Does International Experience Really Matter?
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?