International Educator Interviews: Richard in 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The School in St.Kitts was very small with few resources and most were outdated, like still calling Russia the USSR.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 into 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!!!!  Hahaha.  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, it’s 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.

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