Why Teach Abroad

Winter 2011

By Betsy Potash

A Fulbright poster on the bulletin board, a Search Associates flier in your mailbox, a rumor of something different — everyone has heard about teaching abroad. But is it worth filling out all that paperwork, installing Skype on your family’s computers, and learning a new language?

Betsy’s Story

Two years ago, Brett and I sat hunched over the computer at an international job fair, trying to see what Bulgaria looked like. Soon we would sign a contract to spend two years there, experiencing life in a nation still under European Union (E.U.) sanctions for corruption and recently declared to have the worst public education system in Europe. We would leave our cushy school in Southern California and fly through the shattered remains of the iron curtain. It would all work out in the end, but on that day two years ago, what I mainly felt was panic.

Our plane touched down at 4:00 am. On our way to our new apartment in Mladost 1-A, I watched blearily as square concrete buildings flew by outside the van windows. It felt a hundred humid degrees on our balcony as we looked out into a darkened maze of apartment blocks and listened to the soon-to-become familiar stray dogs. 

A few weeks later, I was standing on stage at The American College of Sofia as eight hundred students applauded. 

“Betsy Potash from Duluth, Minnesota, will be one of our new English literature teachers.” I smiled at the kids, thinking back to what Nikolai, head of security, had said to us on our first day.

“I hope that when you leave, the students will love you so much, they will cry.” As I looked at them that first day, I hoped so, too. The last weeks had been a whirlwind, with trips to the Black Sea beaches and mountains of Bulgaria, to Istanbul, and into Greece. I had obtained my visa and begun to learn the (many) rules of the Bulgarian Ministry of Education. I was glad to finally meet my students, the brightest kids in Bulgaria, the kids I hoped would one day lead their country out of the corruption and apathy in which it is mired. 

The first few months of school brought a bevy of new challenges like riding the bus, “talking” my way into a gym with gestures, and teaching new courses. I got to know Mihaela, junior editor of the literary magazine, ever eager to chat over new graphics for the coming issue, and Andrey, my advisee who guffawed at my Bulgarian language attempts and lit up like a lamp whenever he saw me from across campus, waving as if his life depended on it. 

As time went on, my students asked me about American colleges, Los Angeles lifestyles, and what I did and did not like about Bulgaria. They wanted to know if I enjoyed their seaside, if I had tried rakia (their national drink), and how my language lessons were going. From them I learned about the rules, norms, and pleasures of their country. One girl gave me a tiny broom to hang on my door at New Year’s to sweep away any old problems; another, a red and white ribbon on Baba Marta day, to welcome Old Lady Spring. As we discussed Dubliners, The Crucible, and The Great Gatsby, we exchanged the stories of our two cultures. 

It soon became clear that my students were world citizens as I had never been until now. Most had visited many other countries and spoke several languages fluently. Brett and I set out to travel at every opportunity. We hiked on Mount Olympus and explored the alleys of Marrakech. We ate pizza in Slovenia, Italy, and Hungary and couldn’t choose the best. We visited the Museum of Communism in Prague and admired Gaudi’s work in Barcelona. Reading the paper now meant reading about places we had been, countries where we knew people. We visited former students in Serbia and Holland, friends in Dublin and Brussels. After visiting many of the Balkan states, I joined the Balkan Dance group and performed with my smiling students, garbed in traditional dress.

Though I knew I was a long flight from home, the world began to seem smaller to me. I talked to teacher friends in the United States and soon my classes were sharing writing and letters with students in Washington, DC, and Kentucky. I watched them surprise each other as they discovered their lives were set in different scenery but were really not so different. Although, when one DC junior asked in a letter, “Do y’all have a Walmart?” I paused in my reading aloud to look out at a sea of 18 blank faces. Nope.

Two years have passed since that day we first imagined ourselves in Eastern Europe, and again I am trying to visualize possible new schools — except now I am typing “Sun Valley” and “Santa Barbara” into Google images. We face the challenge once more of packing up our lives and finding a new community. Has it been worth all the trouble? The culture shock and paperwork? The barking dogs? Absolutely. We’ve learned about school community and international community, visited 17 different countries, and expanded our teaching with the challenges of a different system. We’ll bring a global perspective to our American classrooms next year, not to mention a more real understanding of the challenges our international students face. We’ll be in a position to lead trips throughout Europe and to set up classroom exchanges between our kids and students in Bulgaria and other European schools. We’ll miss Bulgaria, but maybe someday down the road, we’ll do it all again. Perhaps Thailand next time, or South Africa. We hear great things. 

