All posts by Shannon Fehse

Teacher Appreciation: Smiles, Trust, and Cookies

Beginning in 1984, the National PTA of the United States has annually set aside one week in May as “Teacher Appreciation Week”. During this week, teachers are honored, supported, and recognized for the work that they do with students day in and day out, all year long. Internationally, this week may fall at a different time of year, be limited to only a day, or perhaps, not happen at all. But outside of these designated times when educators might anticipate handmade cards or treats in the staff room, what other signs of appreciation do they receive?

Usually, it’s pretty clear when we’ve positively impacted a child, ignited a spark, or helped a student overcome an obstacle. Kids are generally pretty good at conveying their appreciation for what we do. Whether that comes as an impromptu hug from a kindergartener, or a heartfelt “I couldn’t have done this without you” from a graduating senior, we know when our students value the time and energy that we put into their education and into them as individuals.

And sometimes, that’s enough. We take pride in what we do, and when we see a student’s face light up with new knowledge, the hard work and long hours are worth it. When we help a child succeed in math, encourage a reluctant writer to finish a story, or guide a student through a difficult social situation, we feel proud of our work. We don’t need anyone else to acknowledge our efforts or stroke our egos; the proof is in the student.

At times, however, teachers need to feel that their efforts are recognized by the adults involved as well. What about the parents, colleagues, and administrators? What are they doing–or not doing–to let teachers know that they are valued?

A few days ago, I read a post on social media written by a teacher who felt as though she was not being appreciated by her administrators. As others chimed in with similar stories and anecdotes, I started to wonder: What does appreciation look like? What form does it take for different people? Just as our students are all individuals and have different needs and styles, we too have different needs and preferences. While one teacher feels appreciated when recognized publicly, the teacher in the classroom next door might be mortified by such a thing, and would prefer a note or a quiet email acknowledging a job well done.

I posed these questions online in order to find out what makes teachers feel valued at work, and, as I suspected they would, the answers varied greatly. For some teachers, it’s an announced dress-down day. For others, it’s fresh-baked cakes or cookies in the staff room. Many who responded said that “thank you goes a long way”, and that a smile and a personal acknowledgment from colleagues and administrators does the trick. And besides taking more time and effort to craft than an email, a personalized, handwritten note card makes teachers feel genuinely appreciated. Some even said that they have kept these notes and looked back on them over the years.

However, beyond these often tangible tokens of appreciation, many teachers said that they regularly feel appreciated when they are listened to by their colleagues and administration. Teachers want their voices to be heard. When ideas, suggestions, and complaints are given authentic recognition, teachers feel valued. They want to be part of the discourse, not just told the outcomes of decisions that have been made. Small check-ins about items other than curriculum also have a big impact. It’s easy to get lost in the paperwork and the to-do lists, and for all conversations to revolve around students and unit planning and clerical items. However, when an administrator pops by your classroom to ask a question about how you’re doing as a person–then takes the time to actually listen to your response–this makes a huge difference. Acknowledging that teachers’ social and emotional well-being is also a priority, and recognizing the whole person, is instrumental in making teachers feel appreciated.

In addition to having administrators who listen to them, teachers want to be respected and treated as professionals. Many teachers said that they are grateful for casual drop-in observations from administrators who engage in the lessons and know what is happening in the classroom. They interact with the students and ask questions, then give constructive feedback. Micromanaging is a quick way to kill staff morale and make teachers feel like they cannot be trusted. Conversely, giving teachers voice in decision-making, and allowing collaboration to happen organically makes them feel that they are valued as professionals. When PD opportunities are differentiated, when teachers are able to seek out personal wellness at work, and when time is respected, the overall culture of a school can be drastically improved. Simply put, teachers who feel valued will add more value.

Many who chimed in on this topic likened the variety of ways in which educators feel appreciated to the theory of “love languages”, based on the book by Gary Chapman. This theory states that there are five ways that people express love. Not surprisingly, people express and receive appreciation in various ways as well. Along with Dr. Paul White, Chapman has co-authored another book titled, The Five Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace. This book instructs leaders how to communicate their appreciation, thereby improving staff morale, increasing engagement, and building solid relationships among faculty. That, in turn, creates more buy-in and pushes employees to want to do more and work harder.

Hopefully, educators are in this profession for the kids–and their feedback should be the most important of all. If a teacher feels valued by his or her students, that should be enough. But sometimes, those little tokens of gratitude from other adults keep us going when our batteries are drained and our patience is running thin. On those days when we feel everything is going wrong, or when we’re not reaching a particular student, or when a family member back home is sick and we’re just struggling to be present, we might need just a little more. A smile, a handwritten note, or a personal, genuine, “How are you today?” can work wonders toward making teachers feel that their hard work and personal health is valued.

Happy Teacher Appreciation Week. May you all feel cherished, primarily by your students, but by their parents, your colleagues, and your administrators as well. And if there are cookies in the staff room this week, make sure to grab one…or maybe two.

