BECOME A MEMBER! Sign up for TIE services now and start your international school career
STORIES FROM THE FIELD
No matter where I land next, I'll be a better person when I move on 01-Jul-19
Editor Meadow Hilley talks with Vicki Swan, who is currently serving as a Middle School Principal in Panama City, Panama. Before moving into a leadership role, she taught middle school science for 10 years, both in the U.S. and abroad. Vickie has served as an administrator for the past seven years, first as Assistant Principal and now as Principal. Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, her previous appointments brought her to Budapest, Hungary and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Fun facts! Vickie has hiked across both Panama and England, from ocean to ocean. She has visited over 40 countries and is learning to play the saxophone. She loves to read about standards-based learning and brain-based research.
Meadow: When you started out, did you imagine that you would make a career in international education?
Vickie: No, it was an ongoing joke for quite some time. I began in the U.S. teaching middle school science in the suburbs of Birmingham, Alabama. I’ve kind of got a wild hair and was hoping to take a two-year sabbatical. But my district didn't allow sabbaticals. There was a gentleman getting ready to retire who planned to stay on for another two years. We figured we’d just swap out. It was a perfect plan. I'd go live overseas for a couple of years and then come back… Only, I didn’t. I just finished 10 years.
Meadow: When you were thinking about taking a sabbatical, what was causing you to want to take a break from your school? And how did you find that first landing spot?
Vickie: I was feeling very stagnant. I’d finished my master's degree in educational leadership and had been involved with some district-wide work and state-wide work, but I really was running out of new and exciting things to do. I felt that I needed to make a change in order to stay in education.
I had always wanted go abroad and in fact first learned about international education from my sixth-grade English teacher, Ms. Garnette. She had gone to Japan for a summer program to help teach English to Japanese students. Just hearing about that early on, being from rural Alabama, I'm like, what does that look like or feel like?
In my master's program I bumped into someone else who had worked in Korea. I said, tell me about it. She only had positive things to say, other than being away from family. But she said even in spite of that it was well worth it. She kind of showed me the ropes, sharing with me how to complete all the paperwork and initiate the recruiting process. At that point I was still thinking this is something I’d do for two years. The principle from Budapest had reached out prior to the recruiting fair in Cambridge. After meeting I thought, oh, this sounds pretty good. Two years living in Budapest, Hungary? Why not? And it's just gone from there. It's addictive.
Meadow: What do you suppose it is about this life and this career path that keeps you hooked?
Vickie: I think it's the diversity. I know we talk about being a continuous learner and often it’s in the context of deepening our knowledge about a subject area or a passion. I think it's invigorating to have a passion for travel and for learning about different cultures. It's contagious. I've lived in very diverse cultures and countries. Everyone asks me, “What's your favorite?” All of them and none of them, really. There are advantages and disadvantages and wonderful aspects of each experience, as well as complications and hardships that come with being in a place that you're not accustomed to. But I’ve got that deep desire to continue to learn about new ideas and grow more openminded, learning about the world from a different lens. All this broadens my sense of what it means to be global and globally minded.
Meadow: Can you share one experience where you felt particularly challenged?
Vickie: I think the biggest challenge is the fact that I'm very close to my family. Prior to moving we had Sunday lunches, every Sunday. Even as someone over the age of 30, it was still very important for me to have that opportunity. So part of the challenge is in only having a social-media relationship with family. Sunday Skype calls with family or Facetime with friends just doesn’t replace actually being together. And I have a huge family, with many aunts and uncles on each side. When I am home, we have 20 to 50 people at a reunion, and I miss having those opportunities just down the street, versus twice a year. That was a difficult transition.
Meadow: What about culturally? Have you struggled at all on that front?
Vickie: Again, coming from rural Alabama, one thing that we valued is that everyone knew everyone and everyone took care of someone. So I had never experienced homelessness, like true homelessness. There were people that had more or less than others, but no one went without shelter or had trouble meeting their basic needs. When I first moved to Hungary, it was one of the most devastating things—true culture shock—to see people outside my door with nothing. It's still very difficult to come from a first-world country and then live among people who are not accustomed to having clean water or shelter or social structures in place. Not that America is perfect, but it was extremely difficult to see people starving. That was a very difficult transition for me.
Meadow: Learning to how to live with the disparity, I get it. Also, I imagine you were thinking, “What can I do?” feeling you couldn’t do nothing.
Vickie: I think about the book The Fred Factor; we all can make change. We are responsible and obligated to do these random acts of kindness. Only they shouldn't be random. I didn't make a huge impact on Hungary, of course. But what I did was to provide milk and bread and sandwich meat when I could, and blankets until I ran out, or just a smile. These people, they're human beings. I was looking to do what I could—even if it was just for a moment—to make something better about that day.
Meadow: Where do you see yourself moving next? When you think about the five-year or the 100-year vision, what does it look like?
Vickie: That's definitely on my mind. I have one more year at my current school and then I'll be looking for a new adventure. There's so much that plays into that. It's not about money or landing in a beautiful country or seeking out the best travel destinations. There things that we must take into consideration. Safety, for example. And I do value clean water, after living in a place where I couldn't drink the water and where the pollution was pretty extreme. It goes well beyond the culture and the country itself, but also the culture of the school, and making sure that it's philosophically aligned with your values. So there are quite a few things that that will be taken into consideration before moving. Contracts are usually two to three years and I think it's about persevering; we can do anything for two to three years and make the best of it. Again, I've learned and grown from every experience. No matter where I land next, I'll be a better person when I move on to the next destination.
Meadow: Can you name one thing from the past academic year that really moved you or was transformational?
Vickie Swann: There wasn't one thing that I would print on a billboard, but more a collection of many small things that made the year itself memorable. We definitely had our challenges, but they were opportunities to be vulnerable to all of our different stakeholders and members of our community. That’s what is most memorable. Letting kids know that, hey, things aren't perfect, and I really value your word and your, your perspective and your views and I want you to see the changes that we make because of your input. Those were really powerful and memorable moments.
Also, having those opportunities with parents and teachers alike. The act of going to teachers and saying, here's the work ahead of us; how are we going to do it alongside each other? Not, “I'm the principal, get it done!” And developing these amazing teacher leaders. I'm very fortunate to have the team that I have to work with. So 20 years from now, when I look back on my experience in Panama, there will be so many things to remember. A lot of that is due to our supportive parents, to the amazing kids that are so open-minded and so resilient, and to the faculty that I've had the pleasure to be a part of.
Please fill out the form below if you would like to post a comment on this article:
07/01/2021 - Jackie
Lovely sentiments and describing the sheer joy of teaching/administering abroad! So many different places! I'm interested in hiking Panama!