From Friendship Bracelets to Traditional Ghanaian Meals in the Classroom
Today’s guest blog comes from Leah Hoffman an alum of City Year 2010 and 2011, who is currently a first year graduate student in Sustainable International Development at Brandeis University’s The Heller School. This blog is the third in our International Careers Series sponsored by IPSL that profiles leading alumni of AmeriCorps working in international and intercultural careers.
It’s hard to remember a time that I wasn’t passionate about education and the opportunity to work with students in unconventional classrooms. Whether spending my summer making friendship bracelets with countless kids as a camp counselor or facilitating service learning projects for wide-eyed elementary schoolers in an after school program during my time with City Year, I’ve always found my service alongside students to be incredibly powerful. Yet, it was surprising a few years ago to stumble across an application and an opportunity to spend a year as an education fellow for a small international development organization in Accra, Ghana. It was even more surprising to find myself, just six short weeks later, catching a red-eye flight into Kotoka International Airport to embark on a year of teaching West African high schoolers in an international college access program.
Though my classroom looked more unconventional than my experiences before, I found the adventure of teaching abroad to be just as impactful and enriching as my prior experience in the classrooms, and often times even more unpredictable. Through my time applying for international teaching programs to closing out my service abroad, I found some key things to keep in mind along the way, many of which apply to a year of service in AmeriCorps too! Learn how to go abroad and teach, build connections with students, and find your next opportunity after teaching.
1. Get Abroad: Find the Program That Suits You Best
There are truly A MILLION programs that offer incredibly diverse opportunities to teach abroad, so be sure to spend a significant amount of time in the research phase! When looking for an international teaching opportunity, it’s important to consider the region or regions you are most interested in. Think about the language component of your region(s) of interest, and if there are any additional skills that you can gain, try to tackle those skills prior to applying to put your best foot forward as a candidate. Look into a TEFL certification class, many of which are taught at local colleges and universities across the US, and can greatly assist you in your teaching experience. Volunteer at an international organization that meets the needs of the population you hope to serve. There are countless unique ways to educate yourself prior to deciding and these are just a handful to keep in mind before applying.
With so many programs to choose from, it’s important to think about the hard and soft skills you’re looking to gain from your international experience and how this will set you up for success and possible partnerships afterwards. I know sometimes it’s challenging to think beyond our 10- or 12- month service terms in AmeriCorps, but it’s important to think about how potential opportunities can impact our future career trajectory especially in education, as many international teaching organizations have great partnerships that can lead to additional roles and projects in the future.
Lastly, think about the organizations and people within your network that have taught abroad or have international connections. AmeriCorps Alums have some fantastic partnerships with organizations that have teaching abroad components! Overall, take your time in the research phase, as this is the time to build your knowledge, conduct informational interviews of potential programs and organizations, and find the best fit for you!
2. Build Connections: While Abroad Connect with Students Inside and Outside the Classroom
Once abroad, it’s important to realize you have an opportunity to engage in your new community: you choose your investment level and experience for the most part! My favorite part of teaching abroad was without a doubt working alongside students and the opportunities to engage with them in everyday life not just in teaching the material at hand. Whether it’s a Saturday study session to cram for an upcoming SAT exam or a review of a student’s college essay, there are so many ways in which you can engage and get to know your students while teaching abroad.
One way I engaged with my students was through food and fellowship. My students had a tendency of being late for classes on a regular basis because they would stop for breakfast on the way, and it began to affect the quality of the lessons prepared each day, as students would file in at random times. Realizing how this was going to affect our learning process moving forward, I tapped into my teaching bank and thought about positive incentives I could offer to students who arrived on time. I took a chance and offered each student breakfast for arriving on time each day, ensuring they were able to get the most out of the classes offered and enjoy breakfast at the same time. Initially, many students wanted to know what specifically would be served, if it was hot, or cold, or made to order—basically to be high-schoolers and tease me—but the next day all seven of my students were waiting at the door for class to start, and we were able to enjoy a meal together before we began a day of coursework. This became a great opportunity for me with my students, as we would take turns bringing food, many times traditional Ghanaian meals, which allowed me to get to know my students better, and engage in the culture of my new home.
This brings a second lesson to light, look for the opportunity to build connections with students both inside and outside the classroom. Often times we think of teaching in a very conventional way, but in teaching abroad, it’s important to learn as much as you can from students and immerse in the culture since they are incredibly helpful in learning more about the culture, values and traditions of your new home.
3. Find Your Next Opportunity: Plan Your Next Steps Before You Return
Although it’s sometimes hard to think of any experience coming to a close, your time commitment and teaching abroad experience will end, and you’ll be on to the next adventure! It’s important to think prior to the last day about how this role will impact your future career choices and service. Sometimes it’s hard to find the right words to explain to future employers just exactly what you did while abroad just as we often struggle to share our AmeriCorps experience. That’s why it’s important to think about how you can best summarize your experience while still doing the everyday things teaching abroad involves. Think about the large tasks and projects that you’ve supported, the diversity of the students that you’ve worked with, the skills you’ve grown in, the experiences that were challenging for you, and your most ideal plan moving forward, and talk through this with another individual, perhaps a colleague or boss, to assist in giving some helpful advice.
I realized rather quickly after my time in Ghana that my next steps involved developing my knowledge of international development further through a master’s degree coursework, but that isn’t necessarily the best fit for everyone. Allowing yourself two to three months of time to process next steps, reach out to your various networks for support and solidify your plan helps to build a solid foundation and transition. It will most definitely be challenging to return and exciting as well, but having a plan upon returning makes the adjustment a bit easier!
Overall, teaching abroad can be a life-changing experience in so many ways, and can open doors to many other aspects of international service! I hope you’ll consider teaching abroad and the many opportunities that are offered within the field of teaching in unconventional classrooms!