Taking photos of the northern lights in Fairbanks, Alaska
This week I introduce you to Richard who took his international teaching career back to the U.S. for a five-year stint in Alaska. Soon to make his way back south to warmer climates, this outdoor adventurer is just getting started teaching his way around the world.
Where are you now and what are you currently teaching?

I am currently in Anchorage, Alaska teaching 6th grade.

How does Alaska fit into you international teaching career?

I have taught at two previous international schools before.  My teaching career is as such – I taught in Virginia for two years, then three years at Ross Prep School in St.Kitts in the Caribbean, then Mexico City for one year, Alaska for five years, and next school year I will be teaching 5th grade in Guadalajara, Mexico at ASFG (American School Foundation of Guadalajara).

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Volunteering as a dog handler at the Iditarod Trail starting line in WIllow, Alaska

What is it like living in Alaska?

The best thing about Alaska is the remote outdoors and being surrounded by people who want to go play in them.  You can do a myriad of activities and it will be just you and the outdoors.

What made you decide to teach internationally?

Being a son of a military family, I thought it would be exciting to live overseas and to work for DODDS.  It wasn’t until a relationship ended badly for me that I had enough motivation to leave the country.  I felt like I was in a rut with life and the idea of teaching outside the US seemed like the answer to shake things up.

Bastillia in Mexico City

Bastillia in Mexico City

What challenges have you faced teaching internationally?

The School in St.Kitts was very small with few resources and most were outdated, like still calling Russia the USSR.  I had to get creative and resourceful for the students to get quality education.  There were only five teachers for the entire K-8 school, so the school was only as good as the effort the teachers were putting in.  Mexico City was a huge school with eight grade-level teachers, and it seemed to be very disorganized due to being too big.  It felt like I was being pulled in every direction with students, parents, PYP, administration, etc.

Shark Dive in St. Maarten

Shark Dive in St. Maarten

How is teaching internationally different from teaching in your home country?

No union, so no job security.  Also, the parents are more involved than any school in the U.S.  This can be good and bad, depending on the personality of the parent.  Also, I really enjoyed being creative again in the classroom.  Public schools seemed like a factory to me, where international schools allowed for more flexibility and creative teaching since testing is not as important.

Me and my surf board in St. Kitts

Do you still get culture shock? How do you experience re-entry?

Oh I definitely still get culture shock.  International experiences prepare me for most things, but every culture is different and something will stand out to you.  I think “shock” implies such a strong reaction, but to me it is that “wow, I can’t believe they do that” feeling.

Re-entry is hard.  I felt like I was missing out on the world.  It was hard for me to appreciate Alaska and what I had around me for the first year.  I would just talk about how I missed the feeling of living abroad. Being overseas, groceries and other mundane chores become an adventure that you will just have to laugh at as they always take longer than you think, or are done differently.  Back home, they become a drag and a burden again.  It was hard to connect with people who were interested in buying a house, having a family, and owning a new car instead of going on adventures and exploring and pushing limits internally and externally.  They enjoyed comfort, while I enjoy the chaos of adventure.
Getting Lucha Libre at Cruz Azul futbol game in Mexico City

Getting Lucha Libre at Cruz Azul futbol game in Mexico City

What are some myths about some of the countries you have lived in?

St.Kitts – The Caribbean is friendly, easy-going place – It is poor, and it comes with harsh crime of being extremely poor.  I was robbed, stolen from, and had two attempts on my life while living there (brakes cut and I was shot in the arm).

Mexico – There is no middle-class – The city is very different from the countryside and resorts.  Middle-class exists.  Also, the term Mexican is not as singular as one would think.  The rift within Mexico is between Spanish and native descendents.
How do you spend you holidays? How often do you visit home?

I would always go on an adventure within the country or nearby countries.  I would visit home once a year, but I would rather be exploring.  Alas, I have a great family that I love, so seeing them often is great.

Photo published in an Airline Magazine of me buying street chicken in St. Kitts

Photo published in an airline magazine of me buying street chicken in St. Kitts

When you are looking for a new job, what do you personally look for in a school and country? Has that changed from when you first started teaching?

I look for a school with a good administration, stable, and with happy teachers.  I also look for PD and how this school will bolster my resume.  Country?  I look for how do teachers and other expats have fun?  Can you explore the country and travel?  Has that changed?  No, I don’t plan on growing up anytime soon.

How do you go about making a new place your own? (That is, both your new accommodation and your new country.)

I really don’t bother making it “my own.”  My home is a storage unit with my collectibles.  I go to the country seeking new collectibles and adapting myself to my new home.  I guess with my upcoming job, I have my pictures on a hard dive to look at, I plan on buying a grill, and I am bringing my bike, bouldering pad, and surf and scuba gear to play in the outdoors . . . so I guess that counts!  I am not much of a homebody.  I could live in someone’s closet and be happy.
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Ice climbing on a glacier in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park

What do you miss most when you’re abroad?
Family.  It is rough to see my parents and be shocked on how old they look and are!  I want them to come with me.  Family is the biggest by far.  But I have no desire to live in the US again.  Big Catch 22.
What do you do to meet people and integrate in your new home?
I go to local hangouts and just talk with people.  I tried as much as I could to get “a life” outside of the people at my school.  I would do activities like hiking or clubs like the scuba club to make sure I had diverse friends of expats, co-workers, and locals.
Surfing in St. Kitts

Surfing in St. Kitts

What custom/ habits do you find most strange about your adopted culture?

First thing that popped into my head – street tacos.  When getting street tacos, I would get the beef, but every part of the cow would be on the grill…brain, intestines, liver, etc.  And all of them would be the same price, and the locals would rather eat tripe instead of the meat.

How do you know when it’s time to leave?

You get shot!!!!  Hahahah.  I know it’s time to leave when I get this feeling of being too comfortable. When I have explored a lot and might be doing something a second time.  When I feel like I’ve figured out life where I am at and I am comfortable. Then I know it’s time to shake things up and move on.

Day of the Dead celebrated in the streets of Mexico City

Day of the Dead celebrated in the streets of Mexico City

What has been your favorite teaching position and location thus far? Is there anywhere you are hoping to land a position in the future?

