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International Teaching: What Is It Really Like?



Have you ever wondered what teaching in London or Paris is like? Are you curious about Norway, Turkey, or the Philippines? Would you consider teaching in Kuwait, Indonesia, Zambia, Bangladesh, or Abu Dhabi? Education World interviewed four teachers who did more than just consider.

"I knew I wanted to see the world," Donna Spisso told Education World. "I had a masters and eight years of experience when I left the United States. When I taught in Rockingham County, in Virginia, I took five years to save up for a two-week trip to England. At that rate, I was not going to see much!"

"I've been abroad for 20 years now. It began as a one-year break after ten years of teaching in New York City," Laura Forish told Education World.

"If I had to do this all over again, the only thing I would do differently," said Bill Jordan, "is to get out of stateside public education sooner than I did."

"Although our lives have been very ordinary in one sense, they have been filled with adventure and new learning every day," added Karen Dunmire. "Both our girls (ages 28 and 21) were born overseas. Our best friendships have come from the ranks of teachers who've chosen this life, even for a brief time. Our girls speak several languages and easily navigate around the world, as that has been their world."

Those are just a sampling of comments from four teachers who have taught abroad. They have taught in more than 15 nations and have more than 60 years of combined international teaching experience.

LAURA FORISH

For Laura Forish, that one-year break became a new way of life. Since her first foray into international teaching, she has taught at the American Community School-Cobham (England) and at American Schools in London and Paris. Twenty years later, Forish was still teaching abroad.

Education World: You have taught in what many people would consider "dream" places -- Paris and London. Is it hard to get positions there?

Laura Forish: It's all a question of being in the right place at the right time and being persistent. A solid rsum and a minimum of two years of experience is a requirement. Flexibility is also necessary because international schools do not have the same support services United States' schools offer. Often one is called upon to wear a variety of hats. Although such places as the Munich International School are Christmas-card beautiful, for someone from New York City being in a city was very important.

EW: Did you know the language or about the culture before you left?

Forish: I spoke minimal French, but it certainly has improved. The language as it is spoken bears some -- but not much -- resemblance to the language as it is taught in textbooks. Culture shock is real and happens to everyone. It is not a fleeting thing but something that lasts through the years. Culture shock was just as real in the United Kingdom, so it should not be thought of as language-based only.

EW: As a foreigner, were you accepted?

Forish: Tough one. I'm always an expatriate American. Those with whom you bond tend to have similar backgrounds. Although they may be Brits or French, they have lived outside their culture. Except for a short stint in Guatemala, I have always lived in places where physically I "fit in," and that's a big difference. I can look the "native" when it's appropriate and act the "foreigner" when I feel like it. For me, that's a wonderful combination.

EW: What is life like as a teacher in France?

Forish: The physical environment may change, but teaching is something that changes very little once you're in the classroom. In my current position, our day lasts from 8:45 till 3:30. After-school sports and activity programs run until 6:15.

EW: Was there anything special about teaching in the places you have taught? Were there negatives?

Forish: The big negative is professional. You're out of the mainstream. Going to a conference is a big deal. Continuing education can be hard to arrange as well, although with online courses becoming more popular, that is easing some.

Another negative is compensation. I am not paid as well as my cohorts in the United States are. Some of this differential is because of the dollar to French franc exchange rate. Salaries vary greatly from school to school. In general, schools in what are considered "hardship" areas tend to pay better than those in "prime" locations: Paris, Rome, London. In my experience, this is based not on the cost of living in these areas but on the availability of teachers.

However, as I've done this for 20 years, I obviously feel that the positive outweighs the negative. I have met some wonderful people -- as colleagues, as students, as parents of students, as neighbors.

The school population is really exciting. Many students are true global nomad. They've lived all across the world. In my current school, the 850 students from grades pre-K through the 13th year of the International Baccalaureate program represent approximately 45 nationalities. Roughly 50 percent of them hold U.S. passports.

EW: You're a 30-year teaching veteran. In your opinion, is teaching abroad mainly for the young?

Forish: No way! Living in a different culture expands horizons and empathy levels. It's not always easy, but it's rarely boring.

KAREN DUNMIRE

Karen Dunmire and her husband, Denny, have been teaching abroad for more than 30 years. Currently, she is middle school principal at the American School in Warsaw, Poland.

Education World: You have spent more than 30 years abroad. Where have you taught?

Karen Dunmire: After the Peace Corps, Denny and I met and started our married life in a very remote boarding school of 700 in Sesheke, Zambia. Our first girl was born there. She was delivered by kerosene lamp in a government hospital. Very memorable and wonderful!

