Celebrating being international educators at the International School Yangon. (Photo source: Sandy Sheppard)
There are many job titles in education: English teacher, teacher, counselor, coordinator, team leader, and many more; for example, my current school job title is elementary school principal. But when people ask me what I do for a job, my answer is, “I am an international educator.” This is the title I give myself because this, I believe, encompasses what I do.
Like many others, I have a long story and many tales to tell of a career in international education. I have worked in the Cambridge, Common Core, and International Baccalaureate curriculums. I have been in large and small schools, and I have witnessed political tension and economic crises. I have supported school expansion and reduction. I have been part of school accreditation both in schools and supporting schools, and I have led and participated in strategic planning. I have taught in the classroom and been a leader in schools. I have recruited, been recruited, and had amazing professional growth experiences. I have been immersed in new cultures and worked with communities all over the world. I am thankful for what every experience has taught me, and I am proud to say I am an international educator.
It is a recent development for me to describe myself as an international educator and came at a turning point in my life when I went home after 27 years away. I went home with so much anticipation of all the new experiences I would have. I could not wait to work alongside others in education and to support communities in my home country. However, I suddenly found myself in a very strange position, something I had not felt in 27 years; I felt like I did not belong. I was home, but I wasn’t at home. I felt I had something important to share but nowhere to share it. I had to take a step back and evaluate who I was as an educator and a New Zealander. The job descriptions I read did not ask for the experiences that were in my CV. Local experience was prioritized over international experience, which left me with what seemed like little to offer. To me, it felt like education had become a box for teachers to fit in with sides that dictated what you should be. The lid on this box felt unremovable, with no hinges. This meant that the experiences I thought I could bring to the box were left outside with no way in; I was different.
What is an international educator, you may ask, and how is it different? I believe an international educator can come from anywhere; and through their love of what they do, they can make a difference no matter where they are. An international educator is open-minded and ready to embrace change. In my experience, an international educator has the opportunity to develop teaching and learning independent of the confines of what an educational system might dictate. They have an opportunity not to fit students into a curriculum box. Instead, they work alongside others to create not a box but a hamper that is sometimes so full of things so varied and abundant you can’t even put the lid down. An international educator is able to ensure best practice is developed based on the needs of an individual student and community. There is rarely a “right way” to do things as an international educator. Rather, there is an ability to grow and develop learning with no outside pressures, allowing authentic opportunities to meet varying needs.
Being an international educator has allowed me to grow and adapt as both an educator and a person, to wear multiple hats, and to constantly evolve and learn from the communities I work alongside. I have learned so much from the students, parents, and fellow educators who bring their varying experiences to every school. Each school is a melting pot of cultures, people, and experiences. Whether we have 56 different nationalities or one, it is in embracing what everyone brings to a school community that sets it apart. By doing this, we grow wonderful opportunities that burst open boxes. So instead of trying to fit into a box, internationally, I get to create boxes of varying sizes, shapes, and descriptions: hampers, packages, trunks, and crates constantly adapting and changing. I have the opportunity to be creative because there is no right way to do things; instead, we discuss, plan, adapt, and continually look for creative ways to adapt and grow with the ever-changing world around us.
I see our roles as international educators as an opportunity to collaborate with others to impact a new generation of lifelong learners and global citizens. I take my hat off to all those educators everywhere working hard and truly breaking down the barriers of countries’ borders and creating communities where respect, understanding, and compassion are the hallmarks of what happens every day. Maybe we have the wrong title; perhaps instead of teachers, we should be called inspirers, growers of people, change makers, or even box flatteners. But, for now, I will stay with the title of an international educator who is a proud New Zealander, a small-town country girl who loves the opportunities she has been given to impact young minds positively and to truly make a difference in this international world. Educators worldwide, whether in their own countries, those returning from international experiences, or those working internationally, need to take the time to truly understand who they are as educators. When we understand this, we can embrace being different and then continue to work to make a difference.
Once, I posed a question to my daughter, “If someone asks you where you are from, what would you say?” She gave a powerful answer, “I am from the world.” It has taken some time, but I now understand the depth of her response. I believe borders, whether they be man-made, rivers, mountains, or oceans, are simply paths to navigate in this interconnected world. Although my work takes me away from my home country, I am now truly embracing being an international educator.
Sandy Sheppard is the elementary school principal at the International School Yangon in Yangon, Myanmar.