I am pleased to share with you a piece that my
friend and colleague, Jeremy Shain (he/him), wrote on the question of what to
do when a student comes out to you as LGBTQ+. Jeremy is a licensed professional counselor and certified school
counselor living and working in the State of Georgia (USA). Currently a
doctoral student at Oregon State University, Jeremy holds a specialist degree
in counseling and a graduate certificate in LGBT Health Policy and Practice.
Jeremy regularly speaks to professionals and counselors-in-training on
strategies for working with LGBTQ+ clients. He is particularly interested in
the experience of LGBTQ+ adolescents living in rural areas, as well as in the
intersection of social class with sexual orientation and gender identity. As a
school counselor, he actively advocates for the right of all students to pursue
their education in a safe, supportive environment. Jeremy lives with his
husband and their sons in Georgia.
Q: What are my obligations if a student
comes out to me?
JEREMY: If you work in schools and prioritize safety, equality, and supportive
relationships, you very well may be someone that students feel safe coming out
to. You may feel uncertain, or even a bit fearful when this moment comes. But,
this is a time to use those interpersonal skills and remind yourself that the
moment is not about you, but about the student sitting in front of you. It is
important to have a plan of how to respond so that you’re not caught trying to
sort it out in the moment. If you haven’t yet done so, familiarize yourself
with the code of ethics for your particular position (i.e. counselor, educator,
etc.). As a school counselor, I am bound by the American School Counselor
Association code of ethics and, in this case, there is no mandate on informing
parents of students’ disclosures about gender identity or sexual orientation. There
may be different laws or policies depending on the country or school where
work, so consider checking this now so that you are not caught scrambling
later. Be familiar with the concept of confidentiality, and the limits that do
exist. Be cognizant that, in some cases, disclosing to a parent may put a
student at an increased risk of harm.
Q: What should I do or say when a
student comes out to me?
JEREMY: Having been in this situation multiple times, I have found several
concrete steps that can be helpful. First, thank the student for sharing such
an important piece of who they are with you and acknowledge their bravery.
Coming out is not easy. When a student comes out to you, they are saying that
they trust you. Acknowledge this. Second, use the terminology that they use.
Students may use terms to identify themselves that you are not fully
comfortable with – “queer” and “poly” are prime examples. Words have power. If
a student uses words that you don’t understand, ask them to explain the
meaning. Finally, recognize that you are that student’s ally. Let them know
that you are available to help – and then help. This may mean uncomfortable
conversations with fellow staff members about the language that they use in
their classrooms. It may also mean connecting the student to a GSA (gay
straight alliance / genders and sexualities alliance) or resource group outside
the school. Most importantly, ensure that your student knows that you support
them, you value them, and that they are not alone.
you have questions or comments for Jeremy, please feel free to reply to this
post, or you can email him directly at email@example.com
So I had a fantastic conversation the other day with a Lower School Director colleague of mine while I was on a quick PD visit to another European International School. We were talking about the importance of school culture, and he asked my opinion about what the most important thing teachers and leaders can do to inspire a positive culture and climate in schools. I thought about this for a bit because there is so much that goes into that, but finally I answered that for me it all hinges on what people (schools) are willing to confront. You see, the most important conversations that need to be had, and the most important issues that need to be addressed are always the most uncomfortable and the most difficult to have…and that’s why they are very often met with silence.
The inability to act on an issue, however big or small, that is having a negative impact on school culture is the surest way to stop schools from getting to where they want to go. Great schools become great because they have strong foundational cultures, where teachers and leaders have the courage and skill set to address or confront even the smallest of issues. They know that even a tiny, seemingly inconsequential negative comment from a teacher, parent or student can begin to erode years of hard work, and that even the smallest of issues can become divisive. The problem that all people in schools face is that these conversations take a significant amount of courage and they are really, really hard to have…especially between adults.
I remember a personal experience that I had years and years ago when I first stepped into administration, which ultimately became one of the most important leadership lessons that I have ever learned. I was faced with a situation where I absolutely knew in my heart that I needed to confront a teacher for making derogatory and demeaning comments about a young student to other faculty members in the faculty lounge. This teacher had been there for a very long time and had tremendous community cache, and I was in my first year on the job in a new school, and in the end I didn’t have the conversation that I needed to have…at the time I simply couldn’t find the courage to do it. I rationalized it in my mind that it was most likely just a one-off mistake that wouldn’t happen again, and that the teacher was probably just making a joke…but in the end, like I’m sure you can all guess, that wasn’t at all the case.
With that incident I missed an opportunity to set a cultural expectation with my faculty, and due to my lack of action and courage I essentially said it was okay for this kind of behavior to continue…and you know what, it did continue until I finally found the strength to say what needed to be said. Magically, once I started to confront and address ALL the issues that needed my attention, the culture of my division began to change dramatically for the better. I often look back at that moment in my career as transformational, and I think about it now every time I speak to someone about an issue. I have grown so much since then, and now having these kinds of conversations are a strength of mine, but of course they are still not easy.
I’m telling you this because I know that we have all faced these challenges in the past, and many of us may have issues that we are holing on to right now that need a conversation…please have that conversation. Schools are only as good as what they are willing to confront, so let’s make these courageous conversations a thing that we do really well around here, to keep our foundation rock solid. Have a wonderful week everyone, and remember to be great for our students and good to each other. Oh yeah…Happy Mother’s Day Mom, and to all you Mother’s out there, thank you for all that you do!