I loved Alaska.  That stole my heart.  You feel like you are overseas there!  I didn’t want to leave, but I know international teaching is meant for me.  My favorite position was the school in St. Kitts because I felt I had a powerful impact on the kids and the school itself.  I hope to land a job in South America and South East Asia.  Also the Middle East before it is said and done.  Africa and India are also on my list to explore.
Has living abroad changed you?
Immensely.  I learned to live as a minority, that the law and government will not help me.  So I had to not take things, negative experiences, personally.  The negatives come with the blessings of the positives, so I had to take them too.  I get to laugh at myself and be ok with not knowing what is happening or how to do things.  I enjoy exploring new places and such, but also exploring who I am by placing myself in new and different situations and seeing how I act and react, think and feel.
One of the many ancient ruins in Mexico

One of the many ancient ruins in Mexico

What tips or advice would you give to others thinking about making the leap to a career in international teaching.
Do it.  Even if you decide it is not for you and return in two years, it will be an experience where you learn a lot about yourself.  Do you research to hedge your bets that you will enjoy your new place, but ultimately, its you, not the school or the country, that makes your experience enjoyable.  Have an open mind and embrace what is different, not how you think things should be.

Find the full series of Interviews with International Educators here.


If you are an international educator and you would like to be featured on The Present Perfect, contact me at thepresentperfectblog {at} gmail {dot} com.

Hostess With the Mostess*

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One of the things I miss most about Beirut really doesn’t have anything to do with Beirut, the city, at all. What I really miss about life in Beirut is my great circle of friends that I had. More the going out, more than being invited somewhere, I love hosting a good party for my friends. It can be a dinner party, a barbecue, brunch, or a cocktail party; I just love having people over to my place and showing them a good time with good food and drink.

My apartment in Beirut was perfect for hosting with a spacious living space, full dining room table, and decent sized kitchen. Sure, in Brooklyn I could host eight people for Thanksgiving dinner by cramming them into my tiny living room and using the couch as extra seating, but having a great space makes all the difference.

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Sunday morning potluck brunch at my place.

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An early summer barbecue for friends on my rooftop.

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My friend Emily visited from Cairo and together we hosted a dinner party for her Lebanese friends.

14-20111210-IMG_4602-untitledBefore the arrival of guests to my holiday cocktail party. Must photograph all the food!

13-IMG_4770I love introducing people!

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Creating the menu and trying out new recipes is half the fun.

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Book club at my place. After the eating, drinking, and socializing, we do finally get around to talking about some books.

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The people in the kitchen always seem to be having the most fun.

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Fresh baked strawberry scones to welcome my traveling friends to Beirut for the weekend.

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Things can get interesting at the end of the night.

I’m really looking forward to starting my new life in Budapest, meeting some awesome people, and hosting some great parties! I hope to find a great apartment with plenty of space for hosting (and a spare bedroom for overnight guests). Friends, if you’re interested in visiting Budapest, I can’t wait to have you!

*At least I like to think so! (Also, I needed a title for this post.)

Monterrey

In this installment of International Educator Interview Corey dishes on how studying abroad led to teaching abroad and what Mexico is really like. (Hint: He likes it so much he’s staying in-country for his next teaching post.)

Where are you now and what are you currently teaching?

I’m currently in Monterrey, Mexico teaching fourth grade at the American Institute of Monterrey.

Is this your first international post or is this one in a string of many international posts for you?

This is my second international teaching post.  I taught fifth and sixth grade English in Bucharest, Romania for a year before coming to Mexico.  Next year, I’m going to teach in Guadalajara, Mexico.

Puerto Escondido

Puerto Escondido

What made you decide to teach internationally?

Ever since I studied abroad in university, I’ve had a passion for traveling, so teaching abroad was an easy decision for me to make.  During my last year of university, I started looking for teaching jobs in the United States, and I found it very difficult to find any vacancies.  After my first post teaching in Romania, I figured, you know what, I could make this my career, and here I am.

What’s challenging about teaching at a new school in a new country?

There are a lot of challenges about teaching at a new school in a new country.  Starting a new job in your home country is stressful enough, but starting a new job in a different country is something entirely different.  Of course, you have the normal things that can be stressful at the beginning of the school year (procedures, getting materials, setting up your classroom, etc.), but if you top that off with the fact that you’re living in a new country where you don’t know anyone, don’t speak the language, and don’t know where places are, then it can be a very challenging situation indeed.
Las Pozas de Edward James

Las Pozas de Edward James

How is teaching internationally different from teaching in your home country?

Teaching in the United States has its perks.  Materials are easier to come by than in other countries. (I’m looking at you, Target.)  In Mexico, finding simple teaching items can be difficult.  However, the workload in international schools is generally smaller because there is less paperwork and students use part of the day to take classes in their native language.

What’s it like living in Mexico? What’s your favorite thing about being an expat there? What is challenging?

I love Mexican food!  Tacos, chilaquiles, enchiladas, guacamole… I can’t get enough of it.  Mexican culture is generally more chilled out and relaxed, which can be very refreshing.  Also, there is so much to see in Mexico.  Waterfalls, jungle, beaches, mountains, ruins, architecture, cities, churches… Mexico has it all.  I’ve found that Monterrey, specifically, can be pretty conservative, which continues to be a challenge for me.  Since Monterrey is located in the north of Mexico, which is close to the U.S./Mexico border, sometimes safety can be an issue.  I’ve never had anything happen to me, but it’s always good to keep an eye out while traveling on foot or on the bus.

Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza

Do you still get culture shock? How do you experience re-entry?

When I came back to the U.S. for the summer after my first year of teaching abroad, I had a lot of negative culture shock.  However, when I went back to the U.S. for Easter earlier this year, I enjoyed it a lot, so I guess it just depends on my mood and what I encounter.  When I came back for Easter, I had forgotten how organized the U.S. is and how everything is very reliable, which I definitely appreciated.

What is a myth about Mexico?

