Tag Archives: international education

Riding the Wave: A Disruption Epiphany

There comes a point in surfing where you either commit to where that force of nature is going to bring you or you duck under and hope for another day.

It feels like we’ve been ducking under for a long time, let’s say since 1999 clicked to 2000. Has that been long enough waiting for the perfect wave?

Covid-19 has brought the fogginess attributed with stress and the crystal clarity that comes with crisis. As educators, this is our surfboard moment, that disruptive peak where we, finally, have to decide if we’re going to hang ten and do something about the promises of 21st century learning (before we start talking about the 22nd). Here’s my list, subject to change and certainly debate.

Homework to Quarantine

I hated it as a student, hate it as a parent, and find it laughable when my child is literally home all day. What are we going to call it when school re-opens, school work? A hard stop to schooling at the end of the school day, (except for pleasure reading and doing something outside) seems like a nice post-pandemic practice. (IB/DP students are exempted from this rant).

Carnegie Units and Choice

We talk a lot about choice, but we don’t really mean it. Now that students are more or less off schedule, can mute teachers, and decide when and what they want to study, it feels like we can’t go back to math on Tuesdays at 9am. This is seriously going to shake up the control freak schedulers and force us to rethink how we relegate time and for what and who makes those choices.

Death Knell of the SAT

Well, well, well, looks like universities CAN decide college admissions without the antiquated SAT score? This is going to be interesting. Yes, I know that grades are inflated and GPAs laughable. I don’t have the perfect “one size fits all” metric but I do know that relying on the SAT as an indicator of future success is like saying that car ownership is an indicator that you could win a Formula One race.

Social Distance the Subjects

Has the world finally learned the lessons of The Great War? The Roman Empire? Dividing fractions? The interactions between matter and energy? (Okay, maybe that last one is important). My point is that now that we’re home, everything has blended into one gooey mess and what we are learning about seems trivial at best.

We no longer walk down the hall to math, then music or design, physically moving ourselves from one thing to another. As virtual students, we have big blocks of time to make sense of a bunch of stuff in one place. We aren’t doing students any favors by throwing work at them that is completely disconnected between subjects. It’s time to admit that secondary schools aren’t very good at being “university lite” and to once again re-think what it means to be a thinker and a learner. Literacy, regardless of the content is important. Conceptual analysis and critical thinking skills, regardless of whether a kid can divide fractions, is important. Introducing learning skills relevant to the existential crisis raging outside our computer screens is important.

Teachers are Gold

No online course or webinar will ever, ever, ever replace the invaluable magic of a human being facilitating a titration experiment or mesmerizing an audience with a dramatic scene. When this pandemic is over (and it will end), I’m imagining our teachers being paraded through the streets like the Apollo astronauts in convertibles through Times Square in 1968.

Technology Has Its Limits

I cannot wait to see how many schools are going to shelve the laptops once this is over and send their IT directors on well deserved vacations. I sort of predict that there is going to be a techno whiplash from parents, teachers and students once this is over. Libraries are going to spring up like daisies again and I-Pads will be used as cafeteria trays.

People over Product

Schools are generally good at this already, but I have a feeling socio-emotional wellness is going to a new level after this crisis. Talk about coping skills and resiliency!

If there has ever been a time in recent human history where we need to think outside of the proverbial box and reset our priorities, it is now. Let’s please ride the wave together in this vacuum of uncertainty and see where it takes us.

Parts Unknown

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My family thinks I’m odd. When we went to Hanoi, Vietnam in 2016, I was obsessed with going to the hole in the wall restuarant that Anthony Bourdain and President Obama ate at together. Their visit was still fresh so there were huge pictures on the wall of them and a buzz around the place. I found the table that my two favorite people in the world sat at and ordered the same meal. It was one of the most amazing moments of my life.

Everyone who has chosen the international life has a story about what inspired them to live overseas. For me, it was a combination of never feeling like I fit into my American suburban surroundings, an emotion that quickly dissipated once I joined the Peace Corps and spent three years in rural West Africa. I had, at last, found my people. Peace Corps Volunteers became my tribe, my compatriots, my soul mates. And I never turned back.

