifth on social media, is an elementary school teacher in Southern California. In her ten years of teaching, she has taught multiple grade levels and loves each one for different reasons. Jill's passion is engaging learners, and she leads regular professional development sessions on reaching all students by thinking outside the box. She holds her masters degree in curriculum instruction and design and has a passion for helping students expand their horizons through global education. Jill believes in the power of relationships and loves attending her students' sporting events, concerts, and shows. Her incredibly supportive family includes her husband Michael and their three young children.

Insta: @hellofifth



With 10 years of teaching experience in 2nd and 3rd grade, Kayla has a Master's Degree in Elementary Education and is becoming National Board Certified, the highest mark of professional accomplishment. As a 3rd grade teacher and technology champion in North Dakota, Kayla is also a columnist for Edsurge and a blogger for Edutopia where she writes about a variety of edtech and design topics. On July 23, 2015 she delivered her first TEDx Talk, Reimagining Classrooms: Students as Leaders and Teachers as Learners. Kayla frequently travels around the United States as a featured and keynote speaker, and she is proud to be an international speaker with Best Keynote coalition. She has delivered over 50 keynotes, most notably being at Twitter Headquarters. Her work with classroom redesign and flexible seating has become the standard worldwide. She is highly sought after by educational and technology companies to preview and review their products. Kayla sits on several advisory boards of educational companies, and works closely with Remind, Go Ennounce, GoNoodle, Amazon Education, Seesaw, and Creative Teaching Press to name a few. She was also recently selected as North Dakota’s Lead Digital Innovator by PBS. She has authored a book titled Education Write Now, published in December 2017. She is currently writing a book about classroom learning spaces and flexible seating. You can connect with Kayla on all social media platforms @topdogteaching, and her student-lead social media accounts @topdogkids.

Insta: @topdogteaching



Juan Edgar Gonzalez Jr. is a third grade Texas teacher with a Texas-sized love for literacy and student engagement. Over his teaching career, he has taught 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade. He loves to develop and share new ways to strategically use literacy to create effective classroom environments, school wide experiences, and passionate readers! In the spring of 2016, his classroom was featured in Scholastic Teacher Magazine. Shortly after, he was asked to be part of the Scholastic Top Teaching Blog team. He now writes monthly for and shares ideas and his journey in the classroom. You can follow Juan and his teaching adventures on social media with his handle @Teaching3rdWithMrG


Aris Rossi

Aris Rossi is an elementary teacher in Southern California with a Multiple Subject Credential and Master of Arts in Teaching from the University of California, Irvine. With 10 years of teaching experience in K-3rd grade, she is a CUE National Presenter and provides meaningful professional development all over the country at workshops and conferences. Her specializations include technology ideas for a 1:1 classroom and creating engaging lessons on the go for busy teachers. For more of her teaching ideas and tips head on over to her blog

Insta: @sailingintosecond



Petteri Elo is a teacher, a trainer, a public speaker and foremost an educational enthusiast. He has an extensive experience in teaching at comprehensive school level and training educators worldwide. Petteri is especially interested in creating innovation in student-centered and skill-based pedagogy by combining educational theory and practice.

Petteri started his teaching career as a substitute teacher. For years he taught at elementary school level without formal training. These experiences led him to believe that he had mastered the art of teaching and formal training was not needed. However in order to make teaching his real profession, Petteri entered University of Helsinki and graduate in 2007 majoring on education and pedagogy. This experience completely transformed his idea what of teaching and learning is all about. Without scientific knowledge and deep understanding of pedagogy teaching cannot truly be a profession that requires skills that not just anyone has. By applying this knowledge and these skills in the classroom, it is possible to create meaningful learning experiences for our students that give them the best tools to succeed in life.

Fall of 2015 Petteri spent in Virginia as a Fulbright Scholar. During his project he worked with local educators in creating innovation in pedagogy and leadership. After this experience Petteri founded his company PedaNow – Educational Consulting and Training. His passion, expertise and genuine approach to training is praised by educators in Finland and internationally.

Insta: @petterielo

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Dr. Dee Dee Washington

DeeDee Washington, has served public education in South Carolina for more than 27 years in multiple roles including curriculum facilitator, principal, personnel director, associate superintendent, and classroom teacher. Currently, Chief Instructional Officer in Aiken County Public Schools, she provides leadership to strengthen curriculum and improve instructional practices including student and school performance.