Even though Mexico is right next to the U.S., I think that a lot of Americans have a false idea of what Mexico is really like.  Many people seem to think that Mexicans wear sombreros (the big hats), ride donkeys, and take siestas (afternoon nap), but really, very few people do any of those things.  Another myth is that Mexico is just a big desert, which isn’t true.  It has a very wide variety of habitats and climates.  Before I came to Mexico, I thought that cities would just be big slums, but I was so wrong.  Mexico can be very modern.  There is a lot of wealth in Monterrey and other big cities.  The last myth would be that Mexico is unsafe to travel to.  Mexico seems to get a really bad rap for being unsafe because of what people hear on the news.  I’m here to tell you that it’s only unsafe in a few spots along the U.S./Mexico border (that aren’t even worth going to anyway) and that most of it is pretty safe.  Mexico, as a whole, has a lower homicide rate than Washington D.C., Atlanta, Chicago, and many other large U.S. cities.

Agua Azul

Agua Azul

How do you spend you holidays? How often do you visit home?

I spend my holidays traveling around Mexico; there is so much to see.  I go home (to Minnesota) every summer.

When you are looking for a new job, what do you personally look for in a school and country? Has that changed from when you first started teaching?

Now that I have experienced international teaching and read a lot about it, I would say that my requirements for a school have changed.  I look for a few things in schools: positive administration, access to materials, in a desirable location, and of course, salary.  When I look at specific countries, I research the culture and think about if I would fit in that culture and if the city the school is in has a lot to offer.
Tulum

Tulum

How do you go about making a new place your own? (That is, both your new accommodation and your new country.)
I bought new furniture, kitchen appliances, and other various accessories for my kitchen and bathroom to make my apartment my own.  Traveling around Monterrey by bus has helped me to get to know the different neighborhoods in the city, which has made me feel more at home.
My Apartment
How do you know when it’s time to leave?
As an international teacher, I think that I should leave when I’m no longer feeling happy, satisfied, or challenged when working at a school.  Also, if I think that the city has become too boring or frustrating, then it’s a good time to move on.  There are so many other places to live and work in the world as a teacher, and I would hate to waste years of my life working somewhere that doesn’t make me feel happy.

What has been your favorite teaching position/location thus far? Is there anywhere you are hoping to land a position in the future?

I started teaching fourth grade last year, and I’m liking it a lot.  It’s great that fourth graders can work independently when I want them to, but they are not as independent as teenagers who act like they don’t need your help anymore. It’s a good balance.  As much as I enjoy living in Mexico, I feel like Europe is calling my name again; I would love to go back there to live.
Cholula

Cholula

How has living abroad changed you?
Before living abroad, I was very unaware of other cultures and how other people have very different world views than me.  I’ve met so many people while living abroad: Iranians, Argentinians, Australians, South Africans, Italians, etc.  It’s amazing because all of those people have something different to share with the world and something to teach me.  I have become a more open person because I have lived abroad, and I don’t regret making the choice to do so.
What tips or advice would you give to others thinking about making the leap to a career in international teaching.
If you are on the fence about making the leap to a career in international teaching, just do it.  You won’t regret it. Hiring season is from November to April, so start looking for jobs in October.  Since teaching internationally is competitive, you might have to work at a less desirable school in a less desirable location for two years before you make the jump to a location and a school that you actually want.
Teotihuacan

Teotihuacan

You can read more about Corey and his adventures teaching in Mexico at  coreysvogel.wordpress.com.

Find the full series of Interviews with International Educators here.


If you are an international educator and you would like to be featured on The Present Perfect, contact me at thepresentperfectblog {at} gmail {dot} com.

What’s Your New School Need-to-Know?

When I was teaching in Beirut, I was often tasked with writing to incoming teachers to tell them all about their new teaching position as well as a little about life in Beirut. I’d tell them the grade levels they would be teaching, what “ESL” at our school meant, a general idea a schedule, and maybe a little about the middle school. The incoming teacher would often write back with a few specific questions about curriculum or what to pack for the big move to Beirut.

At my new school, AISB, there is a much more structured system for disseminating information. I was assigned an “academic buddy” from my department to tell me all about teaching and a “social buddy” to tell me all about life in Budapest. In addition, I have a staff contact at the school who helps organize everything related to travel, housing, and shipping. There is a website for new teachers with forms, FAQs, new teacher bios, etc. The level of organization is really unreal compared to my previous school.

On the academic side of things, I have had quite a bit of communication and information from the two outgoing ESL teachers in the middle school. An online handbook gave information on everything you could imagine, and one of the teachers even shared a link to his online lesson plans to give an idea of how he teaches. Despite all of this information, one of my new colleagues joining the department wrote to ask a number of very specific question about the ESL program including testing, screening of new students, exiting ESL, classroom space, scheduling, assessment, etc. The school contact happily answered all of the questions in detail and copied my on the email for my knowledge too.

While the level of information and communication is greatly appreciated, it got me to thinking about different styles of preparation. I skimmed through the info given, but know that there is no way I can process it or assign meaning to it until I am actually there on the job. You can tell me how the assessments are done at each term, and what parent-teacher conferences look like, but what can I do with that information this summer as I prepare to close this chapter of my life and move on to the next? I’m not saying there is anything at all wrong with collecting this kind of information in advance, but it’s just not my style at all. (I think I’m like this in most aspects of life; I’m not a huge planner–just get there and figure it out as I go.)

I’m curious to know (for all you international teachers out there), what’s your new school need-to-know? I think for me, the most important questions get asked in the interview before accepting the job: what is the ESL model at the school, how many student are served in the ESL population, what grades/type of schedule will I have? And I think that about covers it.

Anyone else a minimalist in their need-to-know like me?

jodi

Today’s interview features my dear friend Jodi whom I met during my time in Beirut. Jodi is actually not a teacher, but a school guidance counselor, and thus has a unique perspective on the world of international schools. I’m quite jealous of her current posting in Buenos Aires, Argentina, a place I’d love to visit, if not stay for longer.

Where are you now and what are you currently teaching?

I’m finishing up my first year at Lincoln (Asociacion Escuelas Lincoln) in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I work in the High School division, as the grade 9/10/11 guidance counselor.

Is this your first international post or is this one in a string of many international posts for you?

This is my second international stint. I was in Beirut, Lebanon, at the American Community School, for three years, also as a high school counselor.

What made you decide to teach internationally?