Anthony Bourdain personified that feeling and put into words and pictures the emotions I often experienced living in the world and in coming into contact with different cultures.

When people ask me what I’d be doing if not working in a school, I say every time without hesitation, “I’d be Anthony Bourdain, travelling the world, walking into random kitchens, talking to people, learning their stories, and absorbing life in its quirky, unfiltered, celebratory sequence of messiness, raw living and hard work.”

I am deeply saddened by his passing because he was my muse, my “keep it real,” my connection to what it really means to live this life of travel, culture and people. His shows were a poetic composition of life, his message one of humanity, love and good times, free of pretension, racism, and commercialism.

He was a constant reminder of why I do what I do. (Even on the darkest days).

My family often make fun of me because when we go on vacations I make an effort to (as they like to say) “wander into the village to talk to the local people.” They laugh, but this has put me in people’s kitchens from Ireland to Istanbul and given me a picture on life that not only puts my work in perspective but allows me to feel that connection to humanity and purpose that Tony Bourdain so eloquently described every week.

He once said upon accepting a Peabody Award that he asks three simple questions on the show: “What makes you happy?” “What do you like to eat?” What do you like to cook?” And the rest took care of itself. It was an approach to understanding people and culture that was so simple that it has served as a constant reminder as to why I do what I do in international education.

But we’ve made it so complicated.

Many of us in international education work in places that have large gates, security, and little to no connection to the surrounding community. From our sports competitions to our arts and academics to the food, we live and work in little bubbles that don’t resemble anything other than their own sanitized entity.

We claim that we are preparing people to be global citizens through things like the IB and a variety of languages and international days and so on, but in large we have become so risk averse, so predictable, and so standardized that we are becoming the complete antithesis of what we aspired people to be when we chose the international life. “International mindedness” has become an air-conditioned simulation through laptops, I-Pads and high stakes grueling exams. Does the kid who achieved a 45 on the IB or a perfect 5 on and AP exam know how to ride the local bus or order a plate of chili crab in Hokkien?

“When we repatraite,” they say, “We don’t want any gaps. It has to be a seamless transition from one place to the next, from Manila to Miami, from Boston to Budapest.”

Well it’s not a smooth transition. And it shouldn’t be.

In a recent interview with Bourdain, he was asked how he managed the offering of local food that was unappetizing or not necessarily fresh. “Food,” he said, (I am paraphrasing), “Is a window to someone’s community, to their culture. Food is the beginning of a conversation of someone telling you who they are. And what’s the worst thing? You deal with it. Maybe a few rounds of antibiotics.”

He reminded me that while there were inherent risks in life and getting to know other people, that they were often risks worth taking. He inspired me to shake things up when they needed to be, to make connections to the local maintenance workers, the cooks, the cleaners and to get a real understanding of the international life. One of my cherished memories of my time in Singapore took place last Sunday night, for example, when I was invited to the Hindu wedding of one of our IT guys whom I had taken the time to get to know. The looks on the faces of the other workers when I arrived at the wedding was something I’ll never forget. That’s what Tony inspired in me and that’s why I work in international schools.

So whether I’m wearing a suit behind the high gates or wandering into villages to talk to the local people, I am inspired by what Tony Bourdain taught me in my commitment to international education and the lessons young people need to learn to embrace the world, other people’s food, and to answer the question, “What makes you happy?”

Farewell Tony, I’m really, really going to miss you.

Carpool Karaoke

You ever watch Carpool Karaoke with James Corden? If you haven’t you’re missing a real treat. If you’ve ever driven a car, you have certainly sung along with your favorite tunes on the radio. It’s fun, it’s liberating, and you don’t care what you sound like.

Imagine if class was like that?

Now, I’m not saying that most of you teachers are not fun and liberating, but I’ve been in a lot of classes in my lifetime and a lot of them not liberating. I think that’s why I went into the business, to resist that feeling that I had when I was in school.