Which Tier Next Year?

Professional networks are buzzing at this time of year. It is prime recruiting season, after all. Educators worldwide are reaching out to one another via social media, seeking information and insight into schools, open positions, and hiring strategies.

One question frequently being asked is about the “tier” of a certain school, or what the “tier one” schools are in a particular city, country, or region. These questions intrigue me, because the answers vary greatly. And it’s no wonder, given the extremely subjective nature of the questions themselves.

The international circuit is comprised of teachers from all over the globe, and we all bring our unique values and non-negotiables to our job searches. Professional experiences vary, and a school’s reputation according to a tiered level is not a one-size-fits-all indicator of its success. Ultimately, the perceived quality of a school comes down to personal preference. Not everyone is seeking a “tier one” school, and what might be considered a first choice for one teacher might be a no-go for another. As educator Ashleigh McElrath explains, “Every teacher has their own set of experiences and expectations. Different people have varying perspectives of ‘ideal’. I think it’s quite hard to accurately categorize schools into tiers.”

When I first began my international career in 2004, I had never heard the word “tier” used to describe schools as being a certain level. Perhaps it’s a term that has come into use since that time, or perhaps ignorance is bliss. I was a happy twenty-something in my little school, which I’m sure would have been considered “tier three” or below–if a rung that low even exists on the hypothetical school ladder.

So, who makes the decision about what tier a school is, and why? I’ve read several blog posts on the subject, and many of them go so far as to create a list of “top tier” schools in each geographic region of the world. But who verifies these lists, and what are the criteria by which they’re compiled?

I reached out to teachers in one of my own professional networks in order to gather insight, and the replies were fascinating. Many consider “top tier” schools to be those that are student-centered, have a diverse student body, and a mission and vision that are evident on a daily basis. Transparency in decision-making and hiring practices was mentioned repeatedly as a factor in a school earning a “top tier” ranking. Other qualifications for holding a “top tier” reputation include a not-for-profit structure with an elected board, significant professional development opportunities for teachers, and a strong salary and benefits package.

Also mentioned among my colleagues was the drive to reach higher standards. For teachers seeking a position at a school with a “top tier” reputation, competition is fierce, which leads to increased demands on faculty. Teaching at schools with strong reputations “often comes with more work and higher expectations, but there is innovation, and a constant drive to find the best ways to educate the population of the school,” says teacher Dee Norman. Sometimes referred to as the “pressure cooker effect”, these schools place heavy demands on their faculty because they are constantly growing and stretching and evolving.

While many schools considered to be among the “top tier” are large, well-known schools with decades of history, lesser-known and smaller schools have some incredible advantages. When a school is newer or smaller–lacking set traditions and a large number of stakeholders–progress and innovation have the potential to occur more rapidly. This gives smaller schools the opportunity to break molds and implement new initiatives at a much faster pace than their larger, more established counterparts. One teacher, Elizabeth Zans, says, “A top school puts the students and teachers first by supporting both and nurturing academic success. There are many little gems out there that are not on the ‘top’ of many teachers’ lists. Maybe the language should be changed to ‘schools that promote excellence in both students and teachers’.”

When new administrators enter the scene, an entire school culture can change drastically–almost overnight. McElrath says, “A school can be absolutely amazing one year and then the next year, one key person leaves and it has a ripple effect on everything, suddenly making that school very difficult to work in. The reverse holds true as well…For me, people make schools.”

As I pondered this insight, that one word kept jumping out at me. People. Over and over again, it was mentioned that the people are what make any school great. Diana Pacheco, who considers her school a “hidden gem”, agrees that arbitrary tiers don’t paint a true picture. She says, “What makes [a school] stand out from the rest are the people…from admin to faculty to staff.”

Knowing how quickly the population of a school can change, it is no wonder that the “tier” of a school could potentially change with it. Perhaps we should stop referring to schools by an opinion-based system that compares them with one another. Instead, we should strive to be the people that make our schools stand out for our colleagues and students. Because any school can be great, if the people within it aspire to greatness.

Congrats! But…

When international educators are seeking a new position, most will reach out to their professional networks in search of advice and information about schools. What do you know about this school? Has anyone worked with this administrator? What are the working conditions in xyz country? It is fitting that in a community as closely-knit as this one, educators will be looking to each other for advice.

But sometimes, we simply don’t want to hear what others have to say. We have our own reasons for seeking a particular school, location, or position, and we’re not interested in what people think of our choices.

And yet, advice and opinions abound. We hear the anecdotes and stories, perhaps accidentally, perhaps because those who are holding them make sure to tell us. Some people feel it is their duty to shove more information at us, even though we haven’t asked for their feedback or insight.

I have a friend who recently accepted a new position and was, naturally, super excited about it. It didn’t take long for word to spread amongst her colleagues, and soon, she was flooded with visitors. Except here’s the catch: nobody wanted to congratulate her. Instead, all of them were clamoring to tell her the negative things they’d heard about her new school. “It frustrates the heck out of me,” she told me one day. “I don’t care what their experiences are or what opinions they have about this school. I have a good feeling about it and think that I will be really happy there, and I don’t need people trying to bring me down.”

