When choosing a new school, one of the things to consider is where the school is located relative to where you might end up living. If the school is far from the city you might have to choose between a hellish commute each morning and living far from the action of the city. On the other hand, if your school is centrally located, you could have a lovely walk or bike ride to school. Or, maybe your school is far from the city and that’s just the way you like it!

In Beirut, I loved that my school was located in Hamra which is also a great place to live. I lived a short 10-minute walk from school which not only made “commuting” easy by not having to deal with the Beirut traffic but allowed me to go home for lunch occasionally! Here in Budapest, my school is a way out of the city but it’s not too far that it makes living in the city center undesirable.

The website International Schools Community has a series called “The Journey to School” where teachers share their morning commute for the very purpose of helping teachers who are looking for a new school to get a sense of what it might be like to live and work in various places. Since I only have three months left living and working in Budapest (!!!), I thought now would be a good time to contribute a post about my own journey to school each morning. As I start to think about living and working in Bangkok, I’m really looking forward to changing things up again and having a short walk to school. (Fingers crossed I find just what I’m looking for in an apartment within walking distance of my new school.) You can read my post on the ISC blog here.

On a side note: I love this website for getting information about international schools. Unlike the very popular ISR (I’m not linking it because I’m not a fan) which tends to get reviews from mostly unhappy teachers that post long rants (and has a very negative vibe overall), the International School Community website asks teachers to post “comments” answering very specific questions about all aspects of the school (pay, benefits, curriculum, new teacher orientation, city life, travel opportunities, etc.). This also helps as a job seeker because you can narrow in on exactly the information you are looking for. If you are looking for a new school, I highly recommend that you check it out. And if you’re not looking for a new school but you’re an international teacher, please head over and leave some comments about your school!

Life Update!

Going on eight years now here in Budapest, my blog header about being a “semi-nomadic teacher” was starting to lose relevance. BUT, I am happy to announce that that is no longer the case as I have accepted a job in a new school starting in August!

How did we get here? Well…my goal always was to teach and travel around the world, so I really had no plan to stay in one place for so long. I also had no idea that I was going to land at such a great school in such a great city. For the last 8 years, it has been a dream working at a school I love in a city I love. Budapest – and Europe – has really felt like home, and I hadn’t been able to make the leap to seriously thinking about leaving. Early on (maybe year three), I started thinking about doing a so-called “soft search” where I imagined I would browse some vacancies, and if my dream job came up and I was offered the job, I would take it. (“Whoops, guess I’m leaving.”) But each year when fall rolled around and recruiting season started, I would drop that idea immediately because I was just really happy with life where I was at. Towards the end of last year though, I really started to think about moving. I was ready for a change both personally and professionally. In my International Educator Interviews series, I’ve asked a lot of teachers about how they know when it’s time to move on and now it was time for me to really think about that for myself. I guess for me, it was a feeling of having done a lot of what I wanted to do here, friends having moved on, and life becoming pretty routine.

This hiring season turned out to be a lot different for me than what I had previously experienced. Although I enjoyed my two experiences at job fairs in the past, I was hoping this time to be one of the lucky ones to land a great job early in the hiring season so that I wouldn’t have to go to a job fair. In the past, I had been in a position of not needing to give up my current (great) job before the job fair, so I knew this year was going to be extra stressful having to potentially decline my contract renewal not knowing what was coming next.

This year, I started applying to jobs in late September and by mid-December had applied to 16 schools, truly a worldwide search with schools in South America, Asia, Africa, and Europe. My hope was for a really great school, location was less important. My very first interview was with an amazing school in Bangkok that was a top choice for me. Being asked to interview so early in the season and with such a great school really gave me a boost of confidence that my resume was looking good enough to be noticed by the kind of school that I wanted to work at. In retrospect, interviewing at one of your top choices right out of the gate isn’t the ideal scenario when you haven’t interviewed in eight years. I definitely didn’t bomb the interview (or even do that badly at all), but I KNOW that I got better as the season went on. I didn’t get called back for a second interview, but it was still really early in the season, so I felt ok about that. And if I am being honest, although this is a top school in my top destination, I was hesitant about the fact that it was quite a way out of the city when I know that I am more of a downtown city girl. There was another top school in the center of Bangkok (NIST), but there was no job opening for my qualifications, so I applied to the other school knowing that I would be thrilled to accept a job at any great school in a city I was keen to live in. But alas, it wasn’t meant to be.

