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Why You Should Teach Abroad

The Iberian Peninsula at night.
The Iberian Peninsula at night.
—NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center/Flickr Creative Commons
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In a small town, a teacher stood before her class of middle schoolers and enunciated, “Penis.” She said it pay-niece.

I was in southern Spain as part of the North American Language and Culture Assistants program, the Spanish Education Ministry’s endeavor to improve the economically depressed country’s English language level and, by extension, its citizens’ employability abroad.

Spaniards rank among the worst English speakers in Western Europe; this statistic is a relic of the Franco era, the dictatorship that lasted more than three decades, until 1975. In typical isolationist spirit, Franco demanded that all foreign films and television be dubbed in Spanish—a habit that Spain never kicked and that left the country with limited opportunities to listen to English.

Now, to put things right, Spanish students were learning subjects like human anatomy in English. I stood in front of them as they repeated, “Pay-niece.”

“Pay-niece,” the teacher said again.

“Pay-niece,” they said, and I cringed.

My turn. I hesitated. Was I supposed to copy her pronunciation to protect her authority? Or did I correct the teacher and risk embarrassing her in front of students?

In theory, a big part of being a language assistant was to provide the complete immersive package by co-teaching lessons in the classroom. We were given little instruction on how to address issues like teachers' mistakes in the moment and diplomatically. So much was determined by the kind of relationship you had and how amenable that person seemed to correction. I already sensed that this teacher resented me, perhaps because my presence shed light on her abysmal English—or maybe it had more to do with the fact that she was given no instruction on how to use me. It wasn’t uncommon for me to sit in the corner of the classroom doing nothing.

I’d absorbed the philosophy that truth should trump ego—but I was beginning to learn that “the real world” was defined by a new kind of truth that was rarely as neat as the one I’d polished in my American liberal arts education. Teaching, of course, is as much about politics as it is about learning.

Views of the World

As a teacher outside of your home country, you’re given a limited but raw glimpse into a different section of the world—its history and values. Its messy truths.

Sure, I had my own messy truths. Their excavation gained momentum in adolescence, and where better than at high school in a small, Southern suburb? But I was tired of myself and of my section of the world. You look at something long enough and it stops making sense. It drives you to distant classrooms, to soak in someone else's culture an ocean away.

I wasn't the only one moved to teach abroad after spending formative years at the same (the only) public high school in Conway, Arkansas. I spoke with three former Wampus Cats who found their own distance from home, in Asia, in the Middle East, and in Western Europe.

David House was six grades above me, so we never crossed paths in the hallways of Conway High School, but his younger brother and I shared a social circle so we occasionally wound up at the same parties. He taught in Japan for seven years, spending two in an Okinawa public school with the competitive JET Programme and five teaching independently in private schools and academies. Something that surprised him was the selective amnesia during history lessons on World War II. Now everybody wants to talk about pacifism, he said. What this translates into is a penchant for historical revisionism that skims over or ignores Japan’s role in atrocities like the Rape of Nanking.

Something else that stood out, David said, was how much importance is put on education, even from a young age. He described English lessons for infants—classes where mothers hold their babies while an instructor simply speaks. Later, teachers must focus heavily on preparing students for a set of exams taken before entering each phase of schooling. The attention is understandable: students’ performance on the exams determines the quality of the institutions they can get into and, in effect, the course of their entire lives.

Blake Edwards graduated high school a few years before I did, in 2003. We grew up on the same street, in catty-corner houses, though we didn't have a conversation until I sat down with him a few months ago in New York, where I live and where he recently relocated to practice law and write. Over beers, we talked about his time in Cairo, Egypt. He spent a year teaching English night classes to young professionals through NGC Academy. His friends there were mostly journalists, NGO workers, or Egyptians who were “the kinds of people who would hang out with expats,” he said—so a relatively Westernized bunch not necessarily representative of the country’s often conservative middle class. However, many aspects of the classroom dynamic were “mirrors of Egyptian society in general.” His students were self-segregated: boys sat on one side, girls on the other. Most of the latter dressed in headscarves and class sometimes started late or was interrupted for prayer. Here the American imagination might conjure a group of demure figures who let the boys answer all the questions, but, Blake said, “a personality of a girl in Egypt who’s wearing hijab is not at all muted. … These girls are super cocky, super assertive, really loud in class, you know, all of that stuff.” This, he said, “was a bit of a discovery.”

Learn for America

Teaching abroad also gives you the opportunity to reexamine the education system, pedagogy, and learning styles of your own country.

John Jolly was a year below me at CHS, a philosopher-athlete who sometimes ate lunch at our table. He started dating my best friend in junior year and she's visiting him right now in Germany, where he's lived for three years. One of those years was in Saarland on a Fulbright grant, teaching English to high schoolers. Now he teaches university students in Marburg through a master's exchange program with the University of Missouri.

One difference John noted about the educational spirit in Germany and the one he found while teaching university students in the U.S. had to do with personal responsibility. Where he taught in Germany, and in Northern European countries generally, “they have a better sense of ownership for their education,” John said. “It’s a process of self-formation, ever since the Enlightenment, since Kant, I think the Germans have sort of taken this as a principle of education.” Whereas “your average student in America is more likely to fall into this sort of self-righteous apathy,” German students have higher standards, for their teachers and classroom environments.

David House also brought up this differing conception of responsibility, but on the part of educators. In Japan, there’s the expectation that teachers will interact with pupils on a more personal level, like family friends. Imagine you catch a kid smoking outside of school hours. While a teacher in the United States may not say anything to the student and probably won’t call the parents, David said, a teacher in Japan will definitely say something to the student and call the parents. It would sound intrusive to some in the U.S., but in many Japanese schools, home visits are the norm. Teachers are welcomed with snacks.

A Restorative Lens

These internationally oriented educators I spoke to said that being a teacher was considered a revered profession in the country where they taught; often the selection process is more rigorous and the position is well-compensated with pay and benefits. In this country, where you might hear “education major” thrown around as an insult, teaching abroad could be the restorative lens educators need to get a fresh perspective and start forging creative solutions to problems like student disengagement and teacher burnout. Sometimes a clearer view requires distance.

As for the middle schoolers in southern Spain, I didn’t call the teacher out in front of them. I just pronounced the word correctly and hoped the students would pick up on the difference over time. This is often a good way to assimilate new information—slowly but deeply, with lots of careful listening. It’s the kind of learning that changes minds forever.

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