Quote of the Week…Real work is when you confront the problems you might otherwise be tempted to run away from -Rolf Potts
Not every problem has a solution. Maybe a better way to express that idea is not every problem has a solution within its current construct.
Sometimes, the rules, the structure, and/or the environment are opposed to the solution. Trying and trying again will be an endless cycle; and gains will be replaced by more and more losses.
If you cannot win the game, you need to change the game you are playing.
Finding the Correct Question(s) to Ask
Recently I was reading a comment thread about a housing situation. The situation was ridiculous. I could not think of a single country or job situation where this type of agreement would be acceptable. In fact, it seemed illegal, and more like a scam than a contractual housing issue.
The person in the situation was asking, “What can I do to manage my financial loss in this situation?”
That was the wrong question to ask. This person was focusing on the result of a bad contract. The question they should be asking is, “How can I get out of this contract?”
The contract is/was the issue. If you beat the financial loss with a loophole, another jab will come from another direction. How do I know this? Because the contract is a scam. The scammer needs the scam. The scammer will not take a loss.
In another recent situation, I had 100s of devices start to fail. The software just stopped working. Initially, I was trying to fix the devices. That seems normal, but my choice was wrong.
I only attempted to fix the problem for about 45 minutes. Then I took a step back and asked myself, “What causes 100s of stable devices to systematically fail?”
There was pressure to keep trying to fix each device. I resisted. I knew that if I fixed them, they would fail again. I knew this, because a system wide failure is not created by something on one device. It had to be external.
The problem was external. It took two weeks of paperwork and the support of a two external companies to correct the issue. There was no way for me to solve the problem. The problem was unsolvable within my environment. I had to change the process, and the entire workflow, to bring everything back online.
Avoid Being Locked Into the Past
Many people get locked into a process or workflow. They get so locked in, they never look-up, the never reflect, and they always want to carry their environment with them into the future.
When this happens they spend all their time trying to make their past work in the present.
Technology can be fascinating. It is one of the only areas of the human experience where older solutions are often actually better and more evolved than current solutions. People who are locked in on a process are not always wrong. Their older solution is better compared to the new solution.
The problem is, technology solutions are often abandoned. Developers stop developing. Companies stop supporting. Licensing stops being available. Eventually, the solution does not work unless you bring the entire version of the past into the present. The software. The hardware. Everything. Not only is this not practical, eventually everyone involved is alienated except the “time-traveler”.
I have seen a school running a version of PowerSchool too old to be viable outside of the school’s local network. It was so old, it could not be upgraded using new releases from PowerSchool. So old that PowerSchool would not provide support. And, so old that it eventually did not meet data security standards for any of the other partners the school was using.
This particular implementation had amazing features. It was customized beyond normal limits. It was also something that no parent or student wanted to use anymore. The largest user groups wanted a change, and the only solution was a completely new information system. That also means the school had to hire a new department of people. Those who kept their system living well beyond its life were too entrenched to change.
Reflecting on decisions on a regular basis, and having critical input from others, will prevent these scenarios. And this type of complete rebuild scenario is common. It is far too common, and it is destructive.
A Bad Deal, is a Bad Deal
Education is often seen as an industry that does not follow common business strategy. In many cases, this is true and unavoidable. Schools do not get to choose perfect children. Schools work with students, and sometimes at great cost, to help them grow and develop.
However, the business processes, procurement planning, and infrastructural systems do not need to operate irresponsibly for educational goals to be achieved. Planning to be inefficient, and being content to lose, is not a benefit to any child.
I have seen many bad deals, bad contracts, and predatory vendor relationships. These situations create unsolvable problems. The game is rigged. The school is often getting a poor value with a low to zero return on investment.
I had the unfortunate luck of managing a bad printing contract for a school. The school had made a deal with a third-party for Xerox solutions. Xerox has their own sales force and service, so why would anyone need a third party?
The contractor not only could not manage the hardware, they had no idea how the software worked, they were not aware of all the requirements needed for an Apple Computer environment, and they did not understand the accounting system connected to the service.
What was my solution? Remove the contractor. Instead of trying to fix the printers, I spent every moment collecting evidence and documenting breaches of the contract. I eventually made a strong case, and the school switched to a direct partner relationship.
There was no win-win. The contract was bad. The situation was impossible.
No matter how much we want something to work, or be a solution, there is a point in the process where we need to step back. We need to ask, is this worth it? Is there a better way? Are we driving the process, or is it driving us?
When I was a student I used to trampoline a bit. When I got to the stage of twisting somersaults, I used to get a bit lost up there in the air, and land in rather distressing ways (to both me and anyone watching). Our guru, the wonderfully elegant and controlled Pete (also an o-so glamorous PhD student), worried about my safety, stepped in and offered a demo. I watched a few moves; and then asked him to talk me though it. “It’s easy” he said – bounce – “watch this next twist” – bounce – “all you do is take it up” – bounce – “and wrap it” – bounce and twisting straightback somersault, flawlessly landed. Of course I was none-the wiser; what sounds so simple in words is impossible to master or even really grasp without spending deep and extensive time on the details of the task. What does “wrap it” mean? What does it mean for the rate of rotation, the straightness of the back, the thrust of the hips, the direction of sight, and the throw of the arms?
