This week it has occurred to me that working in an international school presents a few opportunities and challenges that are nearly nonexistent in traditional state-side public schools.
Wading through the cultural differences is definitely at the top of the list, but few understand what this actually looks like in the classroom. Let’s take history, for example. Say you’re looking at a map, or even talking about the time frame of the early twentieth century, and you happen to mention that China and Taiwan are separate. Better be prepared for a few kids to pipe up with a, “Um, Taiwan is China,” and a few others to counter with, “No it’s not! I’m Taiwanese, not Chinese.” I’ve had to run peace-talks between these eighth grade emissaries a few times.
Or, you’re correcting a student’s mistake in class—him smiling the whole time—only to find out later you’ve completely disgraced him by taking away his “Face.” OR you try to pulse-check the class by wondering out loud if there are any questions or if everyone “gets it,” and they all nod their heads, eager for you to just keep going with the assignment. Start the task a minute later and no one moves for three minutes because they have no clue what’s what. You learn later that they didn’t want you to lose face by making it seem like you had not explained things clearly.
Sure, there are a bunch of kids that have been in the American system a few years and have been pretty much indoctrinated into the ways of the prepubescent monster that is their Western counterpart, but there are enough Chinese students still fresh to the US curriculum to pose this problem.
Then you have the variety of vocals that fill the halls when students are traveling from one class to the other, their many different languages pummeling your ears in ways impossible for you to decipher. Classroom English is stressed, absolutely, but rare is the class wholly without a whispered word in a native tongue. Most of the time this utterance is innocuous, but there have been a few snippets that have been anything but. One time in the library while students were doing research for a history project, I heard one boy talking about the breasts of a video game character he had seen in a website advertisement. When I looked up from across the table I told him he needed to change the topic. Confused and shocked, he asked if I had understood and I just nodded. He hasn’t said anything inappropriate in the months since then.
Bullying is always something teachers need to be vigilant about putting a stop to, but when you add in languages that no one on the staff speaks and a culture that encourages harmonious interactions, even when you’ve been slighted, this can get to be an enigma even the most well-versed behavioral specialist may find perplexing. Throw in new tech like We Chat that allows people to interact in ways faster and more ubiquitous than IMing and E-mail and you’ve got a hot mess on your hands.
The kids and the teachers in international schools also have the opportunity to have some of the widest social circles of any group of people. If your deskmates all hail from a different continent chances are that you’re going to be bringing different points of view to small group conversations. Teachers who work together for a few years and then move on to other posts don’t ever really lose touch, not today with Facebook and E-mail. Goodbyes may be more frequent, but the friendships formed can be made quicker and with more depth, too. Saying goodbye to two students this week proved to be a harder task than I had anticipated. Both of their families are heading back to their home countries, Korea and Japan, because of work changes. Staff and students took pictures with the kids and some even cried at the end of the day when they left the school for the last time. These farewells are important, though, and not always final. Sometimes they just give people destinations to travel to on vacations.
Fun days like International Day definitely get spiced up, though. Being truly international, the environment at the school on this day and the days leading up to it can be very enlightening. Families from all over the world and students with vastly different experiences can share their culture with all the flare of the opening ceremony of the Olympics.
And parent-teacher conferences get a little twist when translators are used so the parents can understand what the teacher is saying about their kid. We just finished our two-day conferences and I needed to have a person translating for about three of them. I was able to use my Chinese for the first one, but then the remaining conferences required me to say things I didn’t know how to, so I got a translator.
Also, the happy birthday song in one class being sung in 8 different languages is an awesome thing to behold. Having a German student translate political cartoons during a history lesson, or a Chinese student making a connection between a Native American legend and a Song Dynasty poet’s work can make for amazing teachable moments—the students teaching the teacher, that is. Students learning how to make art from a well-known artist from Peru, or how to make film from a teacher with more experience than half the young Hollywood directors today, or learning English from a teacher who brings great stories from 20 plus years abroad to every class are fantastic ways to learn a thing or two.
Even chaperoning trips isn’t the same. In March, I am supervising a volunteering trip to the Ningxia Autonomous Region. A group of High Schoolers are going to a small village in this area and volunteering their time for a week. We’re going to teach at the small school, and do community work for the impoverished town of Tongxin, outside the capital, Yinchuan. Even though this is during Spring Break, it’s like I’m not giving up a thing. Then in May, I’m going to be going to Beijing to help supervise the Lego Robotics competition. Despite hating Beijing, I love being able to go with the kids and see them compete in this big event. These are places I just wouldn’t get to see teaching in a public school back home.
There are a dozen other things that could go in this post, but I’m tired and I have an early Professional Development training at the Canadian International School in town, so I’ll call it quits now.