Tag Archives: international teacher

School Breaks and the International Educator


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Just Joy

IMG_1198I’m sure many of you woke up this morning thinking about your next steps, journeys and outcomes. It is what we do at the start of a new year: plan for action, plan for making our best selves materialize in ways, which will make this the best year ever.

This New Year’s Day I’ve been thinking about how I want to feel this year as much as how I’m going to act or what I’m going to do. You see, at this exact time last year I was leaving the US to return to work overseas and had the heart-wrenching task of saying goodbye to my father who was dying. Having been diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer just a few months before, we were certain he would transition before I could return for another break.

My 2013 focus became learning how to feel about continuing on in the face of that huge sadness. It wasn’t a planned resolution or a goal as much as it was a necessity. For me, it was also day-to-day work. Each day I had to remind myself that my father enjoyed every minute of his life (he was an international educator too); therefore his transition was a celebration of that life and I should be proud of him. I believed it, but often had to verbally remind myself of that fact lest I would sink into feeling badly that he was ill, or later on, so deeply sad that he was gone.

My best refuge last year was oddly enough- recess duty. I would wander outside and be with the kids during their playtime and just find myself relaxing into their joyful world of play, laughter, and movement. It was the 15-minute part of each day when I was reminded of what it can feel like to just be happy to be outside, moving, and with friends.

When I talk to people about this past year, I often mention how recess saved me because it allowed me to not think so much about this life, but to just see it and enjoy it for what it is. What I’ve been realizing as I enter this new year though is that it was as much the job (of which recess duty is a part) I was able to have and go to each day which helped me to feel happy and joyful in the face of such devastation.

Working with children is, if you are looking for it, witnessing joy.

It is my goal this year to approach each school day with the sense that I am indeed a lucky person to be able to work in such a joyful place. A place where learning to read (actually cracking that code!) is like getting to finally see over the mountain. A place, where conquering the monkey bars with one hand feels like winning a gold medal. A place where friendship comes with shared snacks, held hands and a chance to use our imaginations.

Joy is something that makes life worth living. Feeling joy on the job is my New Year’s resolution.

I hope you can join me.

5 Tricks of the Trade for Substitute Teachers


By Kailie Nagrath

As an intern my primary role is to be the ‘go-to’ substitute teacher for classes in grade levels from Preschool to grade 4.

They didn’t Teach this in College

So far, I have subbed for all grade levels, and have found that one thing is for sure, with all the training we get in college – from classes in education and psychology, to student observations and field practicums – nothing teaches you how to handle this!

Learn as you Go

At first it felt like being thrown into the deep-end of the ocean, but I am starting to see the light and have actually figured out a few tricks of the trade which I will summarize here.  Subsequent blogs will delve a bit deeper into each strategy, but none of these are etched in stone.  As teachers we learn as we go, and one important learning method is to talk to other teachers.  So teachers, please feel free to add your tips and tricks to the list!

Five tips to help anyone who has to get up in front of a classroom and say, “Good morning class, I’m your substitute teacher today!”

1.) Know thy Subjects – I am not referring to content material although that’s important, I’m talking about the kids in the class.  Get to know them and connect with them, the best and first step in doing that is to learn all their names.

2.) Know the Classroom Culture – Just as every school has its own unique culture, so too, does every classroom. The teacher will have set the tone from day one and it’s your job to know the classroom expectations and what the students are working on.  Being consistent not only supports the teacher you’re filling-in for, but it makes your day, and the student’s day run more smoothly and productively.

3.) Embrace the Co-teaching Model – If you have teaching assistants in the classroom take advantage of their skills and ability to provide consistency and support.  If not, seek out other teachers in your grade level and have them co-teach lessons, or team-up on outings or activities.