Fast forward a few months to November. I applied to a lot of schools that I was very interested in, and although I got close, nothing materialized before the contract renewal deadline for my current school at the end of the month. I got a short extension, but in the end, I had to turn in my resignation without having anything lined up. I grappled with the decision during my extension time, but I knew that if I decided to stay in Budapest, I’d just be waiting for next year’s recruiting season to roll along and I might end up in the same position of resigning without an offer in hand. Going through the recruiting process thus far had really solidified my feeling of being ready to move on. I was ready to embrace that unknown period of being without a job and to start preparing for a job fair.

Plot twist. The day before I had to turn in my resignation, a few more schools that I was really interested in posted job openings in my specialty, including the school that I had truly wanted all along – NIST, Bangkok. After submitting my resignation, I quickly got to work on the new applications and continued to have a few more interviews and follow-up interviews from schools I had previously applied to. Then the next week, I got an email from NIST wanting to schedule me right off the bat for two back-to-back interviews on the Wednesday before winter vacation. I prepared like crazy (with the help of a friend who had previously worked at the school) and felt pretty good about how the two interviews went. The next day while on a field trip with my students, I got an email from NIST asking me for contact information for my head of school for a reference check. It felt like this was really going to happen, but still, I didn’t want to get my hopes up. Friday morning, I got an official email offering me the job. I immediately went to tell my friend who had helped me prepare (his classroom was down the hall from me) and we did a little celebration jumping up and down in the hall as his students were watching a film in the classroom. I immediately accepted the offer and then floated into winter break 1000 times lighter.

In retrospect, it is interesting to see how two doors (schools I had really been interested in but ultimately didn’t get) had to close to end up where I really wanted to be. It’s also interesting to look back on my last trip to Bangkok for New Year 2018 when I took a walk around the neighborhood where NIST is located and thought to myself, Yeah, I can see myself living here.

Walking along the canal behind NIST in 2018.

Four months left in Budapest now and a little more than five before I land in Bangkok. New adventures await . . .

I am back in Budapest and fully vaccinated! I do not regret making the trip at all. I didn’t realize how much I needed a break from being alone in my apartment. Not only did I get to see my new house that I recently bought and furnished and my family, but the weather was amazing. Sunshine is SO good for the soul! Not only that, but Arizona was “open” for the most part, so it was possible to eat out, go shopping, and do other activities. This was probably my first visit home ever that I didn’t want to come back. I could have stayed a bit longer since we are still teaching remotely, but two weeks teaching in the middle of the night was more than enough!

We are supposed to go back to in-person teaching on May 10th, so that’s just one more week of working from home. I really hope that that date holds and we get to go back. I definitely like a lot of aspects of working from home, but I am ready to mix it up a bit and finish out the year with my colleagues and students. When we return, we’ll only have six weeks left until the end of the year. It’s going to fly by and I am very much looking forward to summer vacation.

As for the situation in Hungary, daily cases continue to drop and now more than 4 million people have been vaccinated in the country (out of 9.7 million). Things are starting to reopen and I was thrilled to be able to sit on a terrace for the first time in a long time. That said, we still have the worst death rate in the world, which is pretty scary.

The next frontier is vaccine passports (or immunity cards as they call them here). There are already problems with that for those of us who are not Hungarian, not to mention the odd decision that the government made to give the immunity card immediately after the first vaccine dose even though people are not fully protected until two weeks after the second dose.

Earlier this week our school gave us the option to travel back to our home countries to get vaccinated if we wanted. We had another two school weeks until our spring break, so if we traveled right away that would make for a three week trip home, but it also meant working Budapest hours while being on West Coast time (for me) – a nine hour time difference!

I didn’t initially jump at the chance because I wasn’t particularly anxious about getting mine. Although it was still quite unclear when expats in Hungary would be able to get vaccinated, I felt sure that at some point we would. Worst case scenario, I’d be able to get vaccinated when I went home for the summer holidays at the end of June. Then I ran into a friend at school who had already booked her trip home and it got me thinking more about it. I looked into vaccine appointments and flights and talked to my family about it and suddenly I REALLY wanted to go. I booked my flight for a few days later and got my Covid test in preparation to fly. And then, the very next day, we got word that we could now register for the vaccine in Hungary as expats. Some of our Hungarian colleagues have already started getting their shots, and now it would likely be in the coming weeks that we could get ours too. I debated back and forth about canceling the trip (it would mean saving that money for the flight and not having to work ridiculous hours), but in the end I realized I already had my mind set on going and it would feel like a huge disappointment to cancel.