San Martin Plaza, Buenos Aires

San Martin Plaza, Buenos Aires

Downtown Beirut by Night

Downtown Beirut by Night

 I traveled internationally for the first time as a 10-year-old (a month-long trip to the UK with my mum and sister) and was hooked. My family had endured years of my chatter about traveling (I explored a bit but nothing too long-term) and living overseas until 2010, when, in the final months of graduate school, as I was applying to positions in Oregon, almost on a whim I decided to search internationally too, just in case anything was still available in April (at that time I had no clue about the hiring timeline for international positions). The position at ACS came my way and, well, here I am.

What’s challenging about working at a new school in a new country?

There are so many layers of “new” all at once: culture, language, school climate and community… the list is endless. And usually wrapped up in the tangible of a new location and school are the intangibles of life abroad, such as communication with friends and family, which require tweaks with each move (time zone change, different routines, etc.). As well, there is an element of not being fully prepared, regardless of the best of preparations. I’ve been fortunate to be hired by schools that endeavor to provide good details and have put me in touch with current teachers pre-arrival. Yet, acclimating to a new context is personal, and even if another person is doing her best to be objective in answering my many questions about the school, city, and customs, the information is still coming through a subjective perspective that might not match my on-the-ground experiences at all. And as we deal with all this new and detail, we have been hired for specific roles and need to jump in professionally right away. Complicated, no?

Petra, Jordan

Petra, Jordan

How is counseling internationally different from counseling in the U.S.?

The professional community is near automatic with counseling in the US, and professional development is a bit more accessible. It is not impossible to find within the international community, but, depending on location, can require much more effort. That being said, the case load ratio is a dream compared to the often times gargantuan ratios of many U.S. locations. As well, depending on the school and its governance, there can be much leeway to implement new projects in a counseling program.

Exploring Angor Wat, Cambodia

Exploring Angor Wat, Cambodia

What’s it like living in Buenos Aires? What’s your favorite thing about being an expat there? What is challenging?

Buenos Aires is a massive metro area. Along with the city center, there is a formidable swath of suburban neighborhoods. In short, it’s a city with many hidden gems, few of which I’ve discovered yet. I do appreciate the copious amounts of green space and a relatively functional mass transit system. I don’t have a favorite aspect of life here quite yet, but hopefully in time. Challenging…. language for sure; it requires a daily humility to get by with my broken Spanish, knowing that I’m being gifted a lot of grace, or pity, by the Argentines I’m interacting with. There is also a different reality regarding personal safety here than what I’ve been accustomed to. In no way would I say that Buenos Aires is overly dangerous, but violence and crime does have a distinctly economic factor to it, and, as a foreigner, and so often seen as a lucrative target, that means needing to be keenly aware of surroundings most of the time.

Kayaking in Tigre, Buenos Aires

Kayaking in Tigre, Buenos Aires

What is a myth about your adopted country?

All Argentines eat steak, dance tango, and drink wine, Malbec specifically. And Patagonia is a weekend trip. In fact, Argentina is an immigrant nation, much like the U.S. Yes, steak is ubiquitous, but pasta and all foods Italian are even more typical, especially in the city proper where there is a historically Italian-European influence. It is common to meet individuals of Korean, Japanese, or Chinese ancestry who are fourth generation Argentines. And the country is massive. Not as big as the US, but many places, especially Patagonia and other southern locations, require several hours of flying to reach.

Smith Rock, Oregon

Smith Rock, Oregon

Bonte Beach, Sydney, Australia

Bonte Beach, Sydney, Australia

How do you spend your holidays? How often do you visit home?

I’m finding this is very location specific. I often traveled outside of Beirut for holidays due to ease of access to Europe and other Middle Eastern countries, and because I could explore Lebanon enough via weekends. Argentina is a bit trickier due to size and lack of proximity. I’ve stayed in the city a lot this year, or traveled within the surrounding provinces (an estancia in the northern province of Corrientes, and, most recently, a day trip kayaking in the Tigre delta), and, while in Beirut I went home for Christmas, that is our only long holiday in the school year and so has been used for non-US travel or longer trips in Argentina. I do go home, to Oregon, during the summer.

Do you still get culture shock? How do you experience re-entry?

Yes, consistently. And in the US, the most abrupt jarring is when I interact with individuals who are operating with false information or gross generalization about another part of the world and seem to have no interest in adjusting their misconceptions. I’m a bit shocked every time. Oh, and when I go to the grocery store and produce costs are double of my adopted residence and I can find every variation of a certain product known to man.

How do you go about making a new place your own? (That is, both your new accommodation and your new country.)

Buenos Aires apartment with a fresh coat of paint

Buenos Aires apartment with a fresh coat of paint

Succulents

Succulents

Home: Creating a space that I find restful is top priority when I move to a new location. In Argentina, that has meant collaborating with my landlady to update my apartment with new paint, bringing a few specific favorites from Oregon, and buying plants for the terrace space within my first few weeks of living here. It also means my French press and a half pound of coffee are in my carry on so I’m set for coffee as soon as I arrive.

Country: I am continually reminded to be patient with myself in creating routine and rhythm in a new location, and to go at my own pace. I want to play tourist right away and discover everything, but I have found there is wisdom in balancing exploring with the realities of acclimating to both a new country and school. I do try to learn about key historical details and take time to look over maps of both the city and country – it’s helpful when I can visualize how landmarks, streets, and neighborhoods interplay.

How do you know when it’s time to leave?

It’s part gut feeling and part consideration of the professional commitment I have made. I’m yet to meet someone who has a purely objective system of deciding this crucial detail of expat life, and it seems like in most cases there is a twinge of “what if?” but in the end, I think you just know. On the professional commitment side, for me the big question is, “Have I left a school better than I found it in some way?”

Sunset on the Corniche in Beirut

Sunset on the Corniche in Beirut

What has been your favorite teaching position/location thus far? Is there anywhere you are hoping to land a position in the future?

I very much enjoyed my immediate team, the expat community, and ease of access for travel in Beirut. I’d like to eventually make my way to Scotland, though perhaps not in an education role.

 How has living abroad changed you?