I’ve heard similar frustrations expressed from others in my own professional network. They might choose a particular school based on the availability of an elusive position they’ve been seeking. They might find the school’s mission and vision directly in line with their own. They might choose a school because they really want to be in a certain city or country. Or they might choose it simply because they had a natural, positive connection with the administrator during an interview. Whatever the reason, one thing is always the same: they’ve just concluded their job search, and they are relieved and happy. Jubilant, even. But there will no doubt be somebody, somewhere, who has had a negative experience and will be eager to share it. Their intentions are good, of course, seeking only to forewarn a friend against a possible bad situation. But when your friend has already committed to the job, this is far from helpful.

If someone is asking for information about a school prior to interviewing or signing a contract, by all means, give them that information. Tell them what you know, IF you know it recently and first-hand. If you have personal experience with the school in question, know what your friend is looking for in their next post, and don’t think it’s a match, tell them. If you feel that they need to be steered another direction, steer them gently. Unfortunately, more often than not, the opinions and anecdotes that people choose to share are outdated and passed through the grapevine. If we’ve simply “heard” that a school is not good, or an administrative team is weak, we’re really in no position to offer advice in the first place.

If, on the other hand, your friend or colleague has just signed a contract with a new school, congratulate them, no matter what you’ve heard about the school. Tell them that you’re happy for them. Don’t share the story about the guy-you-once-worked-with-who-used-to-work-there-and-hated-it. Your friend doesn’t need nor want that information. They have just committed to at least two years working at this new school, and now is not the time to ruin their happiness and excitement with negative quips. Keep it to yourself. Schools change. People choose schools for different reasons, and their reasons may be different than yours. You may not understand or appreciate their motivations, but the factors that pull educators to certain schools are as unique as the educators themselves. Let your friends celebrate their new jobs. Don’t sabotage their joy with unsolicited horror stories.

Looking for a new job is a stressful time for everyone in this network, from a first-year teacher to a seasoned head of school. When we finally get to the end of our own personal recruiting season and have committed to a school, we want to relax and let that fact sink in. We don’t want negativity to chase after us like an angry swarm of wasps. To everyone recruiting this season, best of luck in finding a perfect match. Once you sign with the school that you feel is right for you, relish in the fact that your job search is over. Ignore the naysayers who may try to steal your joy. Be at peace with your decision. Enjoy the moment. And congratulations.


A Tribute to Two Hundred

Regular readers of the TIE blog will no doubt recognize Dan Kerr’s name. He has been sharing his thoughts and reflections about life and education for seven years, and just wrote his 200th post this week. That is quite an accomplishment for anyone, let alone someone also balancing a job as principal and roles as a husband and father.

Dan’s voice and optimism are apparent in his writing. However, those who know him on a personal and professional level can attest that this voice is not added in for the benefit of the blog–it is completely, one hundred percent Dan Kerr.

In a profession where we often don’t get the recognition that we deserve or require, it’s easy to get bogged down and think negative thoughts. Enter Dan Kerr…the guy who always seems to see the glass as half-full, no matter what. He seeks meaning and lessons in the little things, and turns even the most difficult trials into positive learning opportunities. Those who have worked with Dan have witnessed this positive attitude and infectious enthusiasm day in and day out.

Dan’s 200th post was written and uploaded to the TIE blog just a few days ago. In it, he admits to “being so nervous when I hit send on my first blog post” and that he feels compelled to express his thoughts because, “We all have so much to share, and so much to say, and it’s not okay to keep it all to ourselves.” I couldn’t agree more. It is because we have so much to share that I decided to seek out some of the countless educators who have been impacted by Dan Kerr’s optimism, enthusiasm, and inspiration over the years. Whether reaching them as a blogger, colleague, lecturer or administrator, Dan no doubt leaves his mark on those he encounters. And so, in honor of his milestone post this week, here are some stories and anecdotes from those who have had the pleasure working and learning alongside a man several have referred to as “a legend”.

Dan Kerr is a true professional in every sense of the word. He strives to learn, grow, and reflect, and he inspires others with his thoughts and words of wisdom. This often leads to positive changes in their own level of professionalism. His work teaching Masters courses in Madrid made a lasting impact on Lee Parker, who said that Dan “did his homework before I arrived and knew of me due to JIS contacts. He has helped me with CVs, interviews etc. (feedback), and I am now at my dream school. As a lecturer, he was super positive and inspirational. I really enjoyed his course.”

