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6 Lessons Learned as an International Teacher

Each day I wake up and do my teacher thing. It’s so normal, right?

But sometimes I get to thinking (I truly value that, thinking) and notice… this isn’t everyone’s normal, not even every teacher’s normal.

I never thought I’d be an international teacher, or even aspired toward. The way the events leading up to it unfolded, surely were not intentionally planned to lead me this way. So here is my story of how I unexpectedly became an international school teacher, created a life of it, and never plan to move home.

Looking back, I’d say it really started when I was about 7 or 8 years old, watching Dirty Dancing. At the end, when Jennifer Grey says she’s going to go to the Peace Corps… Well, I just idolized that and said, “I’m not sure what the Peace Corps is, but I’m gonna do it!” So fast forward 20+ years, completed my M.Ed in Elementary Education and off to the Peace Corps I went. (Important Note: this was all a lot harder than I make it sound here).

Sitting on a handmade bench, a teacher wears a shall over shoulders and a locally handmade dress. The bench says, Badaa ya kazi, Kaa hapa - after work, sit here.

My Peace Corps experience was pretty much the quintessential picture you have in your mind of a volunteer in Sub Saharan Africa. The unexpected part was how quickly it really became my home and how when returning to the US for a visit 18 months in, the most extreme culture shock that I had ever experienced. One would think that arriving in Tanzania or living in a remote village would be the hard part… but that was very untrue, at least for me. So when it neared the end of my volunteer time, I did what I knew - applied to teach. Eventually, I was offered and accepted a teaching position at a small international school in the southern highlands of Tanzania and began the rest of my life.

Starting there, I had no clue what the IB or PYP were (but surely did some research before my interview) and I arrived at the school in August to find that I had a different job that I had been offered (a common practice in many schools). I have taught ages and subjects that I never expected, built relationships I didn’t think were possible and have learned a little bit of a quite a few languages. Now, four schools and countries later - this has become my norm, but also such an incredible privilege. As I scroll through teacher accounts on social media, it is more and more apparent that I walked away from a system that is incredibly challenging (not in a positive way) to children, parents and teachers alike and which also restricts creativity and thinking by systemically mapping learning.

I can write or speak for a very long time about the unsettling feelings I have about nationalized education in both the US and the UK, but I can’t see the point in it.

I can however, highlight some of the truly powerful and exhilarating lessons I have learned as a teacher internationally. And I hope that it inspires you to take your professional practice somewhere different - regardless if that is by rethinking curriculum, changing states, taking a risk by teaching overseas or merely just learning about what education looks like in other places.

I know the most responsible thing that I can do would be to take this learning and experience and bring it back home to the US. I really should use this wealth of knowledge to make a positive change, if I even can, and spread the culture of global citizenship, tolerance and understanding of others. It is in fact, one of the Peace Corps goals to bring the world back home to America. But I cannot. I do not ever see myself settling in the US again by choice. However, many of my friends and colleagues from Peace Corps and international schools have been able to happily resettle and integrate in American culture. That’s just not me.

A word of caution however, is that not all international schools are created equally or managed fairly. I have had some very difficult experiences and have been taken advantage of by employers. So if you do decide to shift your thinking outside of the borders, be aware and knowledgeable about where you are going and for whom.

Happy teaching & learning!

💛 Sativa

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