1.6.11

10 years teaching abroad, part 1

This week ends the tenth school year I've spent abroad. In this post I'll explain how I got here, and in the next I'll talk about how international teaching has effected me as a professional.

In the autumn of 2000, I had been teaching English for eight years, six of them at a high school in the northern suburbs of Los Angeles, and to my own mind at the time I was professionally at the top of my game. I team-taught an American Lit/US History course for grade 11s, full of games and simulations and bursting with experimentation; I also taught AP Language, Advanced Composition for grade 12s and Film as Literature, all courses that I loved and had designed myself. I had finished my MA at a local Cal State the year before and had enjoyed it, plus the extra income made living on a teacher's salary with no family a little swank. My students loved me, my colleagues respected me ... all was well.

But I was restless.

When I started making a little more money, the charm of my Burbank studio apartment wore thin, and then the possibility of moving got the ball rolling. Could I move out of state? Could I start a new career? Could I go get a PhD or a law degree? Suddenly the possibilities were endless.

Another factor was travel. During those eight years, I had lived to travel, taking massive road trips across the US and going backpacking around Australia, South Africa, Argentina, the UK, and other parts of Europe. The idea of finding a job that would allow me to travel while I worked had huge appeal.

I met someone at a party whose parents had been State Department employees, and as she talked about her schooling at various international schools around the world the light came on for me. After a few internet searches and some reading, I found myself at a job fair in Miami the following March.

I didn't accept a job there. My position in California was so good that I was unwilling to settle for much less, and many of the schools that were interested in me didn't appeal to me for whatever reason.

Then at the end of May, I got a flurry of phone calls from schools around the world wanting to set up phone interviews and requesting reference letters. I chose Helsinki because it seemed like the best school of the ones I was in contact with. My plan was to go there for 2-3 years and move on to another city somewhere else, and do so every 2-4 years.

So I went to Helsinki. I had small classes (2-20 students), no modal to teach from, and my students learned with relative alacrity and depth. It wasn't perfect, but it was very good.

But after two years, I was ready to move on. I took a job in London, got married to a Finn, and my wife and I were ready to keep moving around the world.

And then we had twins. Living with twin infants was so chaotic that staying in London wasn't really an option -- the school wasn't good enough to sacrifice for -- and moving to another country seemed mad as well. The principal in Helsinki mentioned that they would have an opening, and so I applied, returning to Helsinki where we've been for the last six years.

The school is semi-private and non-profit has about 320 students K-12. (My twins currently attend the K2 class.) I teach IB Diploma English A1 and various IB MYP English courses. My classes are 5-22 students. I'm head of Language A (mother tongue), which is myself and another English teacher, two Finnish A teachers and a part time Swedish A teacher.

Will we stay here? Will we return to the US? We have no long-term plans. We like our current flat, and we can stay here for another three years, and then I suppose we'll have a think about it. But international teaching has me spoiled. It would be hard to imagine returning to the US, both culturally and educationally.

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