4.) Do Your Thing –Have your own unique go to prop, activity, or story that shares with students a little bit about who you are as a person and what your interests or personal style is all about.  This relates to the first strategy of getting to know your students. Building a relationship is a two-way street and it’s greatly enriched if your students feel they get to know a little more about you. This of course does not mean revealing things from your personal life, but it means sharing your passions.  This could be anything from a love of poetry, to an obsession with birding, or an interest in music, the arts or sports.  Is there a poem or a song or a sports fact you can teach the students by the end of the day?  If so, it will make your time with students more memorable and will prove helpful if you’re coming back tomorrow or later in the year!

5.) Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff – If you’re having a difficult time getting through the lesson plan, take a deep breath and relax.  A more experienced teacher gave me advice that I can’t repeat here, but the gist of it is to go with the flow and try to have fun with the students. If they see fear or nervousness, or impatience than you will not be in control of the class.  If you must, let go of the lesson plan and find fun ways to connect and allow students to learn.

Any other ideas are welcome!

First Day of School Jitters

Back to School

The first day of school. Just that phrase alone conjures up reactions spanning the emotional gamut from happiness and excitement, to fear and dread and just about every other emotional state in between.

Until this year, my entire lifetime of first days of school came from the first person perspective. It was my first day of school, my new teacher, my new friends, my new classes, etc. I even remember laying awake in bed the night before fifth grade was about to begin, just as I had done on so many other Back-to-School eves, wondering, Will I like my new teacher? Will I make new friends? And the most important question of all, are my back-to-school clothes cool enough?

Butterflies in Stomach
This year was different. I once again had that familiar feeling of going back to school, but this time I was going back to school not as a student, like every other year, but as a teacher,* which surprisingly, still produced the same sensation of butterflies in my stomach that I remember feeling when I was a kid.

Why the nerves? Because I, just like every student who gets nervous for the first day of school, implicitly understand that a good first start can set the tone and mood for the rest of the year. Knowing this, I wanted to make sure that I could make the day as great as possible for the kindergartners that would be walking through the door on that early August morning. Additionally, I also wanted to make a good first impression with the students, their parents, and my colleagues.

Let the Games Begin!
As the morning bell rang there was no time for anxious worry because bursting through the classroom door was a swarm of five-year olds excited to begin their elementary school career! The children’s uncontainable skipping carried their curious minds to the various learning tools that were placed in every nook and cranny of the classroom. The tables and shelves were stocked with toys, puzzles, games, and books all designed to foster their natural curiosity. Some students gravitated towards the math center, while others stopped at the science exploration center. Then there was the writing center, dramatic play area, blocks corner and reading center where there were books, books and more books! Here was a fully rounded environment designed to facilitate learning through exploration, play and inquiry for all types of learners.

First Things First
While the young students were eager to learn and get started, I too, as a new teacher, was equally eager to start teaching! But I immediately remembered what I learned in orientation the week before. We were told that the first days of school are all about making sure each student feel emotionally connected and secure. More important than jumping into the curriculum, is the need to make real one-on-one connections with each student and to help them form connections and friendships with their fellow classmates.

Breaking the Ice
It was clear that some students were already making friends, as they clutched onto each other’s hands and explored the classroom together, while other students were shy and reluctant to interact with their peers, and instead, seemed more focused on taking in the classroom setting itself. Kindergartners, like adults, need certain “ice-breakers” to help them warm-up and feel comfortable in a group setting. One way to do this is to encourage them to share some personal facts about themselves in a safe and encouraging environment.

Personal Connections
A dialogue is started to spark a naturally curious mind to want to know more about the person sitting opposite him or her in circle time. Questions are asked to promote conversations such as; Does anyone have an older brother? What is your favorite food? Is anyone else’s favorite food sushi? These questions immediately show students that they have something in common with their classmates and help to enhance the newly formed social relationships that are being forged. This in turn enhances student motivation because only when a child feels emotionally secure and happy in the classroom is the soil ready to start planting the seeds of learning.