Fellow TIE blogger Frederic Bordaguibel-Labayle recalls a specific experience with Dan that changed the trajectory of his professional life. “On October 14th, 2015, during a Teachers Teaching Teachers session, Dan ran a presentation called Setting Yourself Up for Success. It was about getting ready to go and find a new job in a different school. It was an inspiring session, and I still remember it. Dan developed several points and the first one, personal and professional websites, is the one that stuck with me. Back then, having a website and using it to get one’s voice out there was a foreign concept to me. For a while, I even thought that I was probably missing on something, but I felt that having a website and blogging was not for me. But still, I highly respect Dan, and I wrestled with this idea. I eventually invited Dan over at home to discuss this further, and he changed my mind. Thanks to Dan, I started a website and a blog, I write a new post once or twice a month, and my voice is now also shared through TIE.”

Those who have had Dan Kerr as an administrator have nothing but positive things to share about their experiences. Jeff Lindstrom claims that, “One of the hardest things I ever did was when I had to choose to teach in the high school over the middle school at SCIS, since that meant that Dan was no longer my principal. The next year he went to bat for me and quickly helped me get an interview with a former colleague, and I know his reference really helped me secure the position. He is just awesome in every way, and I would work for him again, even in a crappy school, without hesitation.”

Dani DiPietro has worked at nine schools over the years and firmly states that, “Dan, by far, has been the kindest, most organized, caring administrator I have had the pleasure of working with.” She goes on to say that Dan “is supportive as an administrator, and I always felt that he ‘had my back’ with kids and their parents. We would always discuss situations to make sure all sides were heard, but it was nice to know someone supported you and what happened in most cases, unquestioningly.”

When Dan worked at Academia Cotopaxi in Ecuador, his office neighbored that of Paola Torres de Pereira, who was then the early childhood principal. She shared that Dan “graciously played along” for the Pete the Cat-themed Halloween costume, and that children still ask about him regularly. In thinking about Dan’s written contributions to the world of education, she says, “Mondays…of course Dan Kerr’s ‘musings’ had to be on that day. Around the world, educators get out of bed, get inspired, laugh, cry, ponder. Mondays are brightened, and his contagious attitude reaches thousands to help them through a week of many stories. I met Dan about 100 ‘musings’ ago at a PTC course, had the privilege of working with him for three years, and have been strengthened by his friendship and positivity, like so many others probably have been.”

Quite possibly what stands out the most about Dan Kerr is his genuine interest in others. “Dan’s smile when he met you the first time carried on throughout. He is warm, interested in you as a person and a teacher. Dan is awesome at making his staff feel valued and can laugh at himself,” remarked Lis Wilson, who worked with Dan in Shanghai.

Dani DiPietro added, “His interpersonal relationships with both adults and students is legendary. Not many administrators learn all of their students’ and all of the other students’ names in the entire school, to greet them in person every morning. I think that was the telling factor for me that I was working with a genuine, one-of-a-kind individual. He always asks about you, how you are, and how your family is, and seems to always have his finger on the pulse of each person he knows and works with. It is mind-boggling. ”

Gretchen Paul, who currently works with Dan at the American School of Paris, has only known him for two months. Still, her impressions mirror those who have known him much longer. “Dan is professional, knowledgeable and enthusiastic about education. What sets him apart from other educators are his passion for human relationships and his desire to be a lifelong learner. More than any other administrator, Dan greets adults and children in the morning with genuine enthusiasm for each hello. The children at our school look forward to seeing Dan each and every day and he appreciates each individual for who they are: asking about soccer matches and playdates. Dan invariably sees the best in each child! Dan is inspiring to work with and he makes everyone around him want to be their very best. I consider myself lucky to learn from him!”

Dan, from all of us to you…congratulations, and thank you. Thank you for inspiring us, teaching us, and lifting us up. Thank you for taking the risks, making yourself vulnerable, and “putting yourself out there”, two hundred times and counting.


It’s Real

“I’m struggling.” I’ve said these two words more times than I can count in the past week. On one hand, it’s a relief to openly express my feelings and frustrations, and on the other, I feel guilty for complaining about something so wonderful.

With just over a week remaining until the end of the school year, I should be feeling like I’m in a state of euphoria. I should be counting down the final hours of the school year, celebrating my successes and the academic gains of my students, and looking forward to basking in sun, family and the awesomeness that is summertime.

And yet, I’m struggling.

As a career international teacher, I’ve never been directly confronted with issues such as budget cuts, incentive pay, lack of professional development, or students with extreme special needs. I’ve had it pretty darn good.

But there is something missing.

Next week marks the end of my 11th year in an elementary school classroom. When I began college, I remember learning that the average person in today’s workforce will change careers about 5-7 times. “Of course”, I remember thinking, “why would anyone do the same thing for forty-plus years?” I made the decision right then and there that I would be an elementary teacher for 5-10 years, tops, before making the move to something new.

And here I am.

It’s not for lack of trying, mind you. I’ve expressed my interest in teaching middle school on multiple occasions, and have attempted to make internal moves, to no avail. Like an actor who is typecast, I can’t seem to “break into” other roles within a school. Despite my credentials and strong desire to teach more focused content, I am viewed as an elementary school teacher, and always cast as such.