When I watch Carpool, I see really famous people not afraid to be themselves, actually showing how nervous they are, and just being real people. It’s therapy in an amazing way. On one episode, Ed Sheeran told James that he was extremely nervous to be on the show Ed Sheeran!. It was shocking to hear that such a famous person could be nervous. He said it was because he needed his guitar as “armor” as James put it. What does that say about how he grew up and was able to face the things he did to become who he is today? Did school help or hurt that process? Did it liberate him? Hmmm.

I’ve watched episodes with Elton John, Beyoncé, Sam Smith, Adele, Miley Cyrus and every time I smile because I see how much joy they are having in the simple act of singing along with the radio in a car. The simple act of un-judged expression. The freedom to express without judgement. Isn’t that where creativity begins?

We have elevators in my school. Only the Seniors can ride in them as a privilege. They are in the middle of “mock exams” right now for the IB which is another expression for preparing for war. The kids are stressed out, overtired, and on the edge of collapse. I’ve tried to resist that stress put on them but it’s a machine that goes well beyond me.

So, I do my own Carpool Karaoke. When I’m riding in the elevator with a group of them, I start “Elevator Karaoke.” Sometimes I bring printed lyrics so that they can get the words. It’s liberating, a little awkward, and really, really fun.

Then the door opens and we all go back to work.

I’m Not In Love…Your Job Search Survival Guide

This is a difficult and glorious time of year. And I’m not talking about going home and dealing with the family you haven’t seen since summer or gift shopping in Dhaka. I’m talking about those of you looking for work in the next phase of your international adventure.

It’s hard. It’s really hard. Especially as the number of the schools in the world grows exponentially and the education landscape is more complex than ever and schools are grabbing people up like Halloween candy.

Take a breath. A deep breath.

First of all, enjoy the holiday. I know many of you are making a quick holiday exit to one of the January fairs, but take some time away from that email and focus on the most important reasons you are living the life you lead besides job searching. The hunt goes on well into March and even April. (And that doesn’t include hiring in North America or other parts of the world).

So, here’s my survival guide for you staff and teachers and even administrators looking for that next post. I’ve had lots of experience on both sides of the proverbial table and have learned truly what it feels like.

So, here goes…

1) Be clear about who you are and what makes you special as a teacher. In other words, stand for something. This seems a bit odd for #1, but I read a LOT of CVs that seem to say the same thing over and over. Accentuate something that you’re really good at and passionate about and drive it home.

2) Stop job jumping. I know there’s not a lot you can do about that now, but I (and many Heads) skip right past the 2,2,3,2,2, years at posts. Believe me, I know what it’s like to be at a place that you feel is a big mismatch, but you only get one, two max on that one. Otherwise, you really need to come up with a better plan to stick around at a school or have a very clear reason why you are moving on. It’s okay if it didn’t work out but you need to differentiate yourself from the teacher tourists. And if you are a teacher tourist, you are at the end of the line!

3) Personalize your experience by telling a STORY. Don’t just talk in generalities about your skills. And be honest in that story, about your mistakes, your setbacks, your ability to overcome, your generosity of spirit, the who you are and how you handled it. Recruiters love that.

4) Do NOT interview or apply to a place that you cannot envision yourself at for FOUR YEARS minimum. That’s right. Four years. It’s not fair to you, it’s not fair to the kids that deserve the BEST teachers in the world. If in your heart you cannot imagine yourself at the school for a minimum of four years, then find a way to get out of the process. It’s better for everyone.

5) ALWAYS include your Head of School or Principal as a reference. I know it’s hard sometimes, but we recruiters get really suspicious when your only line managers are department heads and coordinators. That sends off a red flag and we call the Head anyway. Yes, we know that there are some mean directors and principals out there, but the reality is that you need to get on good enough terms to put them down on your list.

6) At LEAST read the mission statement of the school and tailor your candidacy towards what you believe the school stands for. I know that a lot of the statements are the same, but you need to familiarize yourself as best possible with how the school presents itself and how you put yourself towards it as a match.

7) Don’t fall in love. Whatever you do, don’t fall in love with a school. If you REALLY want a job, act as though you don’t, or at least that you have other options. Keep calm, present yourself in a light that is balanced and enthusiastic, but not desperate. In other words, SKIP the recruiter/candidate mixer. I’ve seen too many people embarrass themselves at these awkward events and you need to keep yourself together.