I’d like to think I am more discerning about how events, both current and historical, fit together. I think that understanding will continue to grow over time but living in varied locations certainly has been an accelerated course. I have, without doubt, gained a deeper appreciation for my community of family and friends, both those from Oregon and those I have met along the way.

Casa Rosada and Plaza de Mayo, Buenos Aires

Casa Rosada and Plaza de Mayo, Buenos Aires

What tips or advice would you give to others thinking about making the leap to a career in international teaching.

Keep in mind that you’re taking on two major life changes (career shift and new location) at once, and, thus, be patient with yourself. Also, don’t shy away from a school or location you did not originally consider; sometimes a well-managed but relatively new school allows for greater leadership opportunities or the ability to grow professionally. And you just might be surprised by the gems and unique experiences a location off the beaten path has to offer.

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Find the full series of Interviews with International Educators here.

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If you are an international educator and you would like to be featured on The Present Perfect, contact me at thepresentperfectblog {at} gmail {dot} com.

New York State of Mind

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So I know I was JUST going on about how I need constant change and movement and that I could hardly fathom the idea of staying in one place. BUT. New York City. Guys, just one weekend back there and I feel like I could almost stay forever. Forever. I know there are other great cities out there, but none of them have that pull on me like NYC. When I am there I feel like I am where I belong. Like I am a part of something. I love every bit of city and I will gladly take the bad with the good. I want to raise city kids who know their way around the subway and aren’t strangers to museums, diversity, and summer street festivals. I want to (someday) be that old lady with the quirky clothes and well-worn apartment who has lived in the city forever and knows all of its secrets.

NYC lady

Something like her, maybe. Though she looks a bit UES, and I fancy myself an UWS old lady. (Photo Credit: Humans of New York)

But then I know that there is that darn wanderlust pulling me back out. So many places to see, live and experience. Why can’t I have it all?

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This week’s interview is with fellow blogger Amanda teaching in Venezuela. She loves the country so much that she’s moving on to her second school there. After reading her interview, check out her blog at teachingwanderlust.com

Where are you now and what are you currently teaching?

I’m currently teaching second grade in Ciudad Ojeda, Venezuela. It is a tiny city on the coast of the largest lake in South America. Sadly, Lake Maracaibo is too polluted to take advantage of.

Is this your first international post or is this one in a string of many international posts for you?

Before teaching here I was teaching second grade in China and before that I taught preschool in Mexico. I have also taught summer school and summer camps in Japan, Italy, and Azerbaijan.

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At Angel Falls-the tallest waterfall in the world

What made you decide to teach internationally?

There were two things that set me on my path towards becoming an international educator: volunteering in an ESL class and Camp Adventure. While volunteering in an ESL class at a local middle school (when I was a high school student), I learned that I worked well with international students. It started me thinking about what their lives must have been like before they immigrated to Portland and inspired me to learn more about Vietnam, Mexico, and China. When I was a sophomore at University of Oregon I learned about a program called Camp Adventure Youth Services. It is an internship program through the University of Northern Iowa. They allow you to earn the equivalent of 16 upper division credits and pay for your airfare, housing, and food stipend while teaching a summer camp overseas. I was a camp counselor in Japan in 2005 and then a camp director in Italy in 2006. It was in Italy that I knew I wanted to live and teach overseas as a career.

What’s challenging about teaching at a new school in a new country?

I think the most challenging part of starting at a new school is finding all of the classroom resources you need. As a teacher in the U.S. it is really common to find your own resources at garage sales, thrift stores, and dollar stores. When teaching abroad, you don’t have those resources so you need to find out how you can find, bribe someone, or otherwise acquire the materials you need.

How is teaching internationally different from teaching in your home country?
At my current school I only have eight students in my classroom! I also have two hours of prep each day. I have never met a teacher in the states who can say that!

Italy Camp A field trip to Turkish Grotto

Camp Adventure in Italy: A field trip to the Turkish Grotto

What’s it like living in your current city? What’s your favorite thing about being an expat there? What is challenging?

Living as an expat with access to dollars gives me a lot of advantages. While many people in my city cannot regularly find simple necessities like toilet paper, dish soap, sugar, milk, or coffee; I can pay more at a corner store, or get one of the parents at my school to get it for me so I can pay them. I love taking salsa casino classes in Spanish, having a maid come three times a week, and all of the great travel opportunities.

Do you still get culture shock? How do you experience re-entry?

I’ve learned to just go with the flow and try to laugh things off. After returning home from Venezuela I always feel shocked at how much of EVERYTHING we have access to! After hugging my family my favorite thing to do is gulp down the Portland tap water. You certainly can’t do that in Venezuela!

What is a myth about your adopted country?

The biggest myth about Venezuela is that it is SOOOOOooo dangerous that U.S. citizens would definitely not want to come because they would be targets. I have been here for almost two years now, and I live my life like I would in any big city. During the day I feel perfectly fine, and at night I take a friend with me if I want to go out.

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Cas Abou beach in Curacao

How do you spend you holidays? How often do you visit home?

I usually try to visit a country that is close to wherever I’m teaching. So far I have been able to visit Thailand, Cambodia, Argentina, Uruguay, Aruba, Curacao, Trinidad, and the Dominican Republic by taking advantage of my school holidays. I usually use my summers to visit home.

When you are looking for a new job, what do you personally look for in a school and country? Has that changed from when you first started teaching?

When I first started teaching I was just looking for any job that would take me. I also really wanted to focus on learning Spanish. Now that I have been teaching abroad for four years I look for curriculum that I like teaching, grade level, classroom size, work hours, and student population. When it comes to choosing a city to work in, I am VERY open-minded. It may seem ridiculous to a lot of people, but one of the first things I look at is if a city can offer a couple of salsa classes and places to go out salsa dancing! If you can indulge in one of your passions, meet new people, and get yourself out of your compound, then it is a great thing to do! After salsa, I look for cultural activities, nearby travel destinations, and to see if it is easy to travel in that city and/or country.

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My school director, a couple other teachers and I danced Salsa Casino for Mother’s Day 2013

How do you go about making a new place your own? (That is, both your new accommodation and your new country.)

I start a routine. I find the local markets to find groceries at for weekend shopping trips, my local corner market for last-minute items, a salsa academy, and a gym I can work out at. My house starts feeling like a home once I have hung up some of the pictures I usually bring with me.

