A few weeks ago, International School Services tweeted the question What did you learn in your first year of International School teaching?
1. Human Resources personnel and principals are your best friends.
After receiving the official job offer, I must have emailed Human Resources once per week. Should I bring x? Does the school have y? What rare tropical diseases might I encounter? Japanese Encephalitis exists outside of Japan???
Visa paperwork can be overwhelming: health checks, copies of transcripts and diplomas, proof of vaccinations. If you have pets, plan on a separate set of procedures.
2. International Schools have a culture of their own.
I signed to join a group who met monthly to discuss critical issues related to education. One of our first topics for discussion was Third Culture Kids (TCKs). I learned that many of my students have never lived in their passport countries. Also, they do not regularly interact with host country children. The students develop a culture of their own.
I’ve since realized that overseas faculties are much the same. Teachers in more politically unstable countries live on compounds and rely on each other for socialization and general sanity. Faculties in large cities tend to get out and mingle with other expats – many of whom are not teachers. Some schools tend to attract younger folks in search of adventure. I landed at a school with a rich history that could be learned from colleagues who had been at the school more than 20 years.
3. Different cultures give teachers varying amounts of respect.
Although I left the USA before the infamous passage of No Child Left Behind, I heard and read plenty of criticism about the state of education in America. I taught in a district without music or PE teachers. Colleagues in other districts were put on paper rations and were required to dust and mop their classrooms. The school district had many active, wonderful parents. Also, the school district held restraining orders against parents who had threatened staff and students.
My first parent night overseas: At least one parent of every student showed up. Dressed up. Took notes. Parents frequently brought gifts. If I called a parent about a discipline issue, the issue never arose again.
4. Expat parents expect a LOT.
While parents gave me a huge amount of respect, they kept me on my toes. “Average” and “Meeting Expectations” were unacceptable grades for many. They wanted to know what else could be done to ensure that their 10-year-old entered an Ivy League university. For some, standardized test scores below the 95th percentile were reason for an extra parent-teacher conference. Perhaps that is not true in all schools, but it was true in mine.
5. Absentee parentism is as prevalent in rich schools as in poor schools – but it looks different.
The main reasons parents had such high expectations for their children was that the parents expected a lot of themselves. Many of my students’ parents were bilingual and traveled throughout Asia overseeing factories, starting joint venture companies, attending regional CEO meetings, and more.
The kids missed their parents. They eagerly awaited parents’ return home. Some felt abandoned because, even when parents were home, they were on regular conference calls.
In the end, many students spent less time with their parents than did students in my former USA public school. Kids of divorced parents typically saw Dad on Wednesdays and every other weekend. The international students were never sure when Dad (and sometimes Mom) would be home again.
6. One of the most valuable forms of professional development is working with teachers who are natives of other countries.
When I hear of Common Core Standards, I recall the first year I taught with an Australian teacher. While I was struggling to figure student grades by rubrics and percentages, I watched her create checklists of things students needed to know. She ticked the boxes when students had mastered standards. Although I didn’t know it at the time, it was called Standards-based education.
Standards-based marking made sense. List what students must know and do, mark progress, and make a special mark when students go above and beyond the standard.
7. You long for the smells of home.
Christmas 2001. I had been in Asia since August. The weather was no longer oppressively hot – it felt like Spring.
One afternoon I opened the classroom door and stopped. Pine smell. Could it be??? I must have looked like a basset hound sniffing the trail. The scent got stronger as I climbed to the third floor, the fourth floor, and around to the office. There stood a Douglas Fir, imported from my home state of Oregon.
I ate my lunch beside the tree every day until the Christmas break. Most of my life, I had taken the smell of pine for granted. Now the scent took me home to my family.
8. There are spices other than salt and pepper.
I lived a meat-and-potatoes childhood. One of the first weeks of school, my colleagues invited me to dinner at an Indian restaurant.
I couldn’t make any sense of the menu but, since all the dishes were served family-style, I let others do the ordering.
I took a bite. My eyes watered. I grabbed beer, gulping it down and praying for my tongue would forgive me. A colleague turned to me and chuckled. He said, Yes, Janet, there are spices other than salt and pepper.
Indian and Thai are now favorites – but they shocked the palette (and the intestines) the first few times.
9. Labels meet different things to different people.
I quickly stopped using the words conservative and liberal. In Australia, the Liberal party is like more like the US Republican party and the Labour is more “Democrat”. I was in a group of South Africans, Dutch, Germans, and Americans. One American was a self-proclaimed conservative. Another in the party turned and said to him, “Oh, so you’re racist.” Whoa.
I’m happy to talk about my feelings on an issue, but I’ve learned to not try and capture the opinions under an umbrella label. Political and religious labels do not translate well across the various forms of English.
Early in my first year, I joined a Family Bike Trip into the Pearl River District of Mainland China. I saw Asian poverty for the first time. We passed through rural villages with no plumbing.
We needed a nurse for the Family Bike Trip. One of the families brought along their domestic helper. Their helper had been an Emergency Room nurse in the Philippines. She made more money as a domestic helper (approximately US$400 per month) than she did as a nurse in her home country. She left her two children to work in Hong Kong so that her children could go to High School.
The first summer, I taught English to English teachers in another part of China. As I got to know them, I realized the hardships they face when they are educated, they want to earn more money, but they must apply and wait up to 20 years to move from the village to a city.
I went with a team to deliver scholarships to students in China. These A-students had been accepted into High School but could not attend because the family was unable to pay the required US$150 for annual tuition. We helped 30 young people. Millions are in similar circumstances.
I guess it’s fair to say the learning curve is pretty steep the first year. What did you learn?
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