So, I leave early tomorrow morning and get the vaccine on Wednesday. I registered for the J&J one-dose vaccine so that I will be fully vaccinated for my return to Budapest. I already feel lighter knowing that I have the appointment. I am full of hope for the summer and a return to something that looks like normal.

A year ago Thursday we got our first two Coronavirus cases in Hungary. Schools closed a week and a half later not to reopen for the rest of the school year. Toward the end of May things started opening back up again, and the summer was even more relaxed with some international travel allowed. (I booked a week-long trip to Sicily but then decided to cancel.) As school started in late August and people returned from their holidays, numbers steadily increased wildly beyond anything we had seen in spring, yet no new lockdown was put in place. (Looking at the graph of cases in Hungary, our spring cases are dwarfed to the point that it almost looks as if we didn’t even have any spring cases.) We had a “lockdown light” beginning in November with restaurants closed, an 8 p.m. curfew, and high school students going back on distance learning. Then December came, and cases started falling just as quickly as they shot up. At the end of January, we reached a low we hadn’t seen since mid-October. News of one vaccine after another came out and it looked like the end was really in sight. And then things took a turn and, even more quickly than in our “second wave,” we reached a record number of cases (yesterday). Schools were ordered to close as of Monday and the country will be in a strict lock down again for at least a month.

Here we are back in March a year later and it feels like we are right back where we started. Teaching our grade 7 curriculum makes it all the more obvious that we’ve been at this for a year now; lessons and units that we painstakingly adapted from in-person to online are already formatted for this year’s students. This year when we arrived back to school in August, the lobby was still decorated for our Mother Language Week celebration at the end of February–as it is right now. Calendars have once again been left in classrooms set to the month of March. Spring is again here enticing us to go outdoors with the longer days and warmer weather at the same time that we are being encouraged to stay at home indoors. It really does feel like déjà vu.

We are told that this time it will only be a month, but of course we know now not to count on set timelines. I feel like this time it will be harder to keep people indoors as we have been living with this virus for a year now. Last spring when the cases were under 200 per day, I, like many others, avoided leaving the house as much as possible. Now that we have been working and living with cases in the thousands every day, it doesn’t feel as imperative to stay indoors. There is also no longer the novelty of everything suddenly pivoting to online. Last year I watched online film festivals, saw every performance of the New York City Ballet Spring Digital Season, did live Zoom yoga classes, and participated in online happy hours. This time around I can’t be bothered with any of that. I just want to finish this month of online teaching and for the vaccine to be spread far and wide in the meantime.

I’m ready to go back to normal life.

Traveling is the way of life for an international school teacher. Each school year is usually filled with so many fabulous vacations that you almost feel bad sharing with people who have “normal” jobs. A year ago this time, I spent my “ski break” in South Africa visiting my friend Lauren who had stationed herself there for six weeks during her sabbatical year. It was a long way to travel for just a week, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit a country I’d always wanted to go to when I had a friend to show me around and be my travel buddy.

In hindsight, it turned out to be the perfect “last hurrah” before beginning the Year of the Staycation. At first we thought we’d only have to give up our spring break in April, but we soon realized that summer was out too. We started this school year knowing that it would be a year of not traveling. At first it seemed like some local travel would be possible, but since November, hotel stays aren’t even allowed throughout the country unless it is business related. To be honest, when faced with the choice of travel within Hungary or just having a week off at home, I kind of prefer the latter. I’ve spent my weeks at home doing yoga, cooking, taking language lessons online, and catching up on projects that I wouldn’t normally have time for.

One benefit of not traveling this past year has been saving money. I actually saved up enough to put a down payment a townhouse in Scottsdale, Arizona where my family lives. Now when I visit them, I’ll have a place of my own to stay, and when I’m not there, I will rent it out on Airbnb. My first guests come this weekend and I’m so excited to “host” them. This has been a fun project, and it’s made me think of all of the travel I have done and what has attracted me to choose certain accommodations and how I can make the stay special for my guests. I am living vicariously through them at the moment!