Not that being an elementary teacher is a bad thing. To be clear, I would not have stayed in this role for 11 years if I was miserable or somehow disliked this age group. On the contrary, I love working with young children, and would relish in the opportunity to continue working with them in a different setting or context. I just don’t want to teach science. Ever. Again. Science isn’t to blame, of course. My passions just lie elsewhere.

Educators in middle and upper grades have the great blessing of being able to teach the subject of their passion, be it math or chemistry or literature. Elementary teachers, however, typically teach all of the core subject areas, whether or not they have substantial interest, desire, or content knowledge in a certain area. Spending the day with a homeroom teacher, stable classroom community, and set routine may be more developmentally appropriate for younger learners, according to research. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to witness and be part of the bonds and communities that have been formed in my classrooms over the years. But I also believe that some of the same factors that benefit young students may contribute to teachers being stretched too thin and feeling burned out more quickly. I wouldn’t be sharing these feelings on a public platform if I thought I was alone. I know I’m not.

There are plenty of statistics sharing the startling rates of teachers leaving the profession, and it makes sense in a place like the US, where the education system is in need of a major overhaul. But for overseas educators, life is grand. We earn competitive salaries, get our housing provided, receive countless professional development opportunities, work with incredible colleagues and students, and get to travel the world. What’s not to like?

Nothing, you might think. This gal’s got it made.

We’ve all worked with those people who just don’t seem to like kids (why did they become teachers in the first place?), or who are unhappy no matter what. But burnout affects even those of us who are truly passionate about working with children, and who generally greet life with a smile. I love my school and the young people with whom I spend my days. They make me smile constantly. We learn, we laugh, and we help each other. And yet, there’s a part of me that is not feeling fulfilled.

The struggle is real.

Perhaps this is one of the few drawbacks of being a lifelong learner. I have too many interests, and I’m not done navigating their positions in my life just yet. I’m not ready to settle on one thing, even if there’s still so much to learn about that thing. Let’s face it, nobody’s ever really at the top of their game in the field of education, because the game is always changing. Still, I feel that there are so many options out there for me to explore. Maybe that means that someone will finally offer me the chance to help middle school students cultivate a passion for words and find their written voice. Or maybe I will go back to school for another degree that will make me more marketable in a different realm of international education, taking me outside of the classroom entirely. But then again, maybe now is the time I start that business on the beach I’ve been talking about for years, or become a pediatric nurse, or join in a humanitarian aid effort. I struggle, because while the beach business idea is a good one, I don’t really see myself walking away from international education anytime soon. What I do know is that I’m approaching the end of the line in elementary, and I’m ready to be cast in a different role. My soul is yearning for something new, something fresh, and it can no longer be silenced or ignored.

After this summer, which will hopefully provide some clarity, I have another year of teaching fabulous fifth graders. I will give them the same amount of love and attention that I have given every group of students thus far. And then, I believe that this scene will come to a close. I’d love to remain part of the same storyline; the change to a new scene doesn’t necessarily require an entirely new script. Perhaps someday, it will. But for now, just being cast in a different role might provide the needed change I seek. Like an actor who finally breaks out of their typecast and then watches their career really take off, I am ready.


Election 2016: The Day After

November 9th, 2016.  As is so common at this time of year, weather changes and busy schedules create teacher fatigue and weakened immune systems. As such, I stayed home today in my pajamas in order to get some much-needed rest.

Instead, I found myself glued to the CNN election coverage from the moment I woke up (at 5:00 a.m., like always–go figure).  I was hanging on to the incoming results of each congressional district the same way I hung on to every pitch of World Series game seven last week.  Unfortunately, today’s results didn’t provide me the feelings of relief and jubilation that I experienced for the Cubs. Rather, I sit here dismayed, sad, and wondering what I will say to my students tomorrow.  

Regardless of one’s political affiliation, most Americans will agree that something needs to change in the way politics works in the USA. That sentiment is precisely what led to today’s outcome.  People are angry, frustrated, and feel that their voices aren’t being heard.

But what do I say to those fifth graders I greet tomorrow morning?  When we have our morning meeting where we share and laugh with each other, what will they want to talk about? I have a pretty good idea…but how do I respond?  

During the results coverage, political commentator Van Jones asked, “How do I explain this to my children?” He is certainly not alone in seeking the answer.  Like most teachers, I work to teach my students compassion and integrity.  I guide them to respect and celebrate their differences, rather than frown upon them. I teach them to accept others, embrace mistakes and failures, and live by The Golden Rule. Their emotional growth and well-being, as well as their place in society, are just as important to me as their ability to multiply fractions…if not more so.  But it’s not just me that feels this way; this is why so many of us became teachers.  We don’t do it just to increase students’ knowledge–we do it to impact their lives and enhance their character.

