Welcome to the adventures you are about to begin! The First weeks are a blur as you learn how to shop, about the region you are in, trying out some words and phrases in a foreign language and even how toilets work in your new apartment! There’s so much to learn which is second only to the excitement and nerves you walk around with all day long. Who in your new international school community will act as your guide? What will that bond mean to you now, in a few months and years later? The hallmarks of a student-teacher relationship will be there with you as you settle into your new life.
International Teachers as Guides and Learners to Help Each Other
I’ve been abroad since 2007 but was freshly reminded about the importance of good guidance when new somewhere — and how that exact same experience is important for my middle school math students.
I live in Vienna, Austria going on 12 years and before that I was in Madrid and my home town of Tempe, Arizona. I don’t know I could have pointed to Vienna on a map before moving abroad and now I know all sorts of Vienna ins and outs, the language and have many local connections across different walks of life. I’m ready to guide and have helped to guide others across many years now. Sometimes it is unplanned and lasts a moment, other times I’ve leaned into longer support making new friends along the way.
In helping a new family recently, it struck me how the format of our relationship was taking shape to be similar to the learner and the guide. I and my wife (an actual Austrian) directly open ourselves to questions and support while also carefully building context for us to correct and clarify in the moment. For their part, they looked to both secure us as folks they could turn to when needed but also reciprocate by sharing what little they had managed to develop on their own.
We Shared restaurant tips and translated energy bills. They made a picnic for us and gifted us a special jackfruit treat from their culture. We told them about the recent history of their neighborhood and took them to city parks fit for summer play with their children and they shared some wonderful stories of their work and travels.
Moving abroad is much like being a new student in your classroom
The whole thing family we helped felt remarkably like working with my students. I share plans with students about my middle school math course, tips to being successful and I get to know them as people from day one. Across time, students reciprocate with whatever they can manage, micro gestures like telling me jokes, painting my calculator covers, offering skittles from their already sticky fingers and my favorite, drawing pictures of me. Across a school year, our relationship as guide and learner develops and we are all better because of it.
Moving abroad or even traveling to far places has that same feeling. As you begin this journey you instantly slide into the role of the learner. Eagerly learning new tips and tricks of daily life and developing relationships with those who can help you answer questions. At first, you have little to offer back to those who have helped you settle in, so you wear your best smile and are sure to thank them gratuitously. You make sure they know their efforts were meaningful. As time goes on, some of your supporters become longstanding trusted guides with whom you are able to reciprocate more fully with.
It is a bit remarkable how often we switch into a learner mode in our lives. Being a professional teacher for an entire career doesn’t erase that experience. Yet, we may not often slow down to think about how the role of a learner makes us feel, how we respond to it and what our behaviors are like in those moments. There might be no better time than moving abroad to think about how being a learner who needs a guide makes us feel. No better time to see our new students through a similar experience that we are living.
My Most Important Guide in Madrid
Times will change, but you never forget their openness, support and time spent with you. I’ll never forget those who were my trusted supporters in Madrid when I first moved abroad. My ultimate guide among a large group was a colleague named Mike. He was never a personal friend and I almost never saw him outside of school, but he knew to come see me often, remembered what I could do on my own and what I needed help with. He was a teacher that knew how to support the soft spots and move me forward. He helped me build a meaningful existence in Spain as I hope to do for young math students. I will never forget him and nine years after moving away, I found an opportunity to send him the best chocolate Vienna has to offer as a surprise. Imagine his reaction after such a long time!
Who will be the few trusted guides you develop?
What will you take away from the learner experience of moving abroad?
Unless you comment below, I’ll never know your story but I can promise you this; you will be better for this experience and your guide will be as well.