As for the Covid situation here in Hungary, we have been under restrictions since the middle of November. Curfew at 8 p.m., no indoor or outdoor dining at all, and mandatory masks everywhere you go. Our high school students have been learning online since mid-November as well. Cases had been sharply decreasing since the beginning of December, and with the vaccine rollout, it seemed that we were really on the road to the end. The last month, however, has seen cases on the rise again and the vaccine rollout has been slower than we had all hoped. Some think the rise in cases is due to the more infectious U.K. variant of the virus. When we go back to school next week, we’ll try to tighten up some of our school procedures and restrictions as an extra precaution. Still no word on when teachers will get the vaccine, though we have been assured that expat teachers will get it alongside local teachers.

My only summer plans involve going to Arizona for a month to see my family and stay in my new house. I did see an advert for a dreamy week-long yoga retreat in Sicily for the weeks between my return from Arizona and the start of school. In normal times, I would have booked that in a heartbeat. If only I could be confident that that was actually a possibility this year.

The new snow day?

I woke up a few minutes early on Wednesday morning so that I would have time to wash my hair before school. I turned off the alarm on my phone and the first thing I saw was a text message from my ride to school saying, “I don’t think you are coming to school today as per the director’s email?” I clicked over to my school email and saw the director’s email sent at 11:40 p.m. the night before with the subject line: “URGENT COVID-19 Update.” One teacher in the middle school who works with students in multiple grades had tested positive for Covid and therefore the whole middle school would move to online learning for the next week “out of an abundance of caution.” There would be no classes on Wednesday so teachers could get ready to make the switch.

No school today? It felt like getting that call on a winter’s day that there would be no school due to snow.

It was 6 a.m. and there was no further information, so I went back to bed for two hours. haha. I know that most teachers probably jumped up and got to work, minds racing, but I’m a good sleeper. What can I say?

By the time I got up and finally washed my hair, a team leader meeting had been scheduled for 10 a.m. I had time to run out and grab a coffee before the meeting. We had an hour-long meeting with the team leaders followed by an hour-long meeting with the full MS faculty (both on Zoom, of course) before using the rest of the day to prepare for online learning the next day.

I ate the lunch that I had packed for school, and then started getting my lessons ready to go online. We did distance learning for 13 weeks in the spring, so it was mostly a matter of getting set up. I don’t think any of us expected a closure so soon, so we hadn’t had a chance to really prepare the students (or ourselves) in advance.

After two days of teaching from home, the positives and negatives of distance learning quickly came back to me.

Positives: No commute means I can sleep in and mornings are much more relaxed. I love being able to go to my kitchen to cook or heat up some lunch. Not having to get all of that ready the night before makes the evenings feel so much more relaxed as well. Normally, I get home, make dinner, pack a lunch, and hope to finish a few things around the house and still have time to watch a show before bed. Teaching from home, I just close my laptop and there is so much more time, not only because I don’t have a commute but also because I don’t have to prepare so much for the next day. These last few days I found time to exercise for the first time since we started back at school!

Negatives: Zoom fatigue is REAL and it doesn’t take long at all to set in! The first three classes of the day and I was already getting a headache from looking at my computer screen. But it’s not only classes that are online: every meeting and co-planning session are on Zoom too (and that’s not to mention that grading becomes an online task as well!). And I think it goes without saying that it is so much harder teaching students online. It’s harder to tell if they are engaged, harder to give them opportunities to collaborate with each other, harder to immediately see if they need support.

While it was kind of exciting to get that “snow day” message on Wednesday morning and kind of fun to change things up for a week, I feel a little less overwhelmed knowing that this isn’t the start of distance learning for the rest of the year. It sure seems like this is going to be part of our new normal for the rest of the year though. At a moment’s notice we will be expected to switch from one teaching format to the next. I’m sure that as we are now better prepared, we won’t be given full days off with no classes to get prepared. I’m hoping that if we do go to full distance learning in the future that we will have some sort of rotation schedule where we have a day teaching online and then a day for offline work. As a school, we are still working on what that will look like. Hopefully we figure it out sooner rather than later because the numbers in Hungary continue to rise well beyond anything we saw in the spring.