Do you ever get homesick?

I usually get homesick around the holidays and family birthdays. I try to always travel at these times because I don’t think I could just sit at home (abroad) knowing that my family was enjoying themselves without me.

How do you know when it’s time to leave?

I’m leaving my current school and it was a really hard decision to make. I love the students at my school so much and I will really miss all of the friends I have made. I know that when I get tired of doing my routine and I start daydreaming of new places that I will most likely be moving on.

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Canyoning in Merida, Venezuela

What has been your favorite teaching position/location thus far? Is there anywhere you are hoping to land a position in the future?

I really love teaching my current class of second graders and I love Venezuela, so even though I needed a change of pace, I am staying in Venezuela at another school. I would love to work in Barcelona, Rome, or any of the other big European cities. Beyond that, I have a huge list of places/schools I would like to teach at!

What tips or advice would you give to others thinking about making the leap to a career in international teaching. How has living abroad changed you?

I started my blog teachingwanderlust.com because I am constantly telling all of my teacher friends to get out of the US and start teaching internationally! It was the best thing I ever did and I honestly don’t think I will return to teach in the US for a very long time.

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Linked to the My Global Life Link-Up at SmallPlanetStudio.com 

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Find the full series of Interviews with International Educators here.

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If you are an international educator and you would like to be featured on The Present Perfect, contact me at thepresentperfectblog {at} gmail {dot} com.

Life, Presently

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It’s been about three and a half months since I moved from Illinois to Phoenix and finally my life feels like it is settling into a routine; I have a full-time job that I really like, I’m going to CrossFit four to five times a week, I see my family as much as I can now that we are near by each other, and I’m studying Hungarian in my free time. Suddenly I have a pretty full life and I no longer feel like I’m in limbo waiting for the next thing. The funny thing is, in less than four months I’ll be taking off to start all over again making a new life in Budapest.

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On the new job . . .

I’m working for an online university advising students who have been out of attendance and are looking to come back. The job is part academic advisor, part life coach, and part support system. I sought out this position because it seemed like the perfect stepping stone to my (other) ideal job which is advising college students in studying abroad. As far as I can tell, I’m getting great experience that would really help me next time around in my job search. Except that I’m moving abroad and don’t foresee a time in the near future where I would be in the U.S. looking for this type of job.

Also, I am almost 34 years old and this is my very first office/desk job. I have to say, it’s everything I ever fantasized (as a teacher) that a desk job would be. I start at the very civilized hour of 9:30 am giving me plenty of time to drink coffee, make breakfast, and enjoy my morning before heading to work. I’m not “on” the minute I walk in the door; that is, I get to my desk, check some email, grab a cup of coffee, and slowly ease in to my work day. I can go to the bathroom any time I like, and I have a full hour for lunch, plus two 15 minute breaks–all uninterrupted. When I go home, all of my work is left at work–even email doesn’t come home with me! It’s amazing. (Teachers, you get what I’m saying!).

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On CrossFit . . .

I love my new box and I love the community that I have found. It was really hard leaving my first box in Illinois and my first CrossFit family, but slowly this new group of people has grown on me. In February I finally got my attendance back up to 4-5 times a week and I feel like I’m progressing rapidly now. I’m about to do my first Whole Life Challenge and I’m pretty excited about that.

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On life in Arizona . . .

The first time around (when I moved here for college) I hated Arizona. I compared the scenery to California and found it didn’t measure up. I was fantasizing about what college would have been like in NYC. I spent so much of my time studying abroad or preparing to study abroad that my focus was on Italy/Europe/traveling and not enjoying my time there for what it was. I hated what I called “the sprawling chaos” of Phoenix. I really did not like Arizona at all. This time, I’m finding that I like Arizona more than I ever thought I could. It helped, of course, that I left the Midwest just before the start of the never-ending winter and was enjoying 80 degree days in January. The slight change in location from the suburbs of Phoenix to central Phoenix helped  a lot, too. The neighborhood where I am living with my sister has fun bars and restaurants that I would hope to find in any great city; it’s a young crowd and there is always somewhere new to try.

A few weeks ago I was out celebrating the last workout of the CrossFit Open at an outdoor bar with some of the members of my box, and one of the coaches and I got into a conversation about how we both loved NYC but for him it was a better place to visit than to live. Standing there in the sunshine with drinks in hand it was almost hard to argue. It’s a pretty good life here in Arizona, and compared to living abroad or living in a city like New York, it’s certainly easy.

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On my new car . . .

Now that I only have three and a half months until I leave for Budapest, I finally have my car situation sorted. I had been driving my mom’s car since January when I got here, but it was time to give that back and get something of my own. I didn’t know what to do since I only needed a car for about six months. I didn’t want to buy something only to have to turn around and sell it. I found out about lease swaps and ended up being able to take over the end of someone’s lease who wanted out. Just by pure luck I ended up with a Mini Cooper and for the first time in my life I am in love with my car. I want to keep it forever and ever. But alas, in a few months I’ll be giving it back.

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On starting a new adventure . . .

So, even though my life is really sorted at the moment and I could be happy here for a while, adventure calls. If I stayed it would only be a matter of time before I would be looking for the next thing. Some people fear change but I fear lack of change. When I hear people talk about wanting to buy their “forever home” or settle down in a place, I just can’t relate. Actually, it makes me cringe a little. I would rather have a life of constant change, rather than an easy or predictable life. I don’t know if that will change someday or not, but for now I can’t really imagine it happening. I think that is why international teaching is the perfect job for me. You can have some adventure and challenge yourself by putting yourself in new situations while putting down (semi-permanent) roots in a new place. You can stay in your new home for a short while or a long while. There are endless possibilities and you don’t really ever have to make that one choice that rules all the others out.

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Steve and Andy in Anjjar, Lebanon, February 2013

In this week’s interview Andy and Steve talk about life as a globe trotting teaching couple, balancing ex-pat life with family back home, and how they discovered just how small the international teaching world is.

Where are you now and what are you currently teaching?

Andy: I am currently teaching grade 6 Humanities at Saigon South International School, in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. My husband, Steve is teaching grade 8 Humanities. I have previously taught grade 5-8, and Steve has taught high school up to this point.

