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We Are Very Much the Same Yet Unique

International Education: Stories From the Field
By Derek Harwell
We Are Very Much the Same Yet Unique

In this collection of stories, international educators share their unique experiences, insights, and perspectives. These accounts include how some began their international school career, things to consider if you’re curious about the international teaching landscape, what they’ve learned along the way, and the unparalleled journeys on this career path.

Join us as we delve into the stories of these inspiring educators and gain a deeper understanding of the transformative power of education across borders.



Hi, my name is Derek Harwell. I'm currently the Director at the International School of Kigali and Rwanda. Rwanda is my 38th country in which I've lived, and I've been teaching overseas for 32 years this year.

I have to say that my passion for international education comes from the schools themselves. I've taught in about 12 different schools over my lifetime, and I have to say the professional development is probably one of the biggest components of an international school that is very different from other schools. We tend to hire some of the biggest names in education and educational reform. We have conferences all over the world. I'm currently in Rome, Italy at TIE…or at PTC. I'm with other school leaders who are learning about leadership in international education. And then when I leave here, I will go visit friends that I've made 20 years ago in Amsterdam before flying back to Rwanda to start the school year.

And one of the things that I find that's really amazing about the international school community despite the fact being spread out all over the globe and, you know, lots of distance between us, we're very much the same. And one of the things that sets apart an international school is the community that you're joining. You're joining your international school, but you're also joining schools that are connected in a lot of different ways. One of the interesting things that we have, especially in Europe where I've taught, we would play sports against schools in Germany, or Ireland, or the UK [United Kingdom], or in Spain, traveling to go to different countries for MUN [Model United Nations], or for the Duke of Edinburgh Award. A lot of different things that give you an opportunity to grow as a teacher, but also that the schools school itself is helping you explore other countries and other possibilities of places you may want to end up one day as a teacher. So, if you have an inclination of being international and being able to move around the world. If it's Southeast Asia, they do the same. If it's in South America, it's very similar. You join a community when you join an international school.

What is your advice to teachers who have not taught internationally? 

I think the biggest piece of advice I would give you is to have the confidence to do it is probably the most complicated thing that you're gonna go through. To know that you're about to leave safety and security of where you are and being able to come into a new school is always complicated. But knowing that you're also gonna have the added advantage or burden, however you choose to see it, of living in a different country. It's not as daunting as you may think. The school helps you with most things, and once you get over the hurdle of maybe language barriers or cultural barriers, you're going to learn how exciting it is to be in another country.

It's a very vulnerable feeling to be in a situation where you have very little control over the things that happen around you and very little understanding about what's happening around you. But it's also a very exciting opportunity to learn more about who you are.

What is your message to those teaching internationally for the first time?

It's a very scary opportunity and it's one you should take. One of the most professional things I've ever done in my life is working at an international school. The support that you get at that school, the community that you join, is really an amazing event. It's hard to leave family, it's hard to leave home, but what you're gonna get are memories, friends all over the world, and you're gonna experience things that you never thought possible. It's gonna change who you are. It's gonna change what you think about the world. iIt's gonna change what you think about people. And you're gonna have an exciting change in your own life, in your own beliefs, and you will come out the other side a much better, globally inspired person.


Derek Harwell has served international schools, students, and families for the past 30 years. Derek’s responsibilities at his many schools included a Technology Director, Principal, and School Director. He has served on boards including President of the European League of Middle Level Educators (ELMLE) for over 10 years as well as serving with International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) and Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE). He is currently serving with the International Advisory Committee for the College Board and the Diversity Collaborative. Derek remains a passionate inclusive educator with a focus on belonging and wellbeing for all students.

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