That’s all. Best of luck. Stay focused. Remember that if you are good, you’ll definitely get a job. And ALWAYS remember that everything you do is about making the world a better place for future generations, not so you can go mountain biking or skiing.

Best of luck, and here’s one of my favorites to keep you balanced in the search…

Take What the Mountain Gives You

Nireki Mountain Adventures

Satish Man Pati makes me feel like a thimble of a man. Not because he’s full of great quotes like the title of this essay. Not because he climbed Mt. Everest like I decide to canoe across a lake. Not because he just looks like more of a man than I do. It’s because I watched him sitting with a tin cup filled with hot tea, smiling at 4000 meters as a fading sunset settled behind him on the Annapurna Range (Nepal) and he took the time to ask how I was doing. He watched with calm competence as his team methodically set up camp, assembled cooking stations, and prepared all that was needed to support myself and twenty six people during a trek in his native country. He was the captain of the ship, his love of the mountains surrounding him with good karma, a gentle smile creasing grizzled, unshaven cheeks even as countless details likely ran through his head. This guy who was responsible for so many people at the top of a mountain sipped his tea and asked how I was doing.

I am constantly trying to learn from people that I think are great leaders. And what I loved about Satish was that I knew he had a million things going on, but had that humble majesty of being able to focus on the happiness and safety of the people around him. He was really tuned in to everything, but never seemed to show it. He knew I was nervous about the safety of the students that had never been in the mountains but he took the time to check in to see if I was okay. He was on an emotional intelligence scale that was off the charts.

I took him aside as he sipped his tea, looking contentedly out onto the distant horizon. “Satish,” I asked. “What makes you such a great leader?” He laughed and of course said he was not such a great leader. I disagreed and told him that his team worshipped the ground he walked on. “I’m willing to do any job,” he said. “And I have. They see what I’ve done to get here and I treat them fairly. And I know each of them as people and they treat me the same. We are like family,” he added. “It’s more than a job.” Then what I observed from him that was absolute genius was that he knew his team so well he knew exactly what to expect from them and to put them in a position to be successful. He knew the guys that were the best left to be behind the scenes and the ones that could deal with my students. He knew the ones that could take on the leadership roles and the ones that needed to be told what to do. Not only did he have everyone on the bus, he had them in the right seats. They knew his expectations too. One of the members of the team left a new tin coffee pot that he had purchased at one of the tea houses at the top of the mountain that we had left the day before. It was a five hour climb back. Rather than tell him that it was okay and that they’d buy a new one, he made the guide go back and fetch it. And he did. Satish laughed at my amazement. “The details matter in the mountains,” he laughed. “He’ll remember that.”

When I asked about his relationship to the mountains, he looked past me into the distance and gave me an explanation of the ranges behind us and their connections to the local people. When he was finished, he looked right at me and said, “You have to take what the mountain gives you. You cannot fight that. If it rains, snows, fog, sunshine, whatever. You have to understand it and take it. You cannot fight that.” It sounded so simple, but I thought of how it went against just about everything you heard from adventurers. They fought, resisted what came at them and battled to overcome the obstacles in their way. Satish was not defeatist. Of course, his acceptance was similar to what you hear from great sea captains and those that listen to what their circumstances are telling them.

When you start this new school year, especially if you are going to a new school, take what the mountains give you. When there is chaos all around and you’re responsible for 30 people at a metaphorical 4000 meters, sip some tea from a tin cup, smile with grizzled cheeks, look out onto a setting sun, and realize that by the grace you show towards others and the gratitude you have for what you do in the majestic surroundings of wherever you are, that you got this.

Best of luck this year. The kids need you more than ever.

The Tao of Chicken Rice

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Every Sunday, when I go to my favorite chicken rice place in the world (Lorong 6, Toa Payoh, Singapore) to write and reflect on my experiences as an international educator, I get really good service.

It wasn’t always like that.