Dee Dee was named as Greenville Talk Magazine’s 25 Most Beautiful and Greenville County Schools’ Administrator of the Year. During her leadership, her schools received several awards. Including the Red Carpet School award, Palmetto Gold + Silver awards, Closing the Gap Awards, Exemplary Writing, School of Promise award and the highly-coveted Palmetto’s Finest finalist award.

Dee Dee worked closely with principals and teachers with one goal: to improve outcomes for the students in the community. This included collaboration with businesses and community agencies such as the United Way, Furman University, USC-Upstate, USC-Aiken, and the South Carolina Association of School Administrators.

In 2016, Dr. Dee Dee Washington was honored by the Greenville Cultural Exchange as one of our community’s Women Making History.

Dee Dee, recently retired, has returned to the role she loves most: teacher and mentor. She began service to students at Anderson University as assistant professor of graduate studies, and Board member of Greenville First Step. She continues to promote diversity and inclusion as she mentors administrators she has met along her journey.

Dee Dee Washington, has a Doctorate of Philosophy from the University of South Carolina, her Masters of Education with a concentration in Educational Administration from Converse College and Bachelor of Arts in Elementary Education from the University of South Carolina. She has been married to her incredibly supportive husband, Kent, for more than 24 years. They are the proud parents of four children and the grandparents of a beautiful granddaughter with more on the way!



Tammie Scharf is a Digital Technology teacher in beautiful Bowen, Australia. She has taught in the classroom, mainly in Year 5, for fifteen years before moving into the role of teaching Prep to Year 6 Digital Technology in 2016.

She is also an Advanced QLD Digital Champion and a founding member of the QLD Tech Brekkies team, who continue to work collaboratively in providing guidance, tech support, and assistance to teachers across Australia.

Tammie has a passion for STEAM and two years ago created a Makerspace in her school library which becomes a bustling hub of creativity each day. She also has conducted an Entrepreneur program at her school for the last few years to encourage students to create their own small business, with all profits going to a charity of choice. Under her guidance, one of the teams in 2017 became the National Winners for the Kidpreneur Challenge.

The love of global collaboration was sparked in 2014 by participating in student blogging challenges and has continued to evolve into a passion for building educator connections across the globe. There is a hardly a night that Tammie is not on online connecting with innovators of education, learning from them and developing her pedagogy. Although based in a small rural town, Tammie’s ongoing global connections enable her students to not be disadvantaged by their isolation. She opens the world for them.

After meeting so many amazing educators in this year's Australian Bookbag Tour, Tammie is hugely excited to travel to America in 2019! Look out America, as an Aussie is heading your way!

Insta: @QLDTechBrekkies and @teachercarekit



Current principal at Wren Elementary in Anderson School District One, Tommy has been in the education profession for over 20 years as a teacher, assistant principal, and principal. Born and raised in Dublin, Tommy Bolger, the current principal at Wren Elementary in Anderson School District One, has been in the education profession for over 20 years as a teacher, assistant principal, and principal. Tommy was born and raised in Dublin and immigrated to the United States in 1988. He currently resides in South Carolina with his wife Tracy, who has been an educator for over 25 years and is a current teacher at Daniel High School. They have two children; Jordan, a graduate of Clemson University, and Dylan, an Air Force member. Tommy has traveled throughout Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, Spain, Canada, the Dominican Republic, and 40 of the US states. Tommy loves to travel and finds experiences such as driving from Alaska to South Carolina to be helpful when working with students.

"Being able to visit schools in other countries is a great way for us to see what other educators teach their students and ways that can help you expand your craft and do what we in education call 'school espionage'."


Katherine Chaney

Katherine is a proud Texas teacher with experience teaching 1st-5th grades. She is an avid lover of Jesus, dogs, coffee, books, Baylor, and the Dallas Cowboys. She loves collaborating and getting ideas from other teachers on social media! Katherine graduated with her undergraduate degree in Elementary Education with Gifted and Talented from Baylor University and her Masters degree in Reading from UT Tyler. She recently became a certified Reading Specialist and loves to share her passion for books with anyone who will listen. In her spare time she loves to explore outdoors with her dachshund Cowboy and travel, as much as her bank account allows. She strives to share the love for adventure with her students while creating life long learners and world changers.