Much the same can be said of many things. Of course I am thinking about teaching. I am often asked by people thinking of joining the profession if I can recommend courses, which I willingly do. Occasionally though, I get a request from someone who asks if I can consider their experience in programming, or finance, or manufacturing, as equivalent to certification and experience. That seems to me to be like a skilled footballer thinking he can join a trampoline team because he can play a blinder in midfield (of course it goes in other directions too – a teacher thinking his years with grade 9 make him ready to place derivative trades in emerging Namibian Bio-tech would be equally mistaken).
So this is a plea for recognition – because teaching sounds relatively easy. And we’ve all been to school, so we know a bit about it right? But I suggest that the term teaching is very much like wrap it. Simple sounding – but when you look at “teaching students” and unpack it, you end up asking things like: Where do I stand when they enter? With what tone and body stance do I greet them? How do I create a supportive but demanding atmosphere? How much should I recap the previous lesson? How do I cater for the student with limited English? Or the one whose parents are splitting up? Or the one whose tutor taught the topic to him yesterday? How do I address the one who did not do her homework in a way that signals to others that that’s not OK, bit that is also supportive? What about the one whose mental health is a worry, and who was away last lesson? When someone arrives late, do I help them, ignoring the others, or just let them flounder for a bit? And what’s the best way of crafting an activity to get at the difference between validity and truth? (one that allows access to the strugglers, but stretches the swiftest)?
And that’s only thinking about the what to actually do; it get’s even harder when you actually think about the sheer pace of teaching. In a 2013 Slate article, teacher Ryan Fuller wrote as an engineer, I dealt with very complex design problems, but before I decided how to solve them, I had a chance to think, research, and reflect for hours, days, or even weeks. I also had many opportunities to consult colleagues for advice before making any decisions. As a teacher, I have seconds to decide how to solve several problems at once, for hours at a time, without any real break, and with no other adults in the room to support them. There are days of teaching that make a day in the office seem like a vacation. (As an ex-NASA engineer, he could title the article with authority – Teaching Isn’t Rocket Science. It’s Harder).
And then of course, there’s the human element of the job – which is actually the central part. Ryan again: A teacher must simultaneously explain the content correctly, make the material interesting, ensure that students are staying on task and understanding the material, and be ready to deal with the curve balls that will be thrown at her every 15 seconds—without flinching—for five hours. If, for some reason, she is not able to inspire, educate, and relate to 30 students at once, she has to be ready to get them back on track, because no matter what students say or do to detract from the lesson, they want structure, they want to learn, and they want to be prepared for life.
When it’s going well, Ryan explain that he experience[s] more failure every five minutes of teaching than [he] experienced in an entire week as an engineer, and poignantly explains that a difficult moment in engineering involves a customer in a big meeting pointing out a design problem that I hadn’t considered. The customer’s concerns can be eased with a carefully crafted statement along the lines of, “You’re right. We’ll look into it.” A difficult moment in teaching involves a student—one who has a history of being bullied and having suicidal thoughts—telling me that she is pregnant 30 seconds before class starts. What carefully crafted statement will help her?
This blog is written, therefore, to all those teachers out there, who wrap it day in, day out, who are always there for their kids, who are more skilled than they themselves realise, and who, more than any technology, curriculum or policy, are what makes education magic for students around the world.
I believe that there is a difference between winning and success and I looked up definitions of both words. Kohn also makes a distinction between winning and success. Here are the Cambridge Dictionary’s definitions of both words:
Win – to achieve first position and/or get a prize in a competition, election, fight, etc
Succeed – to achieve something that you have been aiming for
While I was searching for definitions, I stumbled across a wonderful TED Talk by John Wooden. Wooden was a very successful basketball coach. He is regarded as one of the greatest coaches, of any sport, ever. Needless to say, his teams won a lot.
Wooden’s TED Talk, The Difference Between Winning and Succeeding, has some absolute pearls of wisdom from a man who shunned many of the conventions of competition to win more NCAA championships than any other college basketball coach.
Wooden developed his own definition of success as a peace of mind attained only through self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do the best of which you are capable. He felt that he needed to develop his own definition to make him a better teacher and coach and to give his students something to aspire to other than a grade or a score.
Wooden developed his definition from beliefs that were grounded in the teachings of his parents and his own experience. I have reproduced these beliefs in Wooden’s own words:
Never try to be better than someone else. Always learn from others. Never cease trying to be the best you can be. That’s under your control. If you get too engrossed and involved and concerned in regard to the things over which you have no control, it will adversely affect the things over which you have control.
If you make the effort to do the best of which you’re capable, trying to improve the situation that exists for you, I think that’s success, and I don’t think others can judge that.
I believe that we must believe, truly believe. Not just give it word service, believe that things will work out as they should, providing we do what we should. I think our tendency is to hope things will turn out the way we want them to much of the time, but we don’t do the things that are necessary to make those things become reality.
You never heard me mention winning. Never mention winning. My idea is that you can lose when you outscore somebody in a game, and you can win when you’re outscored. I’ve felt that way on certain occasions, at various times. And I just wanted them to be able to hold their head up after a game. I used to say that when a game is over, and you see somebody that didn’t know the outcome, I hope they couldn’t tell by your actions whether you outscored an opponent or the opponent outscored you.
If you make an effort to do the best you can regularly, the results will be about what they should be. Not necessarily what you’d want them to be but they’ll be about what they should. I wanted the score of a game to be the by-product of these other things, and not the end itself.