The first few times I was ignored while people cut in front of me, ignored me, even took the table that I faithfully reserved with a water bottle and a packet of tissues. (A real faux pas for my fellow hawker eaters). But things gradually changed the more I came and got to know the people and their routines. We got in sync. Now, I get my coffee, shrimp dumpling soup, and chicken rice with simply eye contact. I had become, in a sense, acculturated to my environment.

This past week, I was trying to make my way back from a short getaway to an island on a packed ferry off the coast of Malaysia. A ferry showed up on time. Then it left. Then a bigger one showed up, presumably due to the large number of people trying to board. Then it left. Then we waited for almost an hour to board. As the tide continued to recede, we were boarded in order by section (A-D) even though we were all stuffed into the same cabin. It was a waste of time.

Then we got stuck on a sandbar.

I turned to a woman next to me, her overstuffed purse on her lap. “I’m from the Philippines,” she smiled. “We’re used to this sort of thing.” I watched the current ripping past us as we struggled, inch by inch to get off the sand.

Trying to keep my focus off the peril that awaited us, I watched a Rambo movie playing on an old screen at the front whose sound was blasting over the speakers. I looked around sheepishly as he mowed down scores of Asian soldiers in a remote jungle, his tanned muscles rippling with the recoiling machine gun. The boat started listing. We weren’t going anywhere. Why did we leave so late? Why did they allow so much baggage? Why are they playing violent American movies of Asian people getting blown up? (We eventually became unstuck when the captain moved everyone toward the bow).

The road to my island escape was lined with hectares of palm plantations as far as the eye could see, the scourge of my part of the world as an easy buck that fuels everything from Ritz crackers to Nutella and clouds the skies of my part of the world for months with pollution as the fields burn.

Along the road past my beach bungalow was a sea turtle sanctuary, the carcass of a gigantic rusting freighter that was being cut up for scrap, (making a section of the beach dangerous and unusable), mounds of plastic and trash, and an enormous hotel that was being constructed by migrant laborers living in muddy shacks covered with palm fronds.

This is our world.

A juxtaposition of threatened species and people trying to survive, of big conglomerates and small gestures toward sustainability. Of ignorance and beauty. Hope and hopelessness.

I stood with my hands on my hips, sweating profusely as I listened to an earnest volunteer at the turtle sanctuary tell me the greatest thing that she had learned was not about the ecology of the turtles but the importance of learning the cultures around her and the assimilation of values necessary to protect the species.

“We have a man who used to take all the eggs on the beach and bring them to the village. Instead of trying to stop him, we buy the eggs. Then we raise the turtles. That was a big victory for us.”

I wrote about this as I enjoyed my chicken rice routine, satisfied at my connection to the chicken rice culture but looking for the messages in these other experiences, and wondering what, if anything I could do about this in my role as an educator.

Would my students know what to do about the sea turtles competing with the people next door trying to survive?

What would they think about the village destroying the beach as they tried to attract tourists?

Do they know anything about the effects of palm oil?

Do they think Rambo movies are cool?

Sustainability is hard, complex work embedded with cultural phenomenon that goes back centuries. It’s the work that governments do badly and that people on a small scale do exceptionally well. Yes, thinking global and acting local.

In a microcosm, my chicken rice experience mirrored the type of education we need to give our children. To observe, to acculturate, to gain acceptance. To create change. It’s hard but essential work, not the type of thing that is easy to grade or find in a textbook.

I finished my coffee and my writing for the morning, got up and gave the ladies at the busy counter my usual smile. “See you next week,” I waved. “See you next week,” they said in unison. “See you next week.”

Trash Talk

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Dharavi, Mumbai Quick Facts:

1) One of the largest slums on the planet (approximately 1,000,000 inhabitants).
2) Created by British colonials in 1882.
3) Estimated value of exported, yes EXPORTED goods is $500-600 million a year.
4) Covers 217 hectares (535 acres).
5) 60% Hindu, 33% Muslim, 6% Christian.

There were a million ways for me to approach this writing, none of them unique: Dignity of man against great odds, such as this picture of my guide, Hashim, with his family who live in an 8’x 6′ single room…

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Or celebration of the human spirit amidst so much drudgery and suffering such as this wedding march…

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Or the ingenuity of people who create their own industry out of the rest of the world’s garbage…

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Or the joy and hope of young schoolchildren hungry to learn against all odds…(Yes, that’s the indefatigable Don Bergmann with me!)

