By Crystal Godsiff
After teaching for nearly ten years in public education, I thought I was a pretty great teacher. Then my husband (also a teacher) convinced me to move our family and careers halfway across the world to live and learn as international educators in another country. That’s when it hit me. I wasn’t as good as I thought I was. Educators in the international community are amazing rockstars, and they take learning and adjustment to another culture to a whole new level.
Hang with me for a minute. I figured if I could teach Special Education in the US public school system, I could teach anywhere. Especially if “anywhere” was a private international school in South Korea. I wasn’t just going to learn a new language, I was going to be amazing. But the big fat reality was, I wasn’t. Actually (*dramatic pause*) I sucked.
If you haven’t picked up on it yet, I can be very honest. It wasn’t long before I realized my students knew way more than I did “academically.” They studied longer and harder. They took more tests at a quicker rate and earned higher scores than I ever could. And for some, they actually made school look easy. However, for most of them, deep down, it wasn’t. But more on that later.
My first week of teaching internationally was awful. When my students walked into class, I mispronounced many of their names, called them by someone else’s name, or just stopped using their name altogether. I was completely out of my element, but I gained a whole new perspective: This is what many of my immigrant students back in the US must have felt like. While the culture, language, and even level of expectations from parents may be different, the students were all just kids. Kids who didn’t need an adult shoving content down their throats, but a teacher who would take the time to get to know them; ask them questions; care to learn how to pronounce their names correctly. I had failed to do that. Teaching internationally was so much harder than I could have ever imagined.
It is not easy as an adult to admit you don’t know how to do something, especially in front of students, who expect us to have all the answers. That is exactly what I found myself having to do. I had to trust my students to translate directions for me to a driver or read the instructions on a prescription for my child’s antibiotics. Other times, it was just helping me order the correct toppings on a pizza. In these moments, I learned to rely on my students. In doing so, I realized that I needed to trust others before I could expect them to trust me. What did my students need from me?
That’s when the special education teacher in me took over. I like solving problems. I love being challenged. I realized most of my students didn’t need support learning content. They needed connection. In an international school community, teachers come and go (some move on as frequently as every two years) and the students, well some of them do, too. In reality, building relationships in an international community between the staff and students has been, and will always be, the real challenge we face as international educators. That is what really matters.
It’s certainly not easy. You may not even like it, and you probably will fail. Nevertheless, in the end, it will always be worth it. Oh, and here is a small trick I learned that will go a long way in making connections. If you can’t pronounce a student’s name on day one, at least learn how to spell it correctly. Then you can just write them letters or little notes while you practice. It may have taken me four years, Hunho, but I nailed it. I hope.
Tips or suggestions for building connections with students (dependent on the age you teach):
Find out what students need. Sometimes it’s as easy as asking them. Or reach out to parents. They tend to know their child best. Do this early. Check out: Pernille Ripp’s beginning of the year parent questionnaires
Ask them what they do for fun. Sometimes it’s eating ice cream with chopsticks.
Depending on their age, join them for recess. Or take a walk with them. Sometimes we all just need to take a break, outdoors.
Invite students to eat lunch with you. Most kids want to have someone to sit next to in the cafeteria. Look for those that sit alone. If you teach secondary, feed them snacks.
Interview your students. Check out: Jennifer Gonzalez’s student inventories
Find a game they like to play and learn to play it with them. My favorite was chess.
Read to them, every day. Shared stories are always a great way to connect and get students to open up and talk. I even did this with some of my high school students and they loved it. At least that is what they told me. Check out: Jillian Heise’s #classroombookaday
Ask them for help with something you are not good at. One student left me tips on how to keep my plants alive. Another fixed my fan after I assembled it incorrectly because I couldn’t read the directions. They were written in Korean.
Reflect. Never forget what it was like to be a student.
Listen. Sometimes all a student needs is an adult who is there when they need them most. They don’t need you to give them advice or fix their problems, just listen.
While these ideas seem relatively simple, at the end of the day, they require you to be available to your students. They evolve over time, with patience and practice. As teachers we sometimes never know which connections will make a lasting change in a child’s life. Don’t worry about getting it exactly right. Just LEARNING to CONNECT, that’s what really matters.
Crystal Godsiff is currently the Elementary Academic Support Coordinator at the International School of Curitiba, in Brazil. For the last 4 years, she has lived in South Korea working as the K-12 Learning Support Coordinator in an IB international school. Crystal began her teaching journey in 2006 working in self-contained classrooms for students with mental health disorders and received her Masters in Special Education from the University of Seattle. She has been teaching and learning from her students ever since. You can follow her on Twitter @mrsgodsiff