If we can develop Wooden’s peace of mind in our children, arguments for or against competition in education become moot. Regardless of the context, competitive or uncompetitive, our children will be able to take control and succeed – win or lose.
So I’m constantly amazed and inspired by how hard educators work each and every day for the students and for the school and for the community. I’m not just talking about the school day though, where we teach, plan, collaborate, assess, attend meetings and all the rest, but also about the time that we spend at night and on the weekends, and even during our holidays. Countless hours thinking about how to do better and be better for our kids, and for our school, and for our world. It’s a job that is never ever finished, and even though it’s super rewarding and spirit lifting on so many levels, it can also take a toll on a person’s mental health.
Educators pour so much of their souls into their jobs, and we take it all home with us, and ultimately, teaching and our passion for education is very much who we are…it defines many of us. In my opinion, there is no better vocation on the planet, and I think that no other job is as important as what educators give to the future of our world, but the truth of it is if we’re not careful, it can absolutely be a burnout endeavor. Today I want to strongly advocate for the notion of taking time for yourself, and finding a daily outlet where you can decompress, re-energize, and reconnect to the most important person in your life…you.
Education can be a very stressful profession as you know, particularly at excellent, high performing schools, and it can be difficult to juggle all that you want to achieve at work with all that you need to take care of at home. Often times we can strike a balance that seems to work to keep us on top of everything, but what can be lost and sacrificed in finding that work-life balance is our own mental health…our “me time”, which is ultimately is the key to being your best self. I guess I’m asking you this week to reflect on how much time you are actually spending on yourself each day, and if you find that it’s hardly any at all then you need to commit to making a change. I know that’s easier said then done for many of us, and carving out a daily 30 minutes or so can be a daunting task, but really, it’s something that you need to do. I struggled with this for a very long time early in my career until I found an outlet and a routine that worked. It meant getting up 45 minutes earlier than usual but the change that I’ve noticed by giving 30 minutes of my life to me each morning has been transformative and profound.
When I get up and hit the streets for my early morning runs, it’s a gift that continues giving throughout the day. It gives me time to think, and to dream, and to celebrate, and to reflect, and it gives me that endorphin rush that I carry with me to school every morning. It was hard to get into the routine for sure, but now it’s a habit that I couldn’t even think of breaking. Anyway, it certainly doesn’t have to be running, and it doesn’t have to be early in the morning, but the idea of carving out some time each and every day, and finding that outlet where you can connect with yourself is a good one…I promise it will positively impact your life, your job, and your mental health in tremendously positive ways. At the heart of it is this…you can’t be your best self for others if you don’t make yourself the top priority. So, what’s your outlet? If you have one, well done and keep it up, if you don’t then find one and watch your life start to get immeasurably better. Have a wonderful week everyone, and remember to be great for our kids and good to each other.
Quote of the Week…Do not let a day go by without taking time for yourself – some time you spend in pure pleasure, as you see it-Napoleon Hill
Why leave the country you were born in and grew up in to live your life overseas? Ask any international teacher and you may get a variety of answers. However, the one that will usually surface more than any other is “adventure”. What does that mean? Our friends at Wikipedia define it in part as “an exciting or unusual experience”. As I typed this in my last year in Saudi Arabia, I must admit thinking– my lifestyle choice is unusual…but exciting? Not so much.
What I have noticed about expats, including myself, after living in five foreign countries and visiting many others, is most expats recreate their western lives in the foreign city in which they live. There are very few expats who immerse themselves in the local customs, culture and language of the foreign country they find themselves in. Even those expats who marry locally never fully assimilate into the local community. While working and living in Thailand, I used to go to a local bar called the Tamarind and visit with other expat men, many who had married Thai wives. A few things struck me about them:
Many spoke very little Thai.
Many of them complained about the city/country they lived in and how it was substandard to the country they had come from.
Many times the Thai wives all sat together at one table chatting while the expat men sat at the bar carrying on about topics that were usually quite Western focused.
I guess this is not so unusual as it is very difficult to change from the culture you grew up. Additionally, once moving abroad many expats find they are even more proud of where they come from. We see this in the West as well. Sure, it is the melting pot, but for every person in that pot, there is most likely an area of the country, or city, or neighborhood that caters to his/her particular heritage, be it language, restaurants, grocery stores or entertainment. It’s most likely a good thing. This is what keeps different cultures rich and unique and thriving in a global society. Also, many expats simply don’t want to assimilate to the local culture. As much as Americans expect immigrants to assimilate to American culture, very few of those Americans would be willing or able to assimilate to another culture even if they lived in one. Many times, even if you wanted to, there simply isn’t enough time.
To adapt to a new culture, one that you may know very little about, takes a lot of time. Even for the expat who stays at a post for decades, this process is not a hasty undertaking. But for the international teacher, whose usual tenure is two to five years, there is simply not enough time to assimilate to the culture in which he lives, even if it is a priority. This does not mean he cannot appreciate and enjoy the local culture, but to move beyond that can prove rather difficult. So many expats are content with simply appreciating the local culture and taking advantage (in a good way) of any opportunities it may present. However, most still cling to the culture from which they came.
I noticed this first during that trip to Venezuela. While there, I was struck by how similarly decorated my future in-laws’ house was to most other Texas homes I had visited (they are originally from Texas). In addition to the decor, most everything else was Western – the dinners we ate were family favorites, the language we spoke was English and the channels on the TV were showing American sitcoms. Two years later when my wife and I coincidentally got teaching jobs in Venezuela, we too replicated a life similar to the ones we’d had in the U.S. I see nothing particularly wrong with this — it is most likely natural and healthy. However, I wouldn’t define it as exciting…..unusual, yes, but exciting, no.
