A Teacher-Turned-Trailing Spouse

How Being a Teacher Prepared Me for Life in Foreign Service.

I was a high school teacher for twelve years before I married into the foreign service.  

Each year, I would become intensely invested in the performance and success of each of my 200 students.  Before I became a mother, these students were the most important part of my life because I gauged my own success as an educator by their respective experiences and achievements (however great or small).

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Students from various years came together to bid me farewell before my departure to Liberia in 2017.

Additionally, however, with each year I knew I only had ten months to make an impact in the life of each of those individuals.  If they came to me hating language arts, I knew I had to try to give them a novel experience in an effort to change their mind in favor of my favorite school subject.  If they came to me unable to converse in English, I knew I wanted to teach them enough to feel confident with the language outside of my classroom. If they came to me feeling unappreciated, invisible, or misunderstood by most everyone else in their life, I knew I wanted to give them a safe place of expression —even if I was going to be the only one to witness it in the form of their writing, art, or multimedia creations.

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With a student in 2008

These are just a few of the examples of instances when I felt like I had done my job the best.  I know that, in the grand scheme of things, teachers are rather insignificant. As a former principal once told a former colleague of mine, our bodies are easily replaceable with other teachers who are willing to fill the job and who may feel equally as passionate about the responsibilities and opportunities of the profession; but our individual skills and knowledge as master educators can never be replaced because our strengths in these areas are imbued with our unique personalities and trademarks.

As I prepare to say goodbye to my first post as a foreign service spouse, I think back on all the ways being a teacher prepared me for my time in Liberia and future posts, as well.

First of all, I am aware of and used to my time being limited.  As I mentioned, I only had ten months with each cohort of students.  In foreign service, our posts are either one year (for particularly dangerous or challenging locations), two years (for challenging but family-friendly places), or up to four years (for those places that are extremely livable, safe, and family-friendly).  No matter where Andrew and I go, our time will be limited to those timeframes; and I know that whatever impact I am going to make needs to have a foundation and pillars before that time is up.

Fortunately, as I noted in a previous post, my colleagues at the U.S. Embassy in Liberia have already suggested that I consider returning to Liberia when school is back in session next year to expand on the training workshops I planned and facilitated this year.  Having the opportunity to do this would mean a lot to me because I have listened to what the teachers and school leaders want for themselves, and I know how to guide them in their growth as professionals and as colleagues.

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With Liberian teachers-in-training at Zorzor Rural Teacher Training Institute in 2018

Before I arrived here, I was told by a Liberian friend in Atlanta (who is also the chairman of the alumni association for one of the largest private schools in Monrovia), that my programs to enrich the education for students were going to be important because it would show the young people a way of learning that they had never experienced before.  However, what Liberia needed the most was support and training for the teachers. And through that, we would start seeing change for education in Liberia.

He was right.

I feel extremely fortunate that I can say this in complete agreeance after my experiences in the field enabled me to interact with teachers from across this country.

Secondly, being a teacher prepared me for life in foreign service by giving me endless opportunities to interactions with people from many different countries and cultures.  From the start of my career, I taught English language learners (ELLs).  During certain years, this would be the entirety of my day: teaching early beginners in the language to teaching seniors who had been in sheltered ELL classes for at least a few years).  I learned very quickly that these young people appreciated any effort on my part to learn some of their language, customs, and cultural practices. They were especially grateful when I found ways to incorporate those elements of their background into my class or into my one-on-one interactions with them.

Personally, my days are fueled by smiles; and these interactions often elicit the biggest smiles from my students.

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Learning how to “Snap My Fingers” in 2006

Knowing this, I’ve tried very hard in the short time I’ve been here to find ways to have similar interactions with Liberians.  For instance, there is a particular handshake I learned during my first field visit in Zorzor—a hand clasp that slides out into a snap of the fingers.  In the months since that trip, I’ve had opportunities to practice the handshake, and it warms my heart when locals are impressed by it. Also, in polite exchanges with Liberians, using a phrase like “How the day?” instead of “How are you doing?” evokes a little surprise in their eyes as they try to size me up in their curiosity.  And there are always smiles.

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Smiles all around after a game of football! 🙂

In preparation for our move to Amman, Jordan, I have been wondering what nuances I’ll pick up on in terms of culture, customs, and language that I will incorporate into my own behaviors.  Andrew likes to joke that by the end of our careers in foreign service, we’ll have a language and style of communication that is all our own because of bits and pieces we’ve picked up from around the world.

A third way that teaching prepared me for life in foreign service was making “going with the flow” second nature.  When a situation doesn’t go as planned, as a Type-A personality, I go into a short-term panic as I feel everything I thought I knew about reality slipping through my fingers and out of my control.  However, that scenario can happen on any given day when one is managing 200 teenagers or more in an eight-hour window, has become increasingly reliant on technology in the classroom, and sometimes makes mistakes because she is human.  So, whether or not I am aware of it, I always seem to have a backup plan. Because things break, teenagers are unpredictable, and my memory may fail, I may still have a brief freak-out when a plan does not pan out as expected. I am easily adaptable, though, and I can usually quickly and expertly put on an “Oh, did something go wrong? I didn’t even notice” professional facade and carry on with the show.

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Only half of the principals were able to attend, but all were ready to learn!