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But instead, I’m going to focus on this:

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Yes, it looks like a “count your blessings/perspective” article, but please bear with me…

Imagine for one second the person who went through the trouble to find/buy/build this box, hang a complaint sign on it, then HANG it up on a building in the world’s largest slum. And then, what in the world would the person do with the complaints when they opened the box? On what scale of insurmountable problems could the receiver of said complaints possibly cope? (I imagined some government agent sitting at an old wooden desk crying with his head in hands next to a gigantic pile of crumpled messages).

That didn’t seem to be a problem…the box was empty. Now, there could be a variety of reasons for that. People weren’t interested, couldn’t write (or find paper/pencil), didn’t feel anything would change, didn’t understand what ‘complaints’ meant, etc. etc. But regardless, the box was there. And it was EMPTY.

I’ve been to a number of countries in which as a white stranger I was mobbed by people asking for things, chased by children calling after me, and surrounded by folks who made me feel very privileged and quite uncomfortable. The kinds of places that you never want to visit again.

In Dharavi, I walked down narrow passageways, over puddles and open sewers, past rows of fetid animal skins, men sorting mountains of plastic, and scores of children. Except for quizzical stares and a number of children who wanted to “high five,” I hardly got a look and walked past an empty complaint box. This was a place that teetered on the edge of catastrophe every day, where cholera and tuberculosis were rampant, sewers were filled with toxic chemicals, and people struggled every single day. Yes, it’s possible that the route of my ‘tour’ was the same route that all the tourists were brought down and the locals had grown accustomed. I thought of that. But that still wouldn’t have stopped a million people if they were desperate enough.

What I walked away with was that these people weren’t waiting.

They weren’t waiting for handouts from tourists, helicopters with aide packages, or, someone to respond to things put into a complaint box. Instead, they were responding to what their environment had given them and seemed to be acting upon it. Men ripped rubber casings from long metal wires to recycle the copper and steel inside, boys smelted aluminum on an ancient machine that recast parts for western blending machines, and girls sewed, dyed, and distributed plastic parts into bins, barrels and crates.

In a lot of schools I’ve seen in my 22 year career, there’s a plethora of two things that I didn’t observe in the world’s largest slum…complaining and waiting. Hmmmm.

We do a LOT of both in schools. We wait for better results, the bell to ring, the directions to come, the meeting to start, the leadership to change, the letter to arrive in the mail (seniors). We wait. We complain. They are both passive experiences in which someone else is expected to do something.

Dharavi isn’t waiting. I don’t want to wait. I don’t want my students to wait to turn 17 or 18 before they start impacting their world. I don’t want them to complain either.

I want them to be able to take a mountain of trash, a stack of insurmountable odds against them, and make something beautiful out of it. NOW.

This picture was taken in a tiny room next to five kids trying to teach each other to read.

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The Last American Holiday

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When Abraham Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863, he did so at the height of the American Civil War by inviting fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving. It was a relatively simple proclamation designed to heal the wounds of a nation at war with itself.

Like many of my international colleagues, there are a million versions of how this event has been commemorated, from roasting ostrich to alligator (in a pinch) and everything in between, to hilarious translations of its meaning, the football watching, and the illogic connection to the shopping season. But in spite of the many impromptu interpretations (Thanksgiving fish, really?) the one thing that has always endured is that no commercialism, no travel, or culture can take away the simple act of sharing gratitude.

We got lucky this year.

Without turkeys, television, or turnip, my family and I went on a bike ride in a place really far from the coast of where our relatives live, and we found a way to capture the tradition of giving thanks that grounded us, as it does everyone who is ‘sojourning in foreign lands’ according to Mr. Lincoln.

And so we gave thanks,

To the Buddhist monk who paddled up to us in his canoe at sunrise, accepting our offerings as he said a prayer for peace.

To the man peeling a mountain of coconuts for pennies a day, to feed his family.

To the couple outside a temple who asked us where we were from and laughed with us as we took pictures of one another, each foreigners in a foreign place.