Brett’s Story

When Betsy said, “I’ll go anywhere in Europe,” I don’t think she had this in mind. Most places in Europe have paved roads with clear signs. They have well-stocked grocery stores and an alphabet that you can at least read, even if you can’t understand it. But this was not most places in Europe. So why Bulgaria? Precisely because it has bad roads and stray dogs. Precisely because there’s bribery and broken glass everywhere. Because, by abandoning the comforts of familiarity, we have become simultaneously teachers and students.

Why should anyone move abroad? First, I will have a more global context for the European history course that I teach. I will have seen Wenceslas Square, where the Czechs bravely resisted Communism during the Prague Spring. I will understand more fully why Istanbul was Constantinople, and whether or not it’s a good idea for Turkey to join the E.U. More importantly, I will have transcended the grand narratives of a textbook and more fully embraced the minutiae of history — like the fact that Bulgaria was the only Nazi ally in Europe not to send its Jews to Germany during World War II, or that Macedonia has belonged to so many different nations in its history that its status is under debate even today. And when I present on Ottoman architecture, I can show photographs of the Blue Mosque that I took in Istanbul, adding depth and texture to the students’ experience.

Second, I will have a greater understanding of my international students. Primarily, I now know that relativism is a central feature of teenagers’ lives outside the U.S. In my course on Postmodernism, I spend considerable time in the U.S. introducing the idea of relativism and its various cousins (post-structuralism, etc.). This can take an entire semester to grasp with any depth. I was surprised here when the concept came naturally to my students. Growing up in a place where six countries are within a day’s drive is different than growing up in a place where it takes six days to drive across the country. Exposure to so many cultures opens one to alternate values and beliefs in a way that is geographically impossible in the United States. And while my American students could understand that, yes, everyone has his or her own truth, I don’t think they could really understand it in the way that my Bulgarian students do. They are not, after all, eating Greek yogurt while taking old French buses on their way to see a Spanish band play. And that yogurt doesn’t have its ingredients listed in five different languages. 

Third, and perhaps most importantly, I will bring a focus on leadership and community building because I now recognize that they are essential to making a country work. We are working with some of the brightest students in Bulgaria, and all they want to do is leave. Corruption breeds a sense of hopelessness among people, and seems to reinforce itself with endless cycles of bribery. My students jokingly offer me money for a grade. But it is only half a joke, because it is the form of negotiation with which they are most intimate. When I once asked a student why he didn’t protest an unfair grade, he said, “Because you wouldn’t have changed it.” This was one of many episodes that convinced me how important a sense of justice is for teenagers to be effective leaders. Building cooperation and trust in my classroom is a revelation for many of my students, but it is essential if they are to have a chance to lead. Modeling a leadership style that is fair and (if I’m lucky) inspirational can give them something to aspire to. I don’t know how they’ll get their foot in the door, or even if they’ll be able to turn this country around. But I can at least give them an alternative to the current course. Being in Bulgaria has forced me to think hard about my leadership style and how I go about developing it in students. 

For as many places as there are in the world, there are an equal number of lessons a teacher can bring back home. Ultimately, it is the very act of changing your life so drastically that is the recipe for growth. Not always pleasant growth. I didn’t enjoy the fact that the government decides when to turn on the country’s heat in the winter, nor did I like standing in line for three hours to register our car, both shades of the Soviet era. But I am now better positioned to debate the pros and cons of centralized government and whether or not President Obama is imposing socialism on the U.S. 

As we prepare to return home, we are coming back to a country facing its own difficulties. It is essential that we teach our students about effective leadership, not to mention show them how relevant a sense of history can be. And this time, despite what happened last time she offered broad parameters, my wife still says, “I’ll go anywhere in the U.S.”

Betsy Potash

Betsy Potash is an educator and writer, currently living in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, with her family.