And yet, here we are.  The United States has just elected into power someone who has shown a pattern of bullying behaviors that we would never accept from even our youngest students.  We have elected a person who has spoken unkindly of others based on physical appearances, gender, race and religion. A person who, time and time again, has demonstrated the opposite of the leadership qualities we hope to instill in our students.  

So what do we do?  Well, I am going to start by doing what I do every day: model the same values I aim to teach my students. I am going to treat all of my friends and colleagues with kindness and respect, even if they have different views than me.  I am going to remain positive and believe that the world will keep moving forward, even when it might feel as though we’ve taken a giant step back.  I am going to refrain from arguments with friends on social media.  I will show my students how to demonstrate compassion, use kind words, and be empathetic. I will continue to teach them to question, argue, and defend their positions.  Perhaps most importantly, I will teach them to listen to each other.  It’s time we adults learn to do that as well.

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Itchy feet. Less-than-ideal work environments. Hyperinflation of currency. Disagreements with policy or administration. Being closer to family. Safety and security issues. Dating opportunities…or lack thereof. Stability for the kids. Desire to try something new.

No matter your reason for wanting to move on from one international teaching post to another, there comes a point when you feel it is “time to go”. But what constitutes an optimal length of time to stay at a school?  Most international educators sign initial contracts for two years, with the opportunity to stay beyond that contract if both parties (teacher and school) are willing. Is that enough? Or do schools expect more than that without requiring it outright in the contract?

This has been a topic of conversation amongst many of my international colleagues recently; one which has stirred up many differing opinions and experiences. The question we’ve been trying to answer? “What do schools think about [hiring] a teacher that has stayed two years at 2-3 schools in a row?”

The answer is complicated, obviously. It depends on the school itself, the views of the administrators who are doing the hiring, the resume of the job-seeker, and his or her reasons for leaving schools after only an initial contract, among other factors.

Schools generally want to see some longevity in their faculty. Sure, many of us are travelers by nature who want to explore the world and try out new countries, cultures, languages. But when we sign a contract to teach overseas, our primary responsibility is to our school and our students, not sticking pins in a map.

Only since this conversation began with colleagues a few days ago did I first hear the term “teacher tourist”, but I immediately knew what it meant. In fact, I’ll admit that when I first went overseas in my mid-20’s, I may have fallen into this category. I was excited to see the world and didn’t want to become stagnant in any given place. I signed my first one-year contract not even considering the possibility that I’d want to stay for a second year. I was eager to gain experiences, but at that time, professional growth was not my primary goal.

It wasn’t until an interview in which I was specifically asked about my 1-year, 2-year, 2-year resume that I realized maybe it was time to stay a bit longer in a place. After all, the administrator said, “Staying longer doesn’t just show that you are willing to commit, but it shows that the school is willing to extend your contract.”

Of course, there are often solid reasons for not extending a contract. When personal safety is a concern, or one’s host country is experiencing political turmoil, even the best-laid plans may take a rapid turn. When a family member at home becomes ill, or financial concerns take precedence, a teacher may decide that it is time to move on, even if their intention had been to stay a longer period of time.

If a resume shows a pattern of short-term stays in several different countries or schools, administrators are likely to mention this during an interview. By providing a strong rationale, a teacher may be able to convince the administrator that this does not reflect a lack of commitment; rather, that extenuating circumstances contributed to leaving. However, there is also a chance that an administrator may not even be willing to interview a teacher with such a pattern on their work history. Some teachers who chimed in on this conversation said that their administrators would simply discard resumes that showed multiple short stays in schools or countries.

International schools make an investment in their teachers, monetarily as well as for the program in which they work. Dee Norman, a theater teacher who spent eight years working in Mexico before recently relocating to Dubai had this to say, “If you are not going to stick around for long, then why would they invest the visa money, housing, and PD time to work with you, when they can find an equally qualified candidate who will give them 3+ years? I am not admin, but it sounds like good business to me.”

On some annual government reports on schools in the United States, one of the indicators of stable and higher-quality schools is faculty retention. While some international schools are places of high turnover–for faculty and students alike–many schools pride themselves on the average number of years their teachers remain at the school. When faculty stay longer than their initial contracts, it provides much-needed program continuity, which in turn helps student learning and staff morale.

On the other hand, if teachers are not invested for the long-term, it is very challenging to create any long-lasting positive change.  As many of us are well aware, during the first year of a contract, a new teacher is settling in, becoming acclimated to the school environment, curriculum, and expectations. If that same teacher is already seeking a new job in the second year (often within the first two months of the school year), he or she has never truly had the opportunity to settle in before they are already on their way out the door.

Because the key decision-makers in the hiring process are school administrators, I asked my current principal, Jonathan Johnson (known by many as Zeb) his perspective on this topic. He told me that “recruiters are definitely looking for teachers who are committed, and teachers who are successful.  When people stay in a school for just 2 years, it usually signals that something didn’t work out.  Either the person just saw the opportunity as a chance to live in a new place–which is important, but is not why people are hired, or they didn’t feel they could fit in the school’s community–also not a great sign.”

