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To Breathe or Not to Breathe

By Matt Piercy
To Breathe or Not to Breathe

“See you outside, I take breathing seriously!” shouted my childhood friend over the pumping of the club’s techno music. He was visiting during my first international teaching post and the late night ended with the police shooting tear gas into the club to break up the “party.” More than twenty years later, I find myself similarly taking breathing “seriously.”
International recruitment is a dynamic process. Skype certainly was one game-changing disruptor. Yet, for the average candidate, a set of similar criteria remains. A set of boxes to check in order to narrow down where one aspires to live and work.
Considerations are likely to begin with a school’s mission but also its reputation. The candidate might question his or her belongingness and whether there is a fit. This likely segues into whether or not there is a teaching vacancy for the area in which the candidate is qualified and enjoys teaching most. School size is gauged, as are the programs offered. For example, is there an IB or MYP curriculum? Culture and location are certainly high on the list of items to consider, especially if one is abhorrent of long winters or inamorata of the changing of the four seasons.
Candidates may regard the infrastructure and systems already in place for collaboration, technology integration, and even shared planning periods. At some point the pay scale is of course examined, as is the benefits package. Is housing included? Free annual airfare to home of record? Insurance and retirement plans? Student body demographics are to be considered, and whether one desires a more local or international feel. What is the average student to teacher ratio? What extracurriculars are offered? And what will my role be in sponsoring an activity or coaching a team?
The scrutiny likely includes even more. Yet, at some point, we harken back to the hackneyed real estate adage, “location, location, location.” City size and traffic? Some schools may require commutes of up to two hours one-way, not because of distance but because of congested roads. There is definitive consideration of urban to super urban. The reality is, most international schools are not located in rural settings.
Among all of the above factors, one that might possibly not even make the list is, “Will I be able to breathe?”
With some regions of the world deeming December, January, and February to be the months of “hazy shades of winter,” air quality is a very real consideration. One’s health and well-being certainly are to be factored into this equation. Working in a cutting-edge school with fantastic colleagues and a wonderful package may not be enough to strike the necessary balance if going outdoors is also important to you.
More than just uncomfortable, air pollution continues to pose a significant threat to health worldwide. Though scientists have monitored air quality for more than three centuries, it was not until 2006 that the United States led the way in researching particulate matter (PM) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) implemented air quality standards—standards that are not the same for all nations.
One measure of particulate matter is PM2.5, a diameter 30 times smaller than the width of a human hair. Labeled, a “deadly cocktail,” this includes “black carbon, organic carbon, and some metals which are direct emissions, sulphates, nitrates, and secondary organic aerosols,” according to Dr. Sarath Guttikunda, founder and director of Urban Emissions. The sources of PM2.5 include but are not limited to vehicle exhaust, construction dust, thermal power plants, and the burning of crops. PM2.5 cannot be eliminated through coughing, sneezing, or swallowing. It enters our respiratory system through the nose and throat and is known to irritate and corrode the alveolar wall, and consequently impair lung function.
In March of 2018, delegates at a United Nations conference expressed their concern, specifically with respect to the air quality of one region. “Asia is a critical battlefield in the global fight to rein in air pollution, registering about 5 million premature deaths each year.” Some may contend with the figures, however there is agreement that all over the world, air quality is becoming increasingly more compromised. According to Greenpeace Southeast Asia and monitoring firm AirVisual, “Two thirds of the cities in the world with adequate air quality data are suffering from dangerous levels of pollution.”
Several countries are making the news for unsafe levels of toxins being emitted into the air. The response from some governments has been to close schools. One minister compared the city to a “gas chamber.” Short-sightedness and the push for profit stymies the search for solutions; instead, short-term fixes simply ameliorate it.
Yet, on the positive side, some international schools are not waiting for governments to take the necessary measures. Instead, they are boldly dipping into institutional coffers and moving to protect students, teachers, and administrators alike. Multi-million-dollar air filtration systems are being installed throughout school facilities. These air filtration systems effectively keep the PM2.5 air pollutant levels safe.
But what about outside of school?
Imagine this as a selling point for a school: “Work for us and you can breathe!”
However silly it may seem, the situation begs the question, “To breathe or not to breathe?” It might just be worth considering as you search for your next job.

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