We returned to the United States to complete graduate degrees at Michigan State and then went to Indonesia. Our second child was born in Singapore. We came home to Lake Placid, New York, for what we thought was to be forever, but we stayed only two years, returning to Indonesia for two years and then [moving] to Abu Dhabi for three. In 1992, we went to Kuwait. In 1994, we moved to Poland, where we've been for seven years.

EW: Did this nomadic life affect your children?

Dunmire: Our kids were always ready to explore a new country. They have probably been the ones who've kept us moving. It is a wonderful life for families who are open to new experiences. We just kind of fell into this and love it.

DONNA SPISSO

Donna Spisso has taught in Spain, Luxembourg, Switzerland, and the Dutch Caribbean. For the past six years, she has taught in Bangladesh.

EW: In Bangladesh, you were a foreigner in a country with a culture very different from your own. Were you accepted?

Donna Spisso: Bangladeshis like to be associated with foreigners. There is some status attached to it. Teachers are respected. It is harder to become part of the community in Europe if you don't speak the language. In Bangladesh, everyone's second language is English.

EW: What are the schools like in Bangladesh? Is it safe there?

Spisso: My school has approximately 600 students in pre-K through 12th grade. My day runs from 7:30 to 3:30, and we're on a block schedule. We do have air conditioning, but when the power goes off, we lose it.

Safety? Driving a car in Bangladesh requires the utmost attention. At any given time, a motorist must watch out for men walking their cows or goats -- they graze on the median sometimes. Women are walking to the garment factories. Rickshaws and taxis clog the roads, waiting for customers. Brightly painted trucks, horns blaring, stop for no one. People cross the street without looking where they are going! There are no sidewalks, no traffic lights, and no stop signs in our area -- and if there were, no one would pay any heed!

EW: Why did you choose to teach in Bangladesh?

Spisso: Bangladesh offered a great package. In Europe, you pay taxes. In Bangladesh, we pay none. My school, like many others in the developing world, provides free tickets home annually; pays rent, utilities, and health insurance; and, for a nominal fee, provides a car and pays for its maintenance.

The trade off, of course, is quality of life. No one would agree to work in the developing world if the benefits were not excellent. If you work in Europe for only two years, you don't worry about the future, and schools capitalize on that. If international teaching becomes your career, that's a different story. You have to be able to save.

I find the students here very dedicated and their parents solidly behind their education. I have a lot of academic freedom and few discipline problems, and my husband and I are saving for our retirement. Travel is excellent. I have fulfilled my dream of seeing the world.

BILL JORDAN:

Bill Jordan taught in Norway, Turkey, and the Philippines and then created WWTEACH.com, to help other people find overseas teaching jobs.

Education World: Bill, you have taught in three very different places. Few Americans know much about the Philippines. What was teaching there like?

Jordan: It was in the Philippines that I found out why teachers rarely go back to teaching in the United States after teaching abroad. Where else can one be paid to hike a volcano, snorkel beautiful coral reefs, or learn about survival deep in the jungle?

My school had a resource center that rivaled those in universities. The science department had a full-time lab technician who took care of the labs. I'd just tell her what equipment I needed and poof -- it was set up in my room. If I wanted to work with a video recorder, the equipment arrived -- Hollywood-style, with a camera person to take care of all the recording while I just worried about teaching! I requested a small radio, and I received a brand-new $200 dollar portable stereo system in my room for the year. More than a dozen people staffed the large library. Ready and waiting to help, they were an interesting mix of locals and expatriates from all over the world.

EW: Did you have any teaching experiences that you think you will always remember?

Jordan: We had frequent power outages, making teaching computers challenging. I used pantomime to teach my beginning English as a second language classes. And I butchered the pronunciation of everybody's names: Si-Nyong Lee, Nobuyoshi, Umer Khaldoon Aftab Ahmed ... .

Think of New York City and how different it is from rural Montana. The same is true overseas. Every place is very different from the other places, but it is always fun and exciting. In the Philippines, I learned that kids will be kids no matter where you are. Teaching, learning, testing, and sharing is fundamentally the same no matter where you live.

Students came and went constantly, but I never got used to the gifts they gave. Things like that just didn't happen to me stateside. It was nice being in a place where teachers were valued.

Click here for Part 1: Want to See the World? Teach Overseas!

Glori Chaika
Education World®
Copyright © 2007 Education World

 

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Originally published 11/14/2000; updated 05/25/2007

 
 

 

 

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