Does International Experience Really Matter?

Does International Experience Really Matter?
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I just survived my 5th trans-Pacific flight with a 1-year old.  Gone are the days of in-flight movies and long stretches of time to work, read, or think (oh how good I had it).  Today my flights are filled with the feat of entertaining a squirmy child.  For any parent who travels long distances with little kids, they know that preparation is as much an art form as it is a necessity.  Still you never quite know what’s going to happen until the cabin door closes and the plane pushes back from the gate.  In this way my international teaching experience has made me a better traveler, but has it better prepared me for the classroom?

As and international teacher I like to think that I have developed some special skills that enable me to be more effective with diverse cultures, ESL students, or functioning within our unique field.  This might be true, but in most cases I’m probably not as special or at least as specialized as I may think.

So does international experience really matter?  As I’ve interviewed different school leaders from around the world, many who have worked in very diverse cultures, I’ve heard a similar thought on this topic.  Mark Ulfers, Head of School at the American School of Paris, might have said it best when he explained the differences between schools by saying, “I find more commonalities at our schools than differences.  Clearly culture has a tremendous influence…[but] the needs of young people seem to be so much the same [anywhere in the world]…their desires, needs, aspirations…”  In this example Mr. Ulfers was talking about international schools in general, but I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to extend his comment to domestic schools in western countries.

Recently I had the opportunity to interview Mr. Kevin Dunning, Head of School at Hong Kong International School, who has just completed his rookie year overseas.  Before accepting the position at HKIS, Mr. Dunning had never worked at an international school, but instead oversaw the largest private Lutheran school in the United States.  I asked him has being new to the field given him any sense of division between new and experienced international teachers?  He described it by saying, “I think some people who spend a lot of time in international schools feel like that gives them a better sense of the culture of a given place, and they believe it improves their ability to adapt to new cultural situations that a rookie like me doesn’t necessarily have.  So there is a little bit of a divide that way and I’ve certainly made some mistake along the way, but I’m willing to learn and hopefully that mediates the attitude that international school veterans have.”

Maybe a better way of asking the question is what is the benefit of hiring a teacher with overseas experience?  Obviously when hiring a veteran international teacher you  get the peace of mind that they’re unlikely to take off the first time there is an earthquake, coup, or some other crisis.  A school also benefits from contacts and connections that person has previously made in the region, which might bring new and relevant ideas to a school.  I’m sure there’s more.

So no conclusions today.  What do you think, does international experience really matter?  More than we think, less than we think?

Author: Andy Aldrich

Andy is a founder of Learn[ed]Leadership as well as a school administrator at Punahou School in Honolulu, HI. In addition to pontificating on ideas in education, Andy stays busy chasing after his daughter and impressing his wife with his big muscles.

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  1. I’ll ride the fence, and say that it does and it doesn’t.

    It doesn’t, not really. I think that there is a learning curve, but that any teacher with skill and motivation can learn how to be happy and effective within the intricacies of the international classroom and foreign culture. Honestly, wouldn’t most international teachers with decades of experience overseas be more lost in a inner-city US school? The systems, the challenges, and the language just don’t always match.

    Sometimes previous experience does matter. International teaching isn’t just a job, it’s also a lifestyle. Previous successful experience in specific cultures is a very good indicator that a teacher will repeat his/her successes. The greatest teacher in the world may hate living in Country X, and it will have a huge impact on his/her classroom behavior and what he/she contributes to the international community there. Every school has to deal with this particular “cancer” from time to time.

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    • Great thoughts. I think you’re right that successful teaching overseas doesn’t equate to success back in our home countries, especially in school climates that can include poor funding, low testing, unions, etc. Sometimes I wonder whether international teachers who plan to return to their home country are doomed to waver in ability as they struggle to conform to a new norm when they arrive home. However, in regards to new comers in the international field (at least US teachers), I think we do our schools a disservice if people try to simply replicate the US public school system overseas. Certainly there is a lot to be learned from the US system, but the beauty of international schools is how free they can be. It’s like when the color switches on during The Wizard of Oz…or at least it has that potential.

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