The Real Excitement: Travel
If you were to ask most international teachers, they would most likely tell you that the exciting part does not necessarily come from where you live and work, but rather where you travel during those extended vacations so prevalent in the teaching field. Herein lies the irony. Much like the American couple who work, take care of kids and watch a bit of TV in the evening, the expat couple is doing the same thing. And just like the American couple who long to get away on vacation in order to experience a break from the monotony of life, the expat couple does the same. Since daily life….work, kids, dinner, sleep, repeat is a bit tedious, we all look forward to something different…..an adventure if you will. But for the average American this can be difficult. Whether it is our Puritan work ethic, financial responsibilities or just the feeling that the office cannot go on without us the average American takes only thirteen days of vacation a year. Less than two weeks for the entire year.
Is the all-inclusive vacation a reflection of this limited vacation time most Americans are granted? With an entire year to daydream about an adventure, about some excitement, about leaving the tedium of daily life, a holiday of overindulgence and extravagance starts to look pretty damned good. Whether it is or not is debatable, but the fact is that during the cycle of the weekly grind, looking forward to a little escape in our life is a guilty pleasure. And the international teacher is no different. The American worker in the cubicle may daydream about giving it all up and moving to Thailand to become a teacher (which, incidentally, is not that difficult to do), but even if he did, his life may not be that different. It would be an unusual experience sure, but exciting? Not likely. The international teacher, much like the cubicle dweller, also daydreams about vacations, about a break from the monotony of life. The difference is these folks have a lot more vacation time coming to them, whether they want it or not, and most do.
The top three things international teachers talk about when together are work, kids and vacations. In many places, this is all you may have to talk about. Holidays hold a special place in the heart of the international teacher. This IS the exciting component to the adventure they all craved when going into the profession. So they take them pretty seriously. If you ask a group of international teachers where they are going on holiday (internationally its holiday, not vacation), the responses are mind blowing. You will get a list of the most exotic and interesting places you could imagine. One winter holiday, I left my then-home in the Middle East to enjoy the sunny beaches of Sri Lanka. The list of places my colleagues went to included Finland, France, Italy, Australia, South Africa, India, Zambia and Kenya, as well as others.
The Cost of the “Excitement”
The price tag of these vacations is not something most teachers talk about, but it was refreshing to hear one teacher, when asked how is holiday was, respond with a dollar figure. “How was your trip?” I asked. “$8,000,” he replied. This couple had gone “home” for the winter break. Home to the expat is wherever he grew up and/or still has family. No matter that he’s not lived there for fifteen years; it’s still referred to as home. Many teachers do go “home” for the holidays, especially the long winter break, which is usually two to three weeks long. Almost all teachers go “home” for the summer. But this is not referred to as a holiday. This is just the annual two month break that we all grow to expect. To many it’s not seen so much as a holiday, but time extended family expects to see you since you’ve been away the entire year. However, once couples start having children, many feel the pull to head back not only for the summer, but also for the winter break. This is why my colleague answered the way he did. He went from Saudi Arabia to Canada and back in the span of eighteen days. Not only is this a grueling travel itinerary, but is obviously quite expensive. The eight grand was not just for the airline tickets, but all that comes with going home, especially during Christmas – presents for the family you never get to see, a bit of shopping for yourself and any other pleasures not available in your overseas home. Is $8,000 on the high end of travel for winter holiday vacations? Not necessarily. While I traveled to Sri Lanka for nine days and spent $4,000, the family that went to Finland shelled out $10,000.
Was it worth it? Depends who you ask. Not to the guy with jet lag and eight grand missing from his bank account. Not to me, who realized, as many parents with toddlers do, that nine days in a hotel room and nightly restaurant visits with small children is more punishment than holiday. But most would say yes. They saw family, they visited a new country…they finally had an adventure. Even the colleague who bemoaned the $8,000 vacation was, a few weeks later, in the same teacher’s lounge, in the same chair, talking excitedly about his Spring Break plans which included a trip to Thailand and a room with “a huge balcony and awesome ocean view”.
For the international teacher, the idea of not traveling during a holiday is unheard of. Why would you forego the opportunity to travel? Because it is difficult? That is irrelevant because seeing the world is what drew the international teacher to move abroad in the first place. And seeing the world isn’t always easy. To save money? Sacrilege. We are not here to save money, we are bigger than that. We are buying memories. You only live once. These are some of the responses I have gotten upon telling colleagues that I will not be going away during a break.
Saving and Investing: Exciting?
Seeking financial independence by saving and investing has about as much credence in the international teaching world as it does in the overbought, overextended suburbs of the United States. Most international teachers are no better with money than their U.S. counterparts. Most are still living the American culture of consumerism and consumption – albeit on the other side of the world. All they have done is replaced the McMansion and SUV, the embodiment of the skewed American Dream, with ridiculously-overpriced holidays to far-off destinations, which they believe symbolize what it means to “see the world”. Not only does this create an illusion of “living the dream”, more importantly, it robs them the opportunity to obtain financial independence and realize true freedom.
So, exciting expat? Yes, sometimes. But the cost is sometimes great and the wait long, just like it is for all working people out there.