Two weeks in

Two weeks of the 2020-2021 school year are in the books and our school’s Covid response is constantly changing and evolving. We started the school year with masks required in common spaces, but once students (or teachers) were in a room and settled at their desks, it was ok to remove the masks. If a teacher required a mask in their classroom (for any reason) that was ok too. I personally opted for masks on in the classroom because I have a really small room and wasn’t able to space out my desks to a comfortable distance.

By the end of the first week, cases in Hungary were on the rise. We went from new daily cases in the single digits or teens over the summer to cases in the hundreds by the end of the first week of school. “Out of an abundance of caution,” it was decided that we would all wear masks all of the time at school when indoors. When possible, some teachers would take their classes outside for a mask break or to teach a lesson outdoors (the weather has been lovely lately!). We also heard from the government that all schools would not be shutting down like they did in spring but may on a school-by-school basis if necessary. At an all-school meeting, we got some clarity about this idea that we will be living with this for a while, so the goal is really to do whatever possible to safely keep school open as long and as much as possible. This gave me a new way of thinking about seeing the daily case numbers. As the new daily cases in Hungary continued to rise well about our peak in April (210) to the 200’s, 300’s, and 400’s of new cases per day, the question isn’t how high do the numbers have to get before we close campus again, but what can we do to say open, and when does our school specifically need to close.

At the end of the day Friday (at the end of our second week of school), we got our first known case of Covid in our immediate school community, a ninth grader. We were immediately informed that grade nine students would be learning from home next week (as a precaution) and that grade nine teachers would get a Covid test over the weekend.

So far it feels like we are doing everything right to keep our students and teachers safe. We’ll start week three on Monday with masks on, no ninth grade teachers or students in the building, and the question in the back of our heads of whether our grade level might be next.

Today was the first day back to work for teachers. We haven’t all been on campus together since March 13th. I didn’t have that surreal feeling that so many other teachers have had of returning to my room to find it just the way I left it on a Friday afternoon in spring not knowing that I wouldn’t return on Monday since I’ve been up to campus to do various errands during the summer. It was, however, both wonderful and strange to be back together face-to-face with all of our colleagues. The sentiment throughout the day was how lucky we are to be able to start our school year together on campus with our students. We also celebrated the fact that all of our teachers (both returning and new) were able to make it into Hungary as we know that has not been the case for many schools around the world. We have a few teachers still working from home as they finish up their mandatory quarantine, but all of us will be ready to welcome our students into our classrooms on August 25th.

While we celebrate our good fortune now, we know that this situation may not (probably won’t?) last for the duration of the school year. Without sharing our full plans for our COVID response (which is still being finalized and isn’t ready to share yet), we are currently in a “Phase 2” with Phase 1 being a pre-Covid world and Phase 5 being full distance learning for staff and students. I feel fortunate to be working at a school that has a plan in place that is safe for students and staff and that is flexible in case we need to change things along the way. One of the benefits of working at an international school abroad has always been the independence to do what we think is right for students and our school community without having to get tangled up in district, state, or federal bureaucracy.

Here’s hoping for a great 2020-2021 school year, whatever may come.

When I first started at my new school in Budapest in 2014, I remember meeting the teacher across the hall from me who was starting her seventh year and I thought that was incredible. Seven years at the same school! In the international school world, teachers tend to move on much more quickly than that, and staying as little as two to three years is very common.

Well, time flies, and here I am starting my seventh year in Budapest. I always say that I’m willing to try living just about anywhere for two years (the general initial contract for international schools), and I can always move on if I don’t like it. I never would have thought I’d land in a place for so long. Indeed my third year, I started thinking that maybe I’d do a “soft search” and if my dream job in a dream location came up, I’d snap it up before I had a chance to worry about having any big regrets about leaving. But then by the time job search time came in the fall, I knew I couldn’t leave. I think I had this “plan” of the soft search for two or three years before I finally gave in and admitted I wasn’t going anywhere. Now I’ve committed to a new apartment (my third in Budapest) for two years, so it looks like year eight will be happening as well.

And so, in less than a week, year seven begins (for teachers anyway). We’ve been extremely lucky here in Hungary that our Covid-19 numbers have been very low (only 1-25 cases per day since the end of May), so we are able to open our school relatively normally (temperature checks at the door, but no masks or social distancing). I believe all of our new teachers have arrived as well (including our new school director!). Who knows how the year will play out and whether we will have to go to distance learning again (we did 13 weeks in the spring), but my 16th year teaching is sure to be an interesting one either way.

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