Is this your first international post or is this one in a string of many international posts for you?

Andy: SSIS is our second international post; we spent two years at the American Community School at Beirut, Lebanon. Before that, we were in our hometown in Northern California.

Andy in Downtown Beirut, May 2013

Andy in downtown Beirut

What made you decide to teach internationally?

Andy: Funny story, actually. We spent a month in Europe for our honeymoon in 2007, and since then, we had been trying to figure out a way to get back, and–if possible–to spend an extended period of time abroad. But, life goes on and you get caught up in the day to day, and before we knew it, three years had passed.

I had been a fan of the show House Hunters International, and one night, there were back to back episodes featuring teachers working at international schools, one in Rome, and the other in Abu Dhabi. It was a lightbulb moment for us. It became clear that we could take our current professions abroad, and that night, Steve and I started the process of registering with Search Associates.

We had hoped to attend the Cambridge job fair, but with less than 48 hours to go, our flight from Sacramento had been canceled due to a major storm in Boston. We were devastated as Cambridge would have been our best bet for getting hired at a European school. However, our spirits picked up when we attended Search San Francisco, and had several offers. With no international experience, we hadn’t expected that to happen. We decided to sign with the school that had the best reputation and seemed most established, and that was ACS Beirut.

When we arrived for our new hire orientation, we met all the other members of our “class.” Standing across the room on that first day was a girl who looked familiar, but I couldn’t figure out why. I asked my husband, but he couldn’t figure it out, either. Then, it hit me: this was the girl from the House Hunters International episode that had inspired this whole adventure in the first place! I couldn’t believe it; crazy, eh?

In the international teaching world, being a part of a “teaching couple” is often seen as very advantageous. Can you talk a little about that for people who may not know about the international teaching scene. How was it for you in terms of recruiting and then working at the same school together?

Steve: There’s certainly more to it than being married, but if you are a competent teaching couple, with good references and solid CVs, it presents an advantage for heads to hire couples. There definitely is–on the schools’ side–the idea of hiring a teaching couple as “two birds with one stone.” The schools save money on housing and moving expenses for couples over two singles. Plus, we have had heads tell us in interviews that they prefer teaching couples because they are more likely to stay, as they have a built-in support network.

However, perhaps the biggest drawback to being a teaching couple is that you are looking for a fit for two people instead of one. This can really narrow the field and presents limitations.

We have had two different experiences working together at the same school. In Beirut, Andrea was in the elementary, and I was in high school, and we only saw each other at all-staff meetings and in passing. In HCMC, we are both in the middle school and we see each other all the time, meetings, hallways, classrooms. We teach some of the same students. We tend to talk shop together anyway, and it makes it convenient for us to be able to discuss the curriculum we are both teaching.

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What’s challenging about teaching at a new school in a new country?

Andy: One of the great things about international schools is the lengthy orientation period at the start of the year. Having that extra week before returning staff come back to school really helps you settle in and learn about your new environment. Personally, I haven’t thought about the “new country” part of this question, because that’s also the greatest perk of this lifestyle. For me, the challenges are with teaching at a new school, period; they would be the same if I were moving to a new school back in California. They are normal challenges that all educators are familiar with: learning about your student population, obtaining teaching materials, understanding the procedures of the school, working with new teammates, and–most importantly–finding out where the coffee is kept.

How is teaching internationally different from teaching in your home country?

Andy: We were really fortunate to work at great schools in California. Steve was at a large public high school, and I spent time at both a large K-8, and a small, but growing, charter school. We both had colleagues that we learned from constantly, professionals who were truly dedicated to student learning.

That being said, we both also worked with our fair share of teachers who tossed worksheets at the class then sat down for an hour. International teaching tends to weed out most of these types of teachers. Since going international, we have been surrounded by educators who are committed to professional growth and will do whatever it takes to maximize student achievement. To be honest, the lack of tenure, the small community of international schools, and knowing that in two, three, four, or five years you will be back on the job market helps motivate you to be at the top of your game all the time. Also, the nature of expat life means that you form a much tighter community with your coworkers than you are ever likely to do back home.

The students are not as different as you might imagine. It’s wonderful to have such diversity in the classroom, and the students thrive in a culture of open-mindedness and mutual respect. However, many of my current crop of students are not that different from my grade 6 class in Stockton, California: hard-working, independent, curious, respectful, and appreciative.

Andy in Angkor, Cambodia, October 2013Andy in Angkor Wat in Cambodia

What do your family and friends think about you teaching abroad?

Andy: My parents understand the appeal of international teaching, as do our closest friends. We have had some visitors, which is great. Our favorite part is showing friends and family what our day-to-day life consists of: school, our neighborhood, our favorite haunts. I get the feeling some people consider this a phase and are waiting for it to end, but this is a long-term lifestyle decision we have chosen, and we are so glad we did!

What’s it like living in HCMC? What’s your favorite thing about being an expat there?

Andy: We are really enjoying life in HCMC; it’s a huge city and there’s definitely something for everyone! Our school is located in a newer part of town, popular with expats, and with all the amenities you could ask for. It’s a very suburban area, with wide, tree-lined streets and lots of open green space. There are restaurants specializing in nearly every type of food, great happy hour spots, and even a big, very modern mall. However, a short taxi ride away (15 minutes if there’s no traffic), is the heart of Saigon, crowded, loud, chaotic, and full of energy. We frequently head to District 1 for dinner, and weekend afternoon excursions.

HCMC is a pretty easy place to be an expat, despite a far greater language barrier than in Beirut. We bought a motorbike, and Steve drives us to and from school every day. When we do take taxis, they are consistently metered–which is nice–and quite cheap. I am learning to deal with the weather, which is not my favorite. I love seasons (and cool weather clothing), and HCMC is 90 degrees and 75% humidity all year round.

Our favorite part of expat life is the amazing community we have found at SSIS. This city can be completely overwhelming without a seasoned buddy to show you the best spots and hidden gems!

Steve, Debbie, and Andy in Paris, June 2013

Andy and Steve in Paris with Andy’s mom

What is a myth about your adopted country?