Living the nomad expat life, getting a pet of any kind is a big decision. That’s not to say that it isn’t always a big decision, but there are factors that might make it bigger than a different kind of life, like, say, living in your home country with family around.
In the past 15 years, my husband and I have had 7 cats (I think). The first one, Frodo, came with us from the States to Venezuela and then back to the States. Frodo found a home with a friend in the States because at that time I couldn’t imagine him traveling 35+ hours with us to Thailand when we moved to Phuket.
In Phuket, our first cat, Suzy, was super cool. Fun, loving, adventurous. So adventurous that she disappeared one day and we never knew what happened to her. Maybe she found a new home, maybe she was eaten by a king cobra or a monitor lizard in the lagoon behind our house. Who knows. We were sad.
Our next cat in Phuket, Sang Som, is still alive, as far as we know, and is living the dream in our old neighborhood. Our dear friends and neighbors “The Brits” took him after we left and he joined the pack of friendly dogs on Soi Namjai. But again, we left him behind.
In Saudi, we tried having cats with kids. The first one scratched my 6-month-old on the face and went straight back to his owner. The second one, “Mr. Kitty,” was sweet but older and simply did not suit our lives. He found a home with a former school employee who really needed a friend to keep him company in his new apartment.
Then we moved to Jakarta and got the most perfect cat: Jaka, named for our new city.
Jaka came to us as a kitten and was like a dog from the beginning. He followed the kids around, let my son carry him by the neck without scratching him, loved to play and be near us, and seemed to love us.
He was adventurous and would occasionally leave for a few days. He liked to be out at night carousing, but it seemed like he would always come back. Until he didn’t, this past December.
The Dog Decision
Heartbroken, I thought–this is it: time to get a dog. A dog will never leave us. Over the past years, we have seriously weighed the difficulty of this decision. Specifically:
We are travelers–what do we do with the dog when we travel?
Summers–we leave for 7 weeks plus. Again, is this mean to the dog?
Time and effort–all the regular questions. Who will get up with her? Who will walk her? Are we ready for the commitment?
Money–Dogs are a “luxury” expense anywhere, but if you are overseas, the costs are exponential when it comes to moving. Our dog is most likely going to live for 12+ years, and we probably have two more countries left in our careers. Is this something to seriously consider? Are we ready for the visas, paperwork, and possible quarantines that are in our future?
These are big things to think about, and because we recently moved, we put the decision on hold. But, after living in Jakarta for almost two years now, along with the sad disappearance of Jaka, we took the plunge, and enter sweet Adelle.
It seemed like we made the decision rather quickly, but we were able to only because we had done the research earlier and thought we understand the costs (time, money, effort).
It’s not unheard of for expats to have dogs, but it’s not the norm. We have never been afraid of being different, so here we are.
So far, here are the answers to our difficult questions:
Time and Effort: As expected. Yes, it’s a lot, and it’s mostly me (the mom), which comes as no surprise. She is basically my “accidental child” who is making me young and tired again, but worth it in the end. (At least that’s what I’m telling myself).
Money: So far, not so bad, but she is tiny (still 4-5 pounds) and we are not moving. That expense will come later, and we will suck it up.
Living abroad is not always easy, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t live a full life, which in our case at this point in time, involves owning a dog.
I write this from
China. From one of the many elite private schools that offer the “best of east
and west” in education. The school has a clear mission: to get Chinese
nationals into top universities abroad.
It takes nearly
all the hours of a Chinese student’s life to achieve this goal. Their parents
place them on the rails of this dream from birth and by the time they get into
a private high school their rhythm is something like this: wake up before 6:00
am, classes all day, reading, memorizing, planning, researching, producing,
uploading. When classes end, it’s highly structured extracurriculars to
diversify their personalities, then supervised study until 9pm. During school
sanctioned holidays they don’t rest much; they go to SAT prep school;
prestigious summer programs at places like Yale and Emerson, where they hope to
gain an edge in their university applications. They do hours and hours of
homework set by their teachers, and the teachers who have not set hours of
homework are considered “shuǐ,” like water: weak.
In the yoga class
I teach after school, I see their bodies are soft from underuse. They can’t
touch their toes; their spines are permanently bent towards a device that’s not
there. Most have been wearing glasses for years, eyesight weakened at a young
age by LED screens. They bear the bodies of their nation’s rapid progress. No
moment undesignated. Study is All.
So when the list
of acceptances and scholarships arrive in our inboxes and the students’ eyes
glaze with joy, relief, and exhaustion, we know we have succeeded as a school.
After years of monastic discipline and sacrifice, they have a bright future.
In the news,
headlines about climate change become looming deadlines for climate
catastrophe. We have 12 years to drastically alter our relationship to the
earth before we are warring over water and food. Before millions will
experience poverty, drought, famine, natural disasters. Is it true?
And if it’s true,
what do I possibly teach that will matter?
At this level, a
Chinese student’s life purpose is to get into university abroad. That the
planet is dying is not relevant to this goal. Climate catastrophe, like the
outdoors in general, is a vague blur on the periphery of their computer
As a teacher, I
feel I am failing them. At what point in their jam-packed day, in classes where
we are forensically examining rubric criteria, when they are inundated with tasks,
deadlines, assessments, do I find a moment to tell them that I’m worried for
their future? Not only because of the uncertainties of climate change, but
because there is no space to plant the seeds of activism in their young bodies.
How will they fight for a planet that they have not yet learned to love?
