International Educator Interviews: Elizabeth in Latvia

Welcome back to my series on International Educator Interviews. With just one week to go before I attend my second job fair with Search Associates in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I am really enjoying hearing about the varied experiences of teachers across the world. Today’s interview is with Elizabeth who is currently teaching in Latvia. I was really interested to find out that her first international school teaching post was actually her first time abroad as well!


Writing a message of peace on the wall that divides Belfast!

Where are you now and what are you currently teaching?

I am currently in Riga, Latvia. I teach 8th, 9th, and 10th grade Humanities at the International School of Latvia. The school is about 15 minutes outside of Riga and is an IB World School.

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

Latvia is my second international teaching post. My first post was in Beirut, Lebanon. I really enjoy teaching internationally but am still deciding if it is something I’d like to continue for the duration of my career.

Bcharre Elizabeth

Bcharre–Cedars in Lebanon

What made you decide to teach internationally?

I have always known there was a bigger world outside of my home state of South Carolina. I enjoyed traveling around the United States, but I needed more! The opportunity to travel internationally had come up a few times with various school trips, both in high school and college, but I never took advantage of those opportunities because of other obligations. As time went on, the burning desire to see the world–not just visit but immerse myself in other cultures–refused to die. I figured the best way to realize my dream was to use what I have, which is teaching!

I will say that it was initially a little hard to start the job search as I was in a long-term relationship at the time. After discussing with my boyfriend about the urge to teach internationally, he made it clear he was not interested in tagging along. I did not want to live a life of regrets and I knew that if I didn’t take advantage of traveling, I would regret it (and to be honest, if I stayed with him, I’d regret that too). In hindsight, it wasn’t too difficult of a decision to leave!

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

It is a challenge to start at a new school, regardless where it is; you have to navigate new colleagues, the politics, adapt to the leadership styles of the administration, and still rock on as a fabulous teacher! The challenges of working with students that do not know you can be difficult at first, too.

Teaching internationally takes you out of your comfort zone. It is different from starting a new school at home in that your students might be more diverse, so understanding cultural differences related to school, parental involvement, and behavior might be a challenge. At home you know where everything is, you can run errands after school, you can hop in the car and drive to and from work, you can make a doctor’s appointment and go during planning time if needed….not as easy in a foreign place. While the comforts of home such as familiarity and knowledge of places are minor factors, the absence of these things can make teaching at a new school more intense. That being said, you eventually figure it all out and it becomes much easier!

First Week in Lebanon

My first week in Lebanon

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

I am currently teaching with the IB approach, which I feel allows more freedom and student inquiry. With international teaching, you aren’t held to the end-of-the-year, high-stakes test, which can be a load off of one’s shoulders. (If you are someone who needs a lot of structure or explicit standards, you might have to be more selective in which  schools you accept a position with.)

Teaching internationally allows you to work with colleagues and students that have various perspectives and opinions that differ from the norm of where you’re from. They bring a little something extra to the table that my previous teammates didn’t. I also like how you aren’t suffocated by district or federal regulations. I definitely feel more like a stakeholder of the school in terms of curriculum, planning, and its success in an international setting.

What’s it like living in Latvia?

I really like Riga; it definitely has a European feel and look. The streets are so clean and the city is easy to navigate. There are numerous festivals and cultural events to take in. Riga is the European Cultural Capital for 2014, so I’m super pumped for things to come this year! It is pretty easy to live in this city with the public transportation available. Another appeal is that only 25 or so years ago, the country was under Soviet occupation. The history of this place is amazing and it’s interesting so see how far it has come since Soviet times, yet remnants of the regime are still present.

Another thing is the weather: I am being told that I’m being spoiled this winter. Right now, the temperature lows have only been about -15 Celsius! Usually, around this time of year, it’s at least -20! The lack of daylight this time of year can be hard, especially compared to Charleston, SC, and Beirut, Lebanon! Teaching internationally, however, you develop a support system quickly and we depend on each other to stay active and avoid seasonal depression!

The people in Latvia take some time to warm up to you but once they do, they’re amazing. Also, there is a high population of Russians here and that causes some frustrations with the Latvians. There is always something to do here–dancing, drinking, eating, playing . . . A big complaint that I have is the availability of men. The locals are not a-plenty. That being said, Riga is a tourist spot in Europe so eye candy shows up–but it’s short lived! ; )

Latvia SnowThe first big snow in Latvia!