Instagram: Sweet_Shambles

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Dyane Smokorowski

Dyane is the 2013 Kansas Teacher of the Year and is currently serving as an Instructional Technology Coach in the Andover Public schools. Mrs. Smoke, as she’s known to her students, believes in a project-based, student-centered classroom that helps students build skills in communication, planning, research and project implementation. Her 17-year passion for global collaboration has led Mrs. Smoke to design over 75 projects for teachers and students around the world. She wants her students to develop a love for culture, communication and technology, but also to understand how to use that love and passion to advance their own future, as well as that of the global community.

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Dr. Sheliah Durham

Sheliah G. Durham is an Assistant Professor in the College of Education at Anderson University. She earned her bachelor’s degree in English and History from Charleston

Southern, her MEd from Southern Wesleyan, and her doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction,

with a certificate in International Studies from Clemson University.

Dr. Durham lived in Egypt with her husband (an Egyptian citizen) and children from 1998 –

2011. She taught grades 4 – 12 at two international schools in Egypt. From 2002 – 2011 she

taught at The American International School (AIS) Egypt, which is one school we will visit on

our tour. At the secondary level, Dr. Durham taught English, US History, Geography, and

Humanities. At the elementary level, she taught all core content for grades 4 and 5.

She is passionate about developing international programming that supports real-life interaction

between teachers and students. Dr. Durham’s research is in the field of Global Citizenship

Education. This will be one of the topics during the Professional Development program we host

in Egypt.

Several family members live in Egypt, including her daughter and her husband. They (and other

family/friends) will be part of our gatherings to add context and answer your questions.


Deb Thibault

Deb is a National Board Certified Teacher from White Bear Lake, Minnesota. She is a strong believer that true growth happens just outside the comfort zone, which is why she has challenged herself to work in several different educational roles throughout her 25 years of teaching. She has been a first and fifth grade teacher, a Response to Intervention lead, an adjunct professor and for the last several years has enjoyed supporting classroom teachers in her role as a K-5 literacy coach.

Part of her work as a literacy coach takes places at the district level. She leads ongoing professional development and trainings as well as extensive work with curriculum design and support. Some areas she is particularly passionate about include Culturally Responsive Teaching, Reading and Writing Workshop, Personalized Learning, and Social/Emotional Education.

Deb loves to surround herself with others who are just as passionate about education as she is. Her experience with Bookbag Tours has provided her with that and so much more. She knows she will never be the same after visiting, learning and immersing herself in other countries with a group of travelers who are just as dedicated to education as she is.

When she is not working or traveling, she loves to spend time with her husband and two children up at the cabin in Northern Minnesota, trying out new restaurants, or just relaxing at their home with a good book.

insta: @dsthib


Tracy Lamont

Tracy comes to the Bookbag Tours team with 15 years of teaching experience. She has taught 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades in several cities around the state of Illinois, but currently teaches 5th grade in Manhattan, Illinois...not New York.

Tracy holds two Master's Degrees; Elementary Education + Educational Leadership. She also holds several leadership positions in her school and district, and loves to inspire her students to achieve greatness in whatever their passion is.

Her love of travel is what drew her to go on Bookbag Tours' inaugural trip to Ireland in 2018 and to Australia in 2019. In her spare time, Tracy loves to spend time reading, attending baseball games, playing with her dog, Charley, and hanging out with her niece and nephews. Tracy is very excited to go back to Ireland in 2020 and to show everyone the beauty of the Emerald Isle!

insta: @mslamontslife



As a recent graduate of Anderson University in South Carolina, Joy is using her degree in Elementary Education to teach 4th grade at Joseph R. Pye Elementary School in Charleston, South Carolina. As an avid traveler, Joy continues to travel, visiting nine different countries in the past year. With her favorite travel destination being England, Joy has a passion for leading trips with Bookbag Tours to London.

"Visiting global schools is a great way to make new contacts all over the world as well as experience unique teaching strategies used by international educators."


Brooke Brennan

Brooke Brennan is a first grade teacher in her hometown of Woodhaven, Michigan. She joined her mother, father, and sister in the family business of education in 2014. Brooke’s school is a certified Lighthouse, Leader In Me school through Franklin Covey. Brooke is currently pursuing her master’s degree in reading and literacy. She is passionate about inspiring a love of books with her students and incorporating mindfulness into the classroom. Brooke enjoys developing meaningful relationships with students and other educators. She loves connecting and collaborating with educators around the world through twitter and instagram. This passion was elevated after completing her first trip with Bookbag Tours to Australia, last June. She is excited to lead and walk alongside other teachers as they experience education globally this summer in Australia.