Ultimately, teachers need to determine the course of action that makes the most sense for them, their family, safety, and finances, as well as consider the school and students for whom they are working. Job-hunting can be emotionally exhausting and moving is expensive, but deciding to stay in a difficult or unhealthy environment may not be the best choice.  Weighing the pros and cons of this decision can be extremely challenging. However, teachers who have had a few short “stints” at several consecutive schools may strongly consider signing on for an extra year at their present location.  Doing so helps demonstrate commitment and shows that the school itself is willing to continue a professional relationship.

Leaving a school after an initial contract is often a difficult decision, but there is no question that longevity among faculty is better for the consistency of the school. Moving every 1-2 years just for the sake of moving, without strong reasons, can eventually cause challenges for a teacher in search of a job. Administrators in international schools are generally understanding of the desire to travel and gain new experiences, but they also have to consider what is best for their programs. According to Jonathan, ”Wanderlust hits us all, but we have to weigh the desire to see the world with the desire to make a difference in a school community, which tends to happen after the initial year(s) of the contract.”

A Little Nudge

We all know that transitioning to a new country isn’t always a simple process, and yet, most international educators do so multiple times. The goodbyes, the uprooting, the in-between summers, and the settling-in are physically, financially, and emotionally draining.

As of today, I have been in the United Arab Emirates for exactly one month. At times, it feels like I’ve been here for years, slowly plugging along and trying to find my place in my new country and school. Everything is new, exciting, and exhausting, all at once.

At my new school, we currently have a consultant working with teachers about how to conduct writing conferences with students. He speaks of the need to “nudge” students toward the next step, teaching them the most precise lesson that they need right now in order to improve their writing. I found this concept useful in more than just elementary writing workshops, and wondered how I could “nudge” myself to make this transition easier.

I’ve been teaching abroad for many years, but never before have I moved into an unfurnished home. To me, buying furniture is a rite of passage into adulthood–one that I’ve successfully managed to avoid until now. I’ve never been accused of being stylish or savvy, and I don’t know the first thing about purchasing sofas or curtains. To give myself a nudge, I recently sent an all-staff email seeking a personal shopper to help spend my money in return for words of appreciation and a free dinner. Tonight, an amazing colleague took me up on that offer. By Thursday, I’ll have enough furniture in my apartment to absorb the echoes my mom is always hearing in our Skype calls. And it’s only taken me a month.

Of course, having a sofa and an entertainment system will make me feel a bit more at home, but just as my students require multiple conferences to produce their best writing, I too need multiple nudges to make my transition as smooth as it can be. I’m teaching a new grade level this year…one that I knew would be a challenge for me. I’m up for it, of course, but I may have to seek help and advice from colleagues more often than I feel comfortable doing. There will be a learning curve, and it will take time. However, only by nudging myself to confront my fears and weaknesses will I learn the best ways to reach my students and make myself a better educator.

The same goes for giving myself a personal nudge. It is all too easy when moving to a new school and country to get lost in our work. We want to do a great job, do the best for our students, and be appreciated by our colleagues, the administration, and the parents. We know that the profession we are in is never-ending…there aren’t enough hours in a day to “do it all”. And yet, many of us try, burning ourselves out in the process. How can we possibly be the best teachers for our students if we don’t take care of ourselves first? If we’re not healthy and happy and well balanced, our students won’t be getting the best version of ourselves. And so, during a transition, a nudge must also go toward work-life balance, even when it seems that work is all encompassing.

By searching for the precise lessons that our students need at a given moment in time, we can guide them into producing stronger, higher quality work. By giving ourselves a nudge, we can improve our professional practice, seek help from others when we need it, and better transition into a new home and school. Because sometimes, a little nudge is all it takes to get us right where we need to be.

A Community Moved

Anyone who has been in the international community even a short time knows how tight-knit this circuit is. We are more than colleagues. We are more than friends. We are family. I have been teaching abroad my entire career, and never has that been clearer than in the past couple of weeks.

From requests to reach out to Canadian politicians, to updates on my news feed out of a ravaged Kathmandu, to fundraising pages set up for individuals in need, the past few weeks have seen this community move with an awesome display of force and love to support one another.

Today, I write because of a man I have never met, but who, as part of our network, has moved me to take action. Given the expansive reach of social media and the closely bound circuit that we international educators encompass, it’s likely you have already heard Jonathan Sokoloff’s story. Jonathan, a teacher at Beijing International Bilingual Academy in China, was in a horrible scooter accident this past weekend, and is currently on life support in Beijing. It is a tragic and horrible story that could happen to any of us. Nobody ever wants to think about the awful what-ifs of a life abroad, but this is the worst nightmare of our families…a nightmare that just became reality for Jonathan’s loved ones back home in the USA.

I do not know Jonathan personally, though I have seen posts of his on the Facebook page I help administer. These posts reveal a man who is passionate about education and who has been soaking up his last months in China before moving on to a new location this fall. He is one of us.