To our guide, who blessed us with his own stories of tradition, family and giving thanks.

To the driver who shared his watermelon.

To the schoolchildren (pictured above) who showed my own children what it means to want a better life, even without computers, swimming pools or climbing walls.

To the man who shared bread with us so that we could feed fish for good luck.

My culture’s taking a beating right now across the board, but this annual Thursday I’m hanging my hat on. So on that day in a far away place, the Thanksgiving fish was fresh, the hands we held were loved, and the gratitude of simple acts reminded us why we are in this international business of trying to make the world a little better.

God bless.

The Power of Home Cooking and Facebook

Even despite the damp cold of late January, the Shanghai apartment had the warm feeling of a home, with artwork, family photos, and the aroma of Italian meatballs throughout. The couple hosting, Eric Paci and Julia Carey, were in their first teaching post together, and as far as I was concerned, they were living the dream. I’d been teaching abroad for almost a decade, but always solo. I had often wondered how different my life would be if I were carrying on my journey with a teaching partner, someone with whom to share this amazing adventure as an international educator.

After a delicious meal and wonderful conversation, I returned to my apartment and logged onto Facebook. I’d been a member of the International School Teachers group page for over a year, but only in the previous six weeks had I seen the page truly adopt the role of professional and social network. It was the heart of recruiting season, after all. As I was scrolling through various threads and reflecting on my evening with friends, an inspired thought entered my mind. Suddenly, I was typing a post of my own.

“It’s recruiting season, and every time I log on Facebook, this page has more and more comments from people seeking information about schools, countries, and job opportunities. I am NOT seeking a new post, but rather am staying put in China for another year. That being said, I AM in the market for a teaching spouse, so if there are any single, globetrotting male teachers out there, you should consider a move to Shanghai!”

I ended with “Hahahaha” to make sure everyone knew I was kidding (or was I?), hit the submit button, giggled at myself, and succumbed to my food-induced coma.

The next morning, I opened Facebook and was shocked to see that while I’d been asleep, my post had garnered quite a bit of attention. As I read through the comments, I shook my head and laughed. Clearly, I thought, I’m not alone. I seemed to have said publicly what many others have thought, and every response was positive and enthusiastic.

Within an hour, a man named Craig Gray had jokingly suggested a singles group page, one that many others eagerly stated they’d join. Another man sarcastically offered his hand in marriage, while several women echoed my sentiments with “Me too!” and “I second that!” By mid-morning, Shanghai time, another commenter, Carrie Renault, had acted upon Craig’s idea and created the International Single Teachers page–a group with the semi-serious intention of helping teachers find love and, subsequently, their future teaching partner.

Anyone who is a member of Facebook has seen images touting the power of social media. A teenager holds a sign reading, “My mom says she’ll shave her head if this gets one million likes” or something of the sort, and it spreads like wildfire. While this didn’t exactly go viral, it certainly took on a life of its own, and amazing things have happened as a result.

Five days after the original post, the International Single Teachers Facebook group had 200 members. One month in, there were 350. Groups of singles from Shanghai to Dubai have met up for happy hours, vacation plans have been shared, and sofas and guest bedrooms have been offered to those passing through. Singles from the IST page have met at teaching conferences worldwide, discovered countless professional and personal connections, and have made new friends resulting from their membership in the group.

It is now a little over a year since our group’s founding, and we have surpassed 1,500 members. So, has anyone coupled up? Well, the verdict is still out on that. There have been numerous conversations started as well as some dates originating from the connections made, but as of yet, we haven’t heard any wedding bells or couples’ teaching contracts being offered.

One of the most incredible things about being part of this group are the messages I receive from members who say that they have been provided wonderful information and tons of laughs as a result of the page. What stemmed from a snarky remark after a home-cooked meal has led to countless friendships, professional contacts, and life-altering advice. The humor and wit of the group members runs sky-high, and even when self-deprecating, we always manage to find the positives in our status as singles abroad. We truly love the lives we lead. In these messages, I’ve been thanked over and over again for something over which I truly had no control (Craig and Carrie are really the ones to thank). Even so, how could any of us have possibly known that this would take off, and the amazing network that it would create? My original post may have served as the inspiration, and for that, my appreciation goes to the home of a teaching couple and the smell of Italian meatballs.