It meant a lot to me when my colleague with the U.S. Department of State commented on this during my field visit to Saclepea and Zwedru.  There weren’t as many participants as expected at one of my sessions because there was a national education headcount going on, and school leaders had to attend to this.  Also, because of the headcount, participants came and went throughout my presentation. Furthermore, there were a couple of Liberian journalists there who stuck microphones in my face and in the faces of those who spoke or asked questions during the session.  It was all very disruptive, but I was determined to be the model of professionalism and grace. My colleague noticed this and commented on how well suited I am to work with the State Department.

And that brings me to the fourth way teaching prepared me for life in foreign service: every day was a lesson in the importance of keeping a sense of humor.  It is so easy to allow your mood to be negatively affected by a rude comment from a teenager; a curt email from a defensive parent; seemingly meaningless rigamarole from the district, county, or state; even more responsibility heaped upon us; or a moment in front of a captive audience of about 35 who seem to not hear anything you have to say about the necessary information for class, but will remember for the rest of their lives that embarrassing thing you did or said.

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Ecuador, Afghanistan, Russia, Columbia, Cuba, Nepal, El Salvador, Dominican Republic, Mexico, and China – Almost all of these students were from a different country. (2009)

In the first two years of my career, I discovered that there was a certain amount of adaptation that a new teacher must experience in order to survive long-term in a career that demands so much of us.  The difficulties of the job piled up, and I would carry the emotion with me. I gained 30 pounds, fell into depression, and took many things personally. Granted, my first few years were difficult because of the challenging district and unsupportive environment in which I worked.  Out of survival, I found that exercise, a better diet, and —who’d have thought it?! — a sense of humor would all help to turn around my physical and mental health.

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Me, about 40 pounds heavier than I am now.

If I made a mistake in front of the students, I became OK with laughing at myself right along with them.  If I encountered a particularly difficult student, I could often laugh off their behavior afterward as typical of what we expect from teenagers.  If technology didn’t work as planned, I could make a joke about “smart technology, my foot,” and quickly find a different way to accomplish the task.  This not only helped with my own sanity, but it also helped me create a classroom environment in which my students felt safe with me and safe to make their own mistakes.

This sense of humor has been useful in Liberia where, as one friend recently put it, “You cannot come here with expectations.”  Life here is hard. Even for expats who seemingly have a much higher standard of living, we struggle here with lack of entertainment, lack of physical activity, lack of connection to the outside world (with things like ease of travel, online ordering or payment of local services, and paying with credit cards), excessive pollution; few amenities; and lack of fresh and healthy food choices, to speak plainly.

But today, for instance, I made good on a fun proposal that I suggested a few weeks ago.  To give us some motivation to get back into our daily workout routine (a habit that had steadily been falling by the wayside for the past couple of months), I told Andrew I would take him out for a milkshake if we stuck to our daily workout schedule for at least two weeks.  (I also promised I would treat him to a deep-tissue massage at The Spa at Royal Hotel if we stuck with it for a month. *fingers crossed*). Today was the day for the milkshake, but when we arrived at the restaurant, we found out that they don’t actually have milkshakes — they have frappes instead.  This was unacceptable to my husband who had his heart set on a shake.

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Kaldi’s Coffee Shop at Mamba Point Hotel, Monrovia

Making the best of the available options, we decided to split an ice cream sundae instead.  I joked about how it felt like we were on a first date in the 1950’s, and he was taking me to the local soda shop for a sundae.  (For someone as serious and fact-based as he is, he deeply values my ability to find joy in the smallest moments and things.) We laughed, and his smile brought me some sunshine on this very cloudy day.  We could have been disappointed or even irritated that our expectations were not met during this particular outing. Instead, we enjoyed what ended up being the best ice cream sundae I’ve ever had. (Thanks, Kaldi’s Coffee at Mamba Point Hotel!)

On an unrelated note, the rainy season has begun in earnest now.  I am already feeling the effects of the lack of sun on my energy level and mental capacity.  I am recalling how, when I first arrived (last August, in the middle of the rainy season), I would rush out to the balcony or roof to stand in a stream of sunlight that happened to break through the clouds.

I think I will spend the next 10 weeks searching for sunlight wherever I can find it.  

 

2 thoughts on “A Teacher-Turned-Trailing Spouse”

  1. Everything YES. My favorite moment this year was when my students felt the need to defend me, after a group of administrators unexpectedly came for a visit the last 10 minutes of class on a Friday. We had worked hard all week and left physics behind for a promised cultural exchange of sorts. I had previously asked my kids to pick their 10 favorite (clean) songs to share so we could decide which ones I liked (because I had previously not really preferred any of their offerings). Just before admin came in we had talked about why certain songs become our favorites and all agreed that while the actual notes, rhythm, and lyrics play a role, it is mostly the link to a fond memory that propels a song upward on the list.

    I was enjoying the creation of this soon to be a fond memory, when one administrators, after surveying the room spouted forth “festive” with a less than positive tone. This happened within the first 5 seconds of his entry to my classroom and the students immediately looked concerned, turned their music off and began to talk about how much they’d learned that week and that I was just letting them “hispanisize” me. Before they could finish, I mustered my best Glinda the good witch voice and said, Don’t worry, he has no power here while giving him my best smile. Turn your music back on. My response could have been received poorly, but the other two administrators were very familiar with my work and their joint smiles was all the support I needed for things to end well. I love my kids.

    Like

    1. Thank you for sharing this story! I’ve been in almost the exact same situation and can very much relate. How lucky your students are to have such a wonderful, caring, and passionate teacher!

      Like

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