Aristotle Knew
By the end of the day, even the shy students had already made new friends. It was encouraging to see them pairing-up as they set out to explore the classroom together. Watching them decide amongst themselves who would go first, and what they would do next, was almost as gratifying as seeing the smiles on their little faces. It reminded me that even with all our new research and insight into how children learn that more than two thousand years ago, Aristotle had it right all along when he said: “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”

*Actually I am a teacher in training at an internship program at The International School of Manila.

How We Got to China



My daughter and husband on a humid, hot day in Tianjin.


I had been musing with my husband and daughter (currently aged 6) in the UK about venturing overseas to live and have some great adventures! I had taught as a volunteer teacher for a year when I was 19 in Swaziland in a primary school in Mbabane and this experience of teaching overseas changed me forever. I totally blame it for giving me itchy feet ever since!

We considered Japan a few years ago after experiencing a longing to live where Studio Ghibli films are created (think Spirited Away, My Neighbour Totoro…) and after a very successful three-week trip to Australia with our then 2 year old daughter, who proved to be quite the little traveler, found that we couldn’t stop thinking about ‘moving away’.

I had taught in schools since I graduated in 1998 in the UK, English, music and then body percussion, singing and song-writing and virtues through dance until we had our baby girl in 2007. I stayed at home to raise her full-time. Teaching lots of children transformed to focusing on bringing new life to the world, I loved it!

When she turned three, our daughter attended a Montessori school, which I volunteered at for two years to run twice weekly music sessions. I had never considered working with three-year olds before, older Primary was more my forte, but here I was, encountering a new experience and real love for working with such a fabulous age! So inquisitive – so clever and wondrous about the world and how it works! I worked one day a week for four months in the school and got more of a feel for it –

In the next years I did a mixture of teaching part time then ended up starting my own company, raw cake-making, but whilst I enjoyed whipping up exquisite new creations in my kitchen I always felt something was missing. And it took me quite a while to realise that that ‘something’  was working with children again.

Forward wind to April, 2013. I had literally just been speaking to mothers at my daughter’s school, saying how much I’d love to teach at an international school and how we’d love to travel. One of my friends had just secured a post at a school in Brunei and I went home and spoke to my husband yet again about our wistful daydreams – it just seemed that no opportunities would ever present themselves.

One week later, on the first day of a new job in a school which I had for one term, I received an email, out of the blue. It simply said, ‘Are you interested in this post?’ It was for a teaching job in an international school in Tianjin, China. I found myself emailing back, saying that yes, I was interested and could I have more information?  My hands were literally shaking with excitement! Was this really going to present itself as a real opportunity to move to a different land and have new adventures with my family?

It seemed I had to say ‘yes’ to teaching before the Universe decided to give me the thumbs up! And two days later, I was being interviewed via Skype for the position of Pre-K 3 teacher in an international school!

I had sent in my resume and they were keen for me to work there. I then got cold feet – how could we go overseas? Would the pollution in this city affect my asthma and my daughter’s health? All the doubts and worries of my friends clouded my judgement and I found myself reconsidering the offer.

Two days later, I sat in a house that we were about to move into, and nothing felt right! We were supposed to go to China – I could feel it in my bones. I wrote to my contact and accepted my first international teaching position!

After I announced to the head teacher of the Primary school I was in that I was moving to China at the end of the school year, things just started falling into place. At the end of term, I received the most fabulous farewell and goodbye booklet from my team and the children (my 6 and 7 year olds thought I was going to China for the day!) and my husband’s boss even said there was a chance for him to work remotely overseas. The house we were supposed to move into got new tenants easily… every single door opened for us to leave our town – with a few hurdles on the way – but all pushing us to get on a plane!

It wasn’t until we boarded that plane that it really sank in – we were moving to Tianjin. I was going to be working full-time in an international school. My daughter would attend the school including four lessons of Chinese a week! Life would be different forever and we would always have stories to talk about from this great experience. How could we say no to this?

So that is how only a few short weeks ago we got to move from the UK to China and I will be sharing my new life in Tianjin as it unfolds.