The Fortunate Few
There are many reasons my wife, Kirstin, and I decided to make international education a career following the initial two-year experience we had in 1992 when we took a leave of absence from our teaching positions in the US. USA Today recently ran an article (May 6, 2019) describing the many benefits of international school teaching, including low teacher / student ratios, great resources, time to prepare for lessons and collaborate with colleagues, and respect as a professional. Certainly, these played into our thoughts when we decided to completely abandon the security of those jobs back home in exchange for the life of international nomads. There was something more though; something a bit more personal. As we observed the quality of education the students we were teaching in international education were receiving, we realized we wanted these same experiences for our own children. At that point, we only had one child, still less than a year old, but our hopes for what her schooling would be like were quickly shaped by what we experienced.
Twenty-six years and four children later, I can clearly state our children have had amazing experiences. Imagine what it was like for my oldest daughter, Kaija, when she was in kindergarten in Sumatra, Indonesia. Each week, students were introduced to a new letter. They traced the letter, experimented with the sound of the letter, and explored words that were related to that letter. That may not sound all that unique until I tell you what happened during “E” week. Kaija went to school and found there was a young elephant there waiting to meet the students. Why? Because elephant starts with “E.”
The educational benefits my children received go beyond cute little experiences like “E” for elephant. The resources available usually means schools can provide some of the best instruction available. My youngest daughter, Anna, was an incredibly shy youngster. Yet, she had an amazing third grade teacher who was able to pull her out of her shell and instill her with confidence to the point where she was taking responsibility for her own learning, and publicly sharing what she had learned. I would find this amazing for any third grader. In Anna’s case, it shaped her as a confidant learner for the rest of her life. The ability to attract incredibly talented teachers like that third grade teacher made a difference.
All three of my daughters have walked away from an international education as exemplary writers. I can’t really explain why – perhaps it was because of smaller class sizes, meaning more meaningful feedback, or access to resources and curriculum that emphasized more clarity around the learning process – but, all three daughters are able to research, plan, and write at a level well beyond what I could do at their age, and perhaps beyond what I can do now. I feel very privileged that to this day they will sometimes request my feedback on something they have written, and I’m always blown away by what they have produced.
International school students also have amazing opportunities to develop lifelong friendships with students from around the world, making their perception of the world a much more manageable one than many other people would have. My middle daughter Sadie is a perfect example of this. Though she has been out of high school for a while now, she still communicates daily with friends around the world. She has also created her own Thanksgiving tradition, inviting friends she has made from different countries to join her each year in what is truly a multicultural Thanksgiving holiday.
Even beyond the academics though, there is something else, something that I found truly incredible about international education. I try to put my finger on what it is exactly, and it changes a bit for me from time to time. In the end though, I find it boils down to two things. First, I’m in awe of what can only be described as an amazing love for learning I find in students from international schools. There is a true commitment to doing their very best, a willingness to work hard, and a simple passion for being a part of their school community. I saw this in all of my children, but it is most apparent in my son. Max came to us a bit later in his life. At age nine, he had minimal exposure to education, and what he had was not the most pleasant. I remember the first day he attended our school, he was so angry at me, and did not want to go. Yet, he came home that day with a smile on his face, and told me he loves school. After three years, that feeling has not changed. He gets up every day excited about school, and can’t seem to get enough opportunity to learn. He speaks about his teachers as though they are teaching only to him. As a result, the progress he has made in a brief period of time is nothing short of incredible.
The second incredible thing, and perhaps most important, about international education is community. I’ve never seen anything like it. International schools are the center of life for so many people from so many different cultures for the period of time those people are in a location. Because the school is the center of their lives, the children are the center of their lives as well; not just one’s own children, but everyone’s children. I’ve always believed children learn best in an environment where they have unconditional support from a community. We’ve found international schools to come as close as possible to that existing.
I think it is easy for those of us who experience this international education to take it for granted after a while. It becomes the norm, and we can easily forget not everyone gets to experience what our children are experiencing. The reality is, our children are the fortunate few. I was reminded of that this past week when I joined three members of our faculty in visiting a rural village in the mountains of Shan state in Myanmar. The school there is one our school, The International School Yangon, will be sponsoring in partnership with United World Schools (UWS). This particular village has only had a school servicing 70 grade 1 – 4 students for a bit over a decade, though conditions are fairly dismal. Large gaps between the boards that make up the walls mean the mountain breeze and red dust blow throw the three-room building fairly constantly. There were minimal observable resources or furniture the day we visited. In fact, the only play items noted were the balls and jump ropes we brought with us. As for teachers, when available, they are first year teachers with minimal training assigned by the government. They tend to last for relatively short periods though due to the remoteness of the village and not speaking the local language. UWS hopes to address some of these issues by working with the village to build a new building and train local teachers. Through engaging the village, we hope they’ll achieve a sustainable long-term impact on the learning for children in this village.
While we hope to make difference through our work with UWS, it is not the same as what has become a norm or our own children. In fact, very few students in the world get to experience what we consider to be the norm. I think this is important for us to remember. At ISY, we strive to develop learners who will be a force for positive change in the world. We’ve decided to pursue this vision by adopting the Sustainable Development Goals as a lens through which we approach everything we do. In doing this, we plan to look at topics like poverty and education, the causes, impact, and possibilities for change. Our mission is to be a community of compassionate global citizens. By exploring topics like this, we believe we can make great strides in our mission and toward our vision. In the long run, hopefully more students in the world can someday experience the norm my children were able to experience through an international education. Is it a long shot? Could be, but these are the things that are worth striving for.