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Profile of an International Educator: Erika Velez

Profile of an International Educator: Erika Velez

Erika Velez is an international educator, administrator, and leader currently working in Austin, Texas (USA). She has been involved in international education for over 10 years.
How did you get into international teaching, and what about it inspires you?
Before moving overseas, I worked in an international school in my local city. Our school was international only in name, however; we had international programs and teachers from abroad but I believe being international is more than that. With that in mind, a decade ago my family decided to really explore what internationalism and being internationally minded really meant. My husband and I wanted our children to have an international experience.
The inspiration for this move came when I attended an International Baccalaureate (IB) workshop: Introduction to the Primary Years Programme. This was a huge eye-opener for me. I decided then that I wanted to work in an international school that was an IB world school, and wanted our children to be part of that community as well.
International education includes many things for me, such as the joy of learning, diversity, mutual understanding and respect, as well as doing our best. Helping students understand the importance of being attuned to the world around us, how the world works, and caring about others as we take care of ourselves are high indicators of high achievers. My role as an educator since moving abroad has been to learn and teach globally, through inquiry and real-world connections, and to help students understand their own learning. Every child is different, but my challenge has been to help each student discover his or her pathway through learning using effective instructional strategies to develop his or her particular abilities and skills.
What is it like living and teaching overseas?
Living overseas has been a wonderful experience. I moved with my husband and three children 10 years ago from Barranquilla, Colombia to a top-ranked school that offers the IB in Atlanta, Georgia. I’ve very much enjoyed working in an international setting. My educational philosophy changed radically and I’ve become not only a more skillful educator but a better person and professional. I’ve been a classroom teacher, learning specialist, differentiated instructional coach, mentor, support services coordinator, deputy head of school, and now both deputy head of school and head of primary. I’ve learned to be a strong leader for professional learning communities and in working towards a common goal: student learning.
Experiencing American culture while living and sharing other diverse cultures in the context of an international school has been wonderful. As a family, we have learned not only to value and respect other cultures, but now value our own more than before. We are ambassadors of our country promoting our language, traditions, cuisine, and our own cultural and national identity. This intercultural understanding and respect for other cultures are an essential part of life in the 21st century. Global understanding is now my educational philosophy; this has been fundamental to become a true global leader.
While there are many advantages to teaching internationally, the only downside has been being away from family. This can be difficult, but with technology and convenient vacations you can arrange for chatting, Facetime, and traveling back to your home country and/or arranging for your family to come visit. In the international circle, some contracts may offer an annual travel stipend for you and your family. And a school year goes very fast.
Another great outcome of this move into international education is visible in the success of my three children, who are all in college, fully bilingual, appreciative of the world around them, and highly adaptable. They’ve developed wonderful skills along the way—collaboration, communication, critical thinking, creativity, and many others—that will help them navigate going forward. Finally, a husband committed to growth and family support who has experienced his own challenges, change, and growth with an open mind. None of us would trade this experience for anything!
What advice would you offer someone who has just accepted his or her first position with an international school?
I would highly recommend that you:
• Ask all the questions you may have about the school and the city where you will be living. The more information you have the better.
• Enjoy every minute after your departure; there is a learning opportunity behind every experience.
• Be flexible and open-minded, some things may not happen or work as expected, but for sure they will be taken care of.
• Be open to every learning experiences and get to know the culture in advance. Having a buddy or ambassador is always helpful.
• Bring your working experience with you; this is very much valued in any international school and this is one of the reasons you were hired.
• Be proud of who you are, and where you come from. Do not try to change who you are, your values, or your heritage. These are assets—your assets.
• Value others’ ideas, cultures, and respect their laws. Laws can be very different from those of your home country.
• Bring family with you. Anticipate them and enjoy every moment of this journey together. There will be ups and downs along the road, but children and adults adapt easily if there is openness, acceptance, and flexibility.
• If you have struggles adapting, schools have support systems to take care of you and your children.
• Give it a year; allow yourself to ease into this process.
• If you are thinking about moving abroad and it is your first time, keep in mind that contracts are for a minimum of two years.
• Take the risk and do not be afraid of the unknown. The international community is very supportive globally.
I am very enthusiastic about international education, and I am fully devoted to the goals of the IB organization, while supporting a learning community in developing intellectual, personal and social skills to live, learn, and work in a global changing world.
I look forward to my next international experience!

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