I think about my
own childhood in comparison. I was a latch-key kid, nannied by the local parks
and ravines. My earliest education was from nature. By brother and I spent
hours away from home getting dirty, testing the limits of our bodies. I
remember climbing trees that were too high for me and figuring out how to get
down, alone. I remember covering my body with clay from the river and then
finding leeches on my skin. And then learning what leeches do, just as I
learned the power of a bee sting from getting too close to a nest. And many,
many times, I underestimated the sun and came home red and blistered and
defeated by nature.
And of course, I
learned that nature is beautiful; that grass will stain your skin green and
dandelions, yellow; that water feels like velvet if I walk up the river and
drag my fingers behind me; that the sun sets in the big blue unpolluted sky,
and the stars come out in shapes that I can trace with my finger, and that it
happens every day and yet each time it’s magic.
I realize now what
this education has meant for me. I was chosen by nature—stained, scraped,
scarred–initiated into the environment as a child: tribal marked. So the
violence we are perpetrating on the planet, and all the impending catastrophe,
feels personal. As it should.
But I have not
passed this on. I was recruited to China to share my western expertise, and I
have failed. Because I didn’t find the way to share the best aspect of my
educational experience, this truth I have taken for granted: we belong to the
earth and the earth to us, and we have a duty to protect it as we would our family
and our nation. With the same fire with which we pursue getting into top universities.
I didn’t find the way to teach my students what I learned from the natural
world, so that they might feel curious to seek their own experiences with the
So this past week I was reminded on several occasions, by both children and adults, about the healing powers of saying you’re sorry for a mistake that you’ve made, and of course, how difficult it can be for all of us to say these two magic words…I’m sorry. A sincere apology as we all know can be healing, cathartic, and it can absolutely strengthen relationships between people and groups…but it’s not as easy as it sounds. It’s hard to own up to a mistake that you’ve made, and ultimately it takes courage and strength of character to sincerely apologize for something that you’ve done wrong.
Admitting that you are wrong and asking for forgiveness makes you vulnerable, it can hurt your pride, it can make you feel incompetent or inadequate, and in many cases it makes you feel ashamed. It’s far easier for people to simply stay in denial, or to deflect blame, or to make excuses, or even to prioritize being right over making things right…it’s also interesting to me how in many instances it seems easier for kids to say sorry then it is for adults, but as grown ups we need to find the courage to model this soul bearing behavior for the little ones who are looking for us to set positive examples at every turn.
I’ve been reflecting on my own experiences recently, and over the past several years, when I’ve put myself in a position where I need to make a sincere apology for a mistake that I’ve made, I’ve realized that the first thing that happens is that I become defensive. I feel myself coming up with excuses and looking for ways to put the blame on the other person…I deflect and sometimes I get angry, but over time I’ve been able to recognize those emotions as ego, pride, embarrassment, and shame, and I have learned that saying sorry actually makes me stronger, not weaker, and it strengthens the relationships with people that I care about more than anything else…being right doesn’t matter that much to me anymore, and making things right is now my top and only priority.
Anyway, in all the experiences that I was involved in over this past week I came away inspired. A sincere apology eventually got everyone to a better place, and in all cases, with both adults and children, relationships were strengthened. We all came away feeling heard, validated, and forgiven, and hopefully some life lessons were learned and internalized. As one little kid said at the end of a difficult situation with his friend, “thank you for apologizing to me…it’s all that I needed to hear”. Have a wonderful week everyone and remember to be great for our students and good to each other.
Quote of the Week…Never ruin an apology with an excuse!
STEPHEN DEXTER, a native of New England, has been a teacher and administrator since 1994. He finally discovered that the Swiss stay thin on a diet of chocolate, cheese and wine by walking a lot and not eating or drinking to excess. He is currently taking a gap year in the Swiss Alps to rediscover his passion for education and to understand what chief innovation officers really do.
DANIEL KERR is now Lower School Director at the American School of Paris. He previously served as Intermediate Division Principal at Academia Cotopaxi American International School in Quito, Ecuador, and prior to that was the Middle School Principal at SCIS in Shanghai, China. Dan has also worked at JIS in Jakarta, Indonesia and he began his International career in Abu Dhabi. Dan is thrilled to be joining the ASP family and will be accompanied by his wife, Jocelyn, who will be working as a counselor, and his two children, Max and Gabby.
KASSI COWLES is an IB English and TOK teacher currently based in Shanghai. She has worked in international education for the last 8 years in Canada, Togo and China. Her writing explores issues of educational reform and how to create authentic and creative learning communities.
MATTHEW GOOD & NIAMH CONWAY are international school teachers who met while working at the British School of Lome, in Togo, West Africa. They later moved to Uzbekistan, where they spent four years at Tashkent International School, each summer exploring another slice of the world by bike. Their Pedalgogy website allows users to follow the touring teachers on their two-year bike trip around the world.
BARRY DEQUANNE is currently working as the Director at the International School of Zug and Luzern (ISZL). His blog explores topics in K-12 education and school leadership within the framework of five focus areas: Academics, Activities, Arts, Leadership, and Service. The blog also explores professional articles and highlights recently read books.