It is through this group that I learned of his accident, as well as the fundraising page set up in his honor. Jonathan’s friends and colleagues in Beijing, knowing that his family would need to secure last-minute visas and flights, set up an Indiegogo Life page to collect donations to assist them. The costs of medical evacuation and transfer are astronomical from China, and every contribution has been helpful and appreciated in the quest to bring Jonathan home to his family.

My week has been consumed with thoughts and prayers for a stranger who could easily be a colleague, a friend, a family member. In this community, none of those are too vastly different from one another.

If you would like to contribute a donation to help bring Jonathan home, please go to Indiegogo Life.

The Company Pond

There is an ideal scenario for single teachers moving to a new locale, and it goes something like this: You arrive in your new country, and on the day that teacher orientation begins, you romantically “click” with another newbie. Before you know it, you’ve entered the world of the teaching couple…and yet you still get to keep your own housing allowances. Perfection!

I actually know people for whom this has happened—and just about as quickly, too. In most cases, the progression is slightly slower, but there are numerous success stories of happy couples who have met while teaching abroad.

But what happens when you start dating a colleague and things go sour? How do you prevent awkward staff meetings and water cooler gossip? Generally, you don’t. There’s a reason that people across all professions advise against “fishing in the company pond”. The rationale behind this advice seems to be even stronger in international settings where you don’t have the same outside networks as you would at home. Having various social circles allows you to keep distance between your personal life and professional life. Overseas, your co-workers are often also your family, friends, and roommates. It’s difficult to keep your private life private, so if you start dating the teacher down the hall, people are likely to find out. When these work relationships don’t have fairytale endings, recovery can be a challenge. So how does one bounce back?

Curious as to what other singles have said about dating colleagues, I asked some international teachers to share their stories. First, they say, it’s important to keep expectations realistic and discuss the “what-ifs” up front. Nobody wants to walk into a relationship expecting the worst, but both parties should be willing to have a conversation at the onset about what will happen if things don’t work out.

Many people who have begun dating colleagues have said that the person they were seeing was in a different division or building. Some claim that this is preferable—if the relationship flounders, you don’t run the risk of bumping into one another around campus. It’s far less awkward to see an ex once a week at bus duty than every day at the copy machine. For this reason, many teachers won’t even consider dating a co-worker that works in the same division.

However, if the colleague in question happens to be in closer proximity, it’s even more important to keep a level head if things don’t work out. I know a girl who had begun seeing the teacher in the classroom next door to hers, only to find out after a few weeks that he was also seeing her teammate directly across the hall. This presented a literal love triangle and caused some feelings of anger and regret—as well as relief that the invested time had been measured in weeks, rather than months or years. This particular situation also led to a deeper friendship between the women involved, and eventually, the ability to shake their heads and laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. What was he thinking?

Interestingly, this happens more often than one might suspect. Given the aforementioned nature of small social circles and the infamous expat “bubble”, it’s not uncommon for those who begin dating a colleague to learn that he or she has previously dated someone else on staff. If similar in nature to the fellow from the story above, you may soon find that your new interest is actually dangling fishing poles all over the company pond, waiting to see who will bite first. Depending on how prolific this fisherman is, you may look around a staff meeting one day and realize that there are very few degrees of separation, and that everyone has dated everyone, Hollywood-style.

Granted, not every school will be the international version of Melrose Place, but scandalous stories abound, and the drama can run deep. In order to minimize this drama, make sure that you have an outside circle of friends who aren’t connected with your work friends. This is sometimes a challenge, especially when living in smaller cities or when language barriers are an issue. Still, if a relationship doesn’t pan out, you’ll be thankful that you have an outlet that doesn’t revolve around your job.

Frequently, people deal with breakups at work by complete avoidance, though that can be both difficult and uncomfortable, especially if the colleague is someone with whom you work directly. In this case, avoidance will affect other members of the team, and quite possibly, the students. Teachers in this situation may find themselves anxiously awaiting the end of the school year, but not for the same reasons as the rest of us. Will June EVER arrive? I’ve got to get away from this place!

So what is the best advice, here? Probably the same advice you’ve always been given…stay away from the company pond, and go fishing somewhere else. One woman who spoke with me had this to say: “Do not date a co-worker unless you can break up cleanly or move often!”

We all know that there are success stories that keep the romantics among us feeling hopeful, but for every success story, there are plenty of failures. Unfortunately, these failures can lead to uncomfortable workdays and a strain on other professional relationships. By keeping communication open and maintaining an outside network of friends and a good sense of humor, you can allow yourself to take the risk while knowing that you’ll be okay if things don’t work out. More often than not, they won’t. If you’re open to dating a colleague, you have to be willing to accept that fact and be prepared to move on if and when a breakup happens. Take a lesson from the pond. When removed from a hook and placed back in the water, a fish may initially be too stunned to move. But soon, that fish will get right back to swimming, and it won’t look back.