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

During breaks, I usually travel to other countries in the region. During my first year in Lebanon, I went to Jordan, Turkey, and Egypt. The second year I ventured further to Sri Lanka with my friend Robbie. Over the summers, I have gone home but I do not plan to this summer as I have heard Latvia is amazing in the summer. I also want to do a few small European trips. Over Christmas, I go home as there is something magical about home at Christmas. Many of my friends rarely go home and others as often as they can. I feel I have found a balance!

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?

For my very first international teaching position I accepted a position at a startup school in Beirut, Lebanon (prior to that, I had taught at the same school for seven years–my first teaching job). Being only the second school I’d ever worked at, I didn’t know what to really look for in an international school. When I decided to move on after my initial contract in Beirut, I started a small list of things I wanted in a school: transparency, a good supply of resources, structure, diversity, and positive leadership. I feel that I found that at the International School of Latvia. I also need to feel a connection with the recruiter. If I don’t feel that I convey my natural self in the interview, I stop considering them.

I also look for a location that has social activities: a nightlife, cultural events, good weather, etc. I know what you’re thinking, “Why in the world did she move to the North Pole?” The climate was the only thing that kept me wavering in my decision to accept a job at ISL. In the end, I decided that I had never lived in a place that had full winters, so I’d give it a try!

EgyptMy boyfriend, the Sphinx!

What have you found surprising about the world of international teaching?

Teaching internationally helps you realize how small the world can be! About the second month into my teaching stint in Beirut, a friend of mine from home told me that her student’s old teacher was teaching in Lebanon. Of course, I got into stalker mode and began to search the various schools’ websites in the city trying to find him. I located who I thought the teacher was and reached out. We meet up and, lo and behold, he was also from South Carolina: same hometown, we went to the same college, and we even lived close to each other in Charleston! Crazy!

Sri LankaMy home-fry, Robbie, and me in Sri Lanka! We are from the same hometown but met in Lebanon!

How do you go about making a new place your own?

When I move into a new place, I unpack and make sure everything has its place, with bathroom and bedroom being first. I display pictures of my friends and family. I make a list of things I need (decorative and organizational) and prioritize it to begin making purchases.

At school, I try to observe and listen first. It’s really hard for me to resist running straight to my classroom to begin setting up and planning. I have found that by watching and listening, you usually avoid tasks that are actually pointless. I make connections with my new colleagues. I focus on my soon-to-arrive kids. Some schools, if they are small, might have you teaching in different classrooms. If that’s the case (it is frustrating at first), find a space (desk in a corner, teacher workroom, somewhere) and make it your own. A “home base” is important!

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

I feel that it’s time to leave when you don’t think you are contributing anymore. It’s time to leave when you are not getting any satisfaction or benefit from staying. I feel it’s time to leave when you feel stagnant and aren’t experiencing growth. I feel it’s time to leave when you question your happiness.

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

Again, this being my second international teaching post, I prefer the International School of Latvia over my previous school. I miss Lebanon though. I miss the chaos and instability (although that’s somewhat easy to say when you’re not constantly thinking that a bomb could go off any minute). I miss the Lebanese food, hospitality, history, and culture. On the other hand, I like that Latvia has more festivals and cultural events. Location-wise, I’m a little torn. I think I am nostalgic about Lebanon because it was my first time out of the United States and my first international teaching post.

While the snow is beautiful here in Latvia and it’s cozy inside during the winter, I believe from here on out I require a warmer climate. I enjoyed the Middle East, but I’m not sure that I would return there to live. I have been enjoying Europe so far and look forward to exploring the continent more. The climate of southeast Asia is appealing, but I’m not sure I want to live there. My heart keeps leaning toward Africa, but who knows. Perhaps South America! That’s the cool thing about teaching internationally . . . your mind is opened to so many possibilities!

IstanbulShopping at the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul!

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

DO IT!!! It’s scary! It’s hard! It’s frustrating! It’s exhilarating! It’s exhausting! It’s invigorating! It’s fun! It’s exciting! I miss my friends and family at home every day but I’m not sure I can go back there to live.

Also, don’t give up if you don’t get a job the first time you try. I KNEW I had to go international. I tried the first year and hooked great interviews at the job fair, but wasn’t able to close the deal. I was soooo bummed but refused to stop. I returned to the fair the next year, hooked interviews with amazing schools, and accepted a position! I competed with teaching couples, teachers with more degrees, and people with international or IB experience. I had a dream and I was determined to live it! As Mae West said, “You only live once, but if you do it right once is enough.” Or was it Drake? Whatever. YOLO!

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.

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