EMILY MEADOWS is an alumni of international schools and has worked as a professional educator and counselor across the world, serving children and families in the United States, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. She holds master’s degrees in the fields of Counseling and Sexual Health, and is a PhD candidate researching inclusive policy and practice for LGBTQ+ students. Emily is a consultant on gender and sexual diversity and inclusion in international schools: www.emilymeadows.org
DAVID PENBERG is an urban and international educational leader/consultant with a deep commitment to progressive education, understanding global mindedness, and new school creation. He abides by the dictum of E.E. Cummings who said: “ I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing, than teach ten thousand stars not to dance.” He is presently the Head of School of Innovate Manhattan Charter School in New York City.
SHANNON FEHSE Shannon Fehse has spent her entire teaching career overseas, having lived and worked in China, Mexico, Colombia, Taiwan, and presently, the UAE. As a textbook definition extrovert, she talks to anyone, and enjoys listening to stories and different perspectives on life. Shannon has a somewhat faulty filter and often says what other people are thinking, but this typically works out favorably. She offers opinions and insight into the benefits and challenges of job hunting, dating overseas, and general issues that affect international educators.
MIKE SIMPSON is the Director of Curriculum and Learning at The International School Yangon. Originally a lawyer from New Zealand, Mike has also worked in schools in Qatar, Venezuela, and Lesotho. Mike has a particular interest in the development of collaborative and innovative learning communities. He hopes that his blog might be of interest to other teachers and school leaders as they nurture these communities in their own schools.
GREGORY HEDGER Dr. Gregory Hedger has recently been appointed to be the head of the International School Yangon, in Myanmar, beginning in fall 2016. A native of Minnesota, Greg has served in education for over 25 years, including 13 years in the role of School Director at Cayman International School, Qatar Academy, and most recently as Superintendent at Escuela Campo Alegre in Venezuela. Greg promotes international education through his service on the boards of AAIE, AASSA, and his work with the International Task Force for Child Protection, his contributions to various periodicals, and his work to promote the next generation of leaders through workshops and teaching.
LINDSAY LYON is a seasoned English and Theory of Knowledge teacher currently working at JIS. She and her husband have taught abroad as a teaching team for fifteen years in Venezuela, Thailand, China, Saudi Arabia, and now Indonesia. They write about expat life with a focus on money and savings in their blog The Haggard Lyon. Here you will find some of the same, and other musings from Lindsay on life overseas with kids, teaching, technology, and staying balanced in a busy world.
NICHOLAS ALCHIN is High School Principal at the United World College of SE Asia, East Campus. A sino-celtic Brit who has lived and taught in the UK, Switzerland, Kenya, and Singapore, he has also held a number of roles with the IB and writes and speaks widely on educational matters. He enjoys traveling with wife Ellie, and kids Tom (10), Millie (13) and Ruth (16).
TONY DEPRATO Tony DePrato has a Master’s Degree in Educational Technology from Pepperdine University and has been working as a Director of Educational Technology since 2009. He has worked in the United Arab Emirates and China where he has consulted with schools in both regions on various technology topics. In 2013, Tony DePrato released The BYOD Playbook a free guide for schools looking to discuss or plan a Bring Your Own Device program. Tony is originally from the US, and worked in multimedia, website development, and freelance video production. Tony is married to Kendra Perkins, who is a librarian.
ETTIE ZILBER is a consultant to International School Communities and Families in Transition and a veteran international school educator and school leader. She has served in independent international schools in Israel, Singapore, Spain, Guatemala, China, and most recently in the USA. Her expertise extends to such topics as international school models, second/foreign language acquisition, communicating between diverse groups, the impact of international mobility and relocation on children, parents and staff, the special family experience of the educators’ children, the orientation of newcomers, multi-cultural communities, catalysts for teaching internationally, and marketing of international schools. She is the author of Third Culture Kids: The Children of International School Educators. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
HELEN KELLY has taught in and led schools in Africa, Europe and Asia over the last twenty years. She has led educational technology teams in three schools. Helen is currently the Lower School Principal at Canadian International School of Hong Kong, where she leads Project Innovate, a Pre-K-12 initiative to bring future-ready learning to the school. Helen completed her Ed.D in 2017 on the emotional challenges that school leaders face in the course of their role. She leads workshops on improving the wellbeing of leaders and educators in international schools.
TRAE HOLLAND is the Director of Academia Cotopaxi’s The ONE Institute, has been a leader in both the non-profit and business sectors, and has 19 years experience teaching both in the US and in international schools, with a specialization in learning differentiation. You can reach his website at www.traeholland.com.
FREDERIC BORDAGUIBEL-LABAYLE is the High School Associate Principal and IB Diploma Coordinator at Academia Cotopaxi American International School in Quito, Ecuador. Fred was born and raised in the South West of France; he finished his studies and started teaching in the UK, then went on to Istanbul and he is currently in Quito. Fred likes to pause, reflect and share his experience as an international educator and administrator.
SUE EASTON is the Director of the Teacher Training Center. She has worked with international schools for the past eleven years, on four continents, in roles focused on enhancing teaching and learning practices. This experience has made her passionate about the topic of change and how to best make change to support students and student learning. Her blog will explore this topic through the lens of PTC, TTC and CTC trainers’ words of wisdom.
ALLISON POIROT is currently teaching IB History, Modern World History, and Psychology at Asociación Escuelas Lincoln in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She taught previously at King’s Academy in Madaba, Jordan, and at public and charter schools in and around Boston, Massachusetts. She has a deep interest in progressive pedagogy and believes in fostering student autonomy and empowerment.
The International Educator (TIE) is a non-profit organization committed to matching the best educators with the best international schools around the world.