School Breaks and the International Educator

 

Monkey Forest. Ubud, Indonesia
Monkey Forest. Ubud, Indonesia

We’re in the Home Stretch
With the school year winding down, teachers at international schools, and schools everywhere, are operating on a fever pitch to get everything done in order to conclude another school year.  From class trips, to school projects, to report cards and other administrative tasks, we are in the final countdown to summer break and the pace is full-steam ahead.  The excitement is palpable among students and teachers alike and everyone at the school is on a mission to make the end of the school year not only fruitful and productive, but fun and festive to celebrate the successful conclusion of students completing their current grade and moving on to the next.  At an international school, it’s not just saying goodbye to students who are moving up a grade or graduating, there’s the added emotion and drama of saying goodbye, to people (students, teachers and friends) who will be moving overseas to their next school or assignment.

Summer Vacation – the Ultimate Break
All the hard work and stress of the final weeks brings with it a handsome pay-off – summer vacation.  Yes, the break of all breaks. Perhaps this time-honored tradition is one of the greatest perks of the teaching profession.  Two whole months of rest, relaxation, and a time to reflect and enjoy family . . . it doesn’t get any better than that!  Of course many teachers utilize the time for professional development, while others may even pursue a second job over the summer for additional income.  For many international teachers this is a highly anticipated holiday because after almost a year of being overseas, many look forward to going home and spending time with family or taking the opportunity for extended travel and excursions.

Is this the end of Spring Breaks?
The upcoming break has got me thinking about this past year and the wonderful opportunities I’ve had, not just professionally while school is in session, but personally during the various breaks throughout the school year. The most notable and recent one for me was last month’s spring break. Ah, Spring Break . . . just the term alone conjures up certain images of American college students partying on the beach as if there were no tomorrow. Last year, in my senior year of college, I was celebrating a lot of lasts. My last homecoming week, my last final, my last class, my last spring break . . . I thought this is it – I’ll be entering the real world where I’ll have to kiss those cherished breaks good bye. But then I entered the world of international teaching where spring break is brought to a whole new level.

This is Not Your College Spring Break
In this, my first year out of college, I had three ‘spring break’ vacations already!  But these are not the spring breaks of college days with senseless partying in the sun and sand, but the kind that is a real adventure filled with travel and personal growth.   At first I thought as a teacher the breaks were really for the students and that teachers’ breaks would be filled with reading, reviewing curriculum materials, student reports, and catching up on work for the week ahead.  Was I wrong! For teachers at international schools, spring break, more than any other, is a time for travel! Right before break students get very excited for the upcoming vacation, but it’s not just the students — teachers get just as excited for the vacation time, if NOT MORE! 

I think it’s because as expats living in far flung corners of the world, everyone it seems, has made elaborate travel plans. The opportunities are incredible when you’re living overseas, so we tend to get very excited about the upcoming trips.  Moreover, it’s part of the culture of international teaching to use your time off to travel and expand your horizons by seeing new countries and learning about their history and culture.  This exposure only helps you as you interact and relate to your students and their families who hail from all over the world.  

A Trip to Vietnam
Last month these travels took me and two of my teacher-friends to Vietnam, where we set-out on a journey that stretched the length of the country starting at the Capital of Hanoi, and traveling down the coast via overnight trains to Ho Chi Minh, where we stopped and stayed in the cities of Hoi An and Nha Trang in between.

Vietnam is a beautiful country filled with lush, tropical vegetation, a verdant countryside, beautiful beaches, busy and bustling cities, and some of the most delicious food I have ever enjoyed.  I would have never imagined the immense beauty of this ancient land, based on the images and portrayals I have seen in movies and the media, nor would this have been on my list of places to visit. But thanks to living and teaching in the nearby Philippines, and to friends ready and willing to try something new, I was able to see first-hand what an amazing place Vietnam is.  I found this country so compelling and beautiful that I know I want to return here and also come back to see the neighboring countries of Cambodia and Laos.