Friday, March 18, 2016

my expat gig: a snippet of my life as an international teacher

CURRICULUM 
I am first and foremost a language arts teacher. While I also teach social studies, I will be the first to admit it is not my specialty. I have taught everything from U.S. history to world religions to Washington State history to world history. Get real: who is an expert on all of those things?! Luckily, I spend most of my time and energy doing what I know how to do well: teach teens language arts. Thankfully, only four of my weekly teaching hours are for social studies, while the other 17 are for English.

The backbone of my school's curriculum is the controversial Common Core, but we still have a lot of flexibility in picking our own teaching materials. The purpose of my curriculum is to improve my students' reading, writing, speaking and listening skills.

The literature that we study in 8th is: Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Outsiders, The Diary of Anne Frank and Fahrenheit 451. The literature that we study in 9th grade is: Lord of the Flies, Persepolis, Night, The Handmaid's Tale, Cat's Cradle, The Odyssey and Romeo and Juliet. Obviously, both lists exclude the short stories and poetry in our textbooks-- we read all kinds of goodies!

As far as writing goes, my students compose literary analysis essays, argumentative essays, informative, research-based essays and personal narratives. I explicitly teach grammar (right now we are studying subject complements-- who doesn't love predicate nouns and predicate adjectives!?) and the academic vocabulary that goes along with it. They learn MLA format and make works cited or bibliography pages. They turn in all of their major assignments on turnitin.com, a website that scans for plagiarism. That is not a school policy, but it is my policy.

As far as speaking and listening, my students participate in structured classrooms discussions like Socratic seminars and literary speed dating. They work on their articulation and try their hardest not to say "like" and "um" a gazillion times. Further, they practice these same skills when giving individual speeches or group presentations.

Most days, I really enjoy being a language arts teacher, even though by the end of the year I have read and graded a minimum of 268 3-5 page papers.

SCHOOL DAY
My school day begins at 8:10 and ends at 4:10. There are 7 class periods in a day, each 50 minutes long. There are 10 minute breaks (that teachers do not have to supervise) in between each period.

My teaching schedule is as follows:

Monday: 9th (8:10-9), 8th (10:10-12)*, 8th (2:10-4:10)**
Tuesday: 9th (8:10-9), 8th (10:10-12)*, 8th (3:20-4:10)
Wednesday: 9th (8:10-9), 8th (2:10-4:10)**
Thursday: 8th (8:10-9), 9th (10:10-11), 8th (1:10-3)*
Friday: 8th (8:10-10)*, 9th (10:10-11), 8th (11:10-12), 8th (3:20-4:10)
* We get a 10 minute break in the middle
** We get a 20 minute break in the middle

In total, I have 15 periods (none of which include my lunch hour) built into my weekly schedule for planning. Although I rarely do it, if I need to run errands during the day, I can. In the past, I have run to the store or pharmacy. Also, if I am swamped and cannot focus in the open office I work in, I sometimes go to Starbucks or home in order to grade.

There is a lot of freedom and flexibility in my work day.

SCHOOL YEAR
We usually start school September 1st. The first day of summer is July 1st. Our school year is 20 days longer than the US's 180 days school year. In total, we get three full months off every year. We work 100 days, then get a 1 month winter break and then work 100 more days. We do have 3-4 long weekends in each 100 day semester, which is why we can look forward to trips to Japan, Hong Kong and southern Taiwan before the end of this semester.

There is no denying it: the school year is long!

MY CLASSES
The maximum number of students who can be in a class is 30. That said, there is a lot of discrepancy in class sizes. For example, my husband has 15 kids in his 4th grade class. Some high school classes in the past few years have had 5 or fewer students. That's just crazy to me! Unfortunately for me, middle school seems to have the largest class sizes. In the past years, I've had full classes of 30 and a class of 31 once. Now, both of my 8th grade classes have 26 students. That's still a large class, but as I had 40 kids in my class in Seattle, it still feels quite doable, especially because, in general, my students are so well behaved. Luckily, my 9th grade class only has 15 kids in it. 

MY OVERALL IMPRESSION OF INTERNATIONAL TEACHING
Teaching abroad has ruined me in some ways. I will never step foot in another American classroom. Truthfully, it has a lot to do with students who don't want to learn, parents who view school as day care and state mandates that make no sense. While most of my students and their parents in the states were reasonable human beings, I found it only took a few to ruin it for everyone-- and I always seemed to have more than just a few.

So what do I like about my job teaching abroad?

I love my students. So much. Seriously. I actually look forward to seeing them after a break!

I like that my schedule allows for me to improve my practice at work, not on my own time at home. I do my best not to work after hours. I have 3 times as many planning periods each week here compared to in the states. If a teacher doesn't want to be a robot, he or she has to work a lot outside of the school day in America. Here, that is not true. I have had the opportunity to sit in on colleagues who are good at using a technique I want to try. I have had the opportunity to create really fabulous units. And I have the time to grade well rather than in a hurried manner.

I love the calendar. Having one month off in winter is way better than 2 weeks off here and 1 week off here and there.

I love that no one breathes down my neck or comes by my classroom with a clipboard to see if I wrote the essential question for the day on the whiteboard. Teachers are mostly left alone to teach. The admin does do occasional observations, but here-- unlike what I experienced in America-- the assumption is not that we are lazy or incompetent or not doing our jobs properly. I guess it also helps that here there is not just one right way to teach. At our school, there is definitely a blend of cultures. Western teachers run more student centered classrooms, and the local teachers run more teacher centered classrooms. That simply reflects the two cultures woven into the fabric of our school.

I like that my school is a public school. Ethically, that matters to me. My kids are not buying their grades via Mommy and Daddy's expensive tuition payments.

What do I dislike about my job teaching abroad?

The facilities. Every day, at least once a day, I stop and ask myself who on earth came up with the open floor plan. Noise travels from other classrooms and the hallways, and it interrupts my classes regularly. That just irks me so much! It is hard to try to get 26 middle schoolers to focus on the same thing at the same time, and I so do not need anything competing for their attention. Today, my kids were reading To Kill a Mockingbird and we could hear the activity going on in the class next door so well we may as well have joined them.

The fact that we don't have any paid leave at all. There are also no substitute teachers. If anyone needs to take a day off, first they have to find colleagues to cover their classes, and then they have to pay them out of their own pocket. Working with a bunch of kids means you are going to get sick, most likely more than once a school year. The system really sucks for the western teachers who are used to having sick leave and substitute teachers to call on at the last minute.

The horribly competitive nature of international teaching, and the whole grass-is-greener-on-the-other-side syndrome. I have seen colleagues/friends turn into competitors because there are only so many positions each year at the "good" schools. I think this sucks. I have also seen a lot of people, myself included from time to time, find themselves incapable of being content where they are simply because there could be a "better" school waiting for them at the next job fair. These things really take their tolls on individuals and relationships. 

So, no. My experience teaching abroad has not been all butterflies and rainbows and unicorns. There is no such thing as a perfect school. However, I find great joy where it matters most: in my classroom with my kids. 

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