Andy: I think there is a misconception that there is lingering resentment from the Vietnam War (or “American War,” as it is called in Vietnam). However, that could not be further from the truth. The Vietnamese people are warm and welcoming, and being here, you really get the feeling that the past is the past for the Vietnamese. Of course, living in Beirut, people often expressed surprise upon hearing how warm the Lebanese were to Americans as well.

How do you spend your holidays? How often do you visit home?

Andy: Since going international, we have spent every Christmas and some time in the summer with my family. Our first Christmas abroad, we met them in Rome, the second year, we went home to California, and this year, they spent the holidays with us here in HCMC. We traveled with my parents, sister, and brother-in-law through France and the British Isles last summer, and so we are really looking forward to getting back to California (read: “Mexican food”) this summer. One of the biggest draws of international teaching was being able to have amazing travel experiences with my family. If we see each other so little during the year, then the time we do get to spend together should be amazing and memorable, and so far, it definitely has been!

Sometimes it’s overwhelming how many great travel opportunities are within two hours of us. We spend shorter holidays and long weekends exploring destinations in Southeast Asia. Our first break of this year, we visited Angkor in Siem Reap, Cambodia, which was top priority for us. We have also been to Singapore, the beach in Vietnam, and will be in Thailand for spring break.

The regional travel was also great when we were based in Beirut, and we were able to visit Jordan, Istanbul, and Rome (again!) while there.

Andy at EARCOS

Andy presenting at EARCOS Teacher Conference

When you are looking for a new job, what do you personally look for in a school and country? Has that changed from when you first started teaching?

Andy: We look at the school before we look at the city or country. At this point, we know to look for school leadership, current turnover (and reasons why), opportunities for growth/professional development, student demographics, and really, just the overall culture of the school. Is it someplace we feel like we would fit and be able to contribute? At this point in our careers, if not, then we would keep looking.

When looking at a new country, we consider stability, travel opportunities, climate, and proximity to home (i.e. one, two, or three flights away). We look at cost of living and savings potential as well. Also, it sure would be nice to have fast internet!

I think our list of criteria has developed because we know better. Now, we see what a difference leadership, school culture, and travel opportunities make in the decision to accept a new position. Further, the international teaching world really is small, and after having taught at a couple of schools, one needn’t look too long to find a friend (or friend of friend) who knows a little something about a school you may be interested in, and those insights and opinions can be priceless.

How do you go about making a new place your own? (That is, both your new accommodation and your new country.)

Andy: For me, the first priority is making my home feel “homey.” In both Beirut and HCMC, I have yet to feel as though I have made the country “my own”–and that’s okay–but fairly quickly, I felt at home in our new accommodations. For me, it has to start at home. It really is your haven, and after a long day or week, you have to feel like it’s a place you can recharge your batteries. Buying household items, decorations, getting books on the shelves, and having food in the fridge all contribute to the warmth I need to feel in my home. We also have a pug who has gone with us from California to Lebanon to Vietnam, and having him around goes a long way to making a new place feel like home.

I still completely feel like a visitor in Vietnam, and the only way to combat that is to get out and explore, and we are working on that!

Andy and Steve in HCMC, December 2013

Andy and Steve in Ho Chi Minh City

How do you know when it’s time to leave?

Steve: There are push and pull factors for every location. Perhaps you feel as though there is a ceiling on growth and you’d like to take on something new. Likewise, if there is a school that offers you a chance to challenge yourself or add to your repertoire, it’s a huge pull. Certainly, there are financial factors to consider. Sometimes a school’s culture changes and it is no longer appealing. We want to be part of a school where everybody is growing and learning. It is important for us to be part of a school we believe is educating students the right way and creating a positive environment.

What has been your favorite teaching position/location thus far? Is there anywhere you are hoping to land a position in the future?

Andrea: This is such a hard question! There are so many things we loved about Beirut, and I was in tears our last week there. Now, we are enjoying HCMC, but think (very) frequently and fondly about our time spent by the Mediterranean. I miss my former teaching team terribly. We miss our balcony view of the sea, and we definitely miss Lebanese food! We found a great restaurant (appropriately called Beirut) our first week in HCMC, and ordered a table full of mezze, but it’s just not the same.

After teaching upper elementary homeroom in Beirut, I am happy to have returned to middle school. I enjoy the independence of middle school students, although you have to work a little harder to form the teacher-student bond that occurs so naturally in elementary school, due to the amount of time you spend together.

As for the future, we would like to continue to work in high-quality schools that are innovative and student-centered. We are open to where in the world these schools might be. Since the bulk of our time is spent at school, selecting one that shares our educational philosophy is of the utmost importance. We have a short list of dream schools, but we aren’t in a hurry; the journey is much too fun!

Andy and Steve at Singapore Zoo, February 2014

Andy and Steve at the Singapore Zoo

What tips or advice would you give to others thinking about making the leap to a career in international teaching.

Andy: My advice would be to take the plunge! There are always so many reasons to not do it. We lived near my family, both worked at great schools, and owned a home, but these were not reasons for us to stay where we were. Family can visit, there are so many other great schools out there, and homes can be rented or sold.

We have had so many opportunities in the last three years that we never would have had if we had stayed in our hometown. We have grown personally and professionally, and met amazing people. In our first three years abroad, we had the opportunity to travel extensively for PD and school trips. We met my family in Europe. I am about to begin an EdD program for international teachers, and Steve is working on a second Master’s and COETAIL certificate. None of this would have been possible if we hadn’t made the move to go international.

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Find the full series of Interviews with International Educators here.

______________________________________________________________________________________

If you are an international educator and you would like to be featured on The Present Perfect, contact me at thepresentperfectblog {at} gmail {dot} com.

Happy Making

My current happy making list, in no particular order:

1. the Arizona sunshine*

2. Beck’s new album Morning Phase

3. finding my favorite NYC yoga studio here in Arizona

4. a full-time job

5. iced coffee

6. Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods

7. the anticipation of moving to Budapest and starting a new adventure

8. CrossFit

9. Learning a new language . . . from the VERY beginning. (Hi there, Hungarian. Nice to meet you.)

10. salmon

11. podcasts in Italian

*In no particular order, except for this. Everything is better with an abundance of sunshine.

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