Well, that’s it. The school year is a wrap. The proverbial fat lady has bellowed her anticipated melody. It’s pretty wild. It seems like just yesterday I was hopping on the Hello Kitty-themed plane in Chicago and taking to the international skies for the first time. I’ve flown a lot in the past 11 months, but time has flown even more.
I still have a lot to learn here, but I finally feel like I’ve finally gotten my bearings, understand what’s up, and want to talk about it.
Instead of just rambling about absolutely everything that’s happened, here are the top five differences between working here and living back home.
1. There’s Way Less BS
This might sound like hyperbole, but I’m pretty confident that in my years teaching in the US I spent more time worrying about paperwork, test prep, and bureaucratic nonsense than I did actually worrying about how to most effectively transfer knowledge from my brain to my students’. Not only did I have to do the normal teacher stuff, like planning all of my lessons and grading, but I was responsible for a ludicrous amount of unpaid “professional development” hours, designing and re-designing ways to prepare students for standardized tests every few months that had very little academic value or real word application, and filling out yearly professional growth documents that were, at best, a poor use my time. That’s all gone now, and I feel like I’m actually doing my job the way it was meant to be done. With the exception of some lesson plan documentation, which will at least benefit future teachers, all the fat has been trimmed. Standardized tests are few and far between. Professional development is brief and focused. My time is spent honing my lessons, and the results have been a better learning experience for my students and much better mental moral for me. I’m going to have a really, really hard time going back.
2. Smaller Class Sizes Really Do Make the Difference
I’m not a math teacher, but let’s do some basic calculations. Let’s say that every time I assign a standard piece of formative writing work in class it takes me 60 seconds per piece to grade (and let’s be honest, if it’s something that takes you less than 60 seconds to grade, are you really giving the students meaningful feedback?). Let’s say every summative essay takes me about 5 minutes, though that’s definitely on the low end of reasonable. In the US, my class sizes averaged right about 30, with a high of 33 and low of 28. Here, my classes range from 14 to 24. That means I’m responsible for 150 and 107 respectively. It doesn’t seem like a lot, but it’s 45 minutes of grading less PER DAY on in-class work and a whopping three and a half hours less time grading every time there’s a summative. Given there isn’t enough time in a teacher’s actual working hours to get this done, that’s a lot of my personal time saved, and that does wonders for morale and a healthy work-life balance.
Furthermore, fewer students in class mean a better relationship with each one. I know each student better, I can keep track of student work and progress in class better, and I can manage classroom behavior better. There’s literally no downside. Again, I’ll have an extremely hard time going back to the gargantuan class sizes schools in the US deem appropriate.
3. I Don’t Have Behavior Issues
To be a teacher in the US you’ve got to have thick skin. Teachers get yelled at, insulted, questioned, and deliberately roadblocked by students every day, and it can make the most dedicated of personalities question if it’s all even worth it. I’ve been there. I don’t have a very hard time brushing it off, but it’s not like I look forward to 16-year-olds telling me to f-off either. That doesn’t happen here. Even my “worst” students draw the line at talking out of turn once in awhile, and verbally insulting me isn’t something anyone’s even tiptoed towards. Part of it’s the culture of the country. Teachers are respected, and children are expected to respect their elders. Some of it’s the school. This is a private school that parents are paying as much as my college tuition for their kids to attend, and if they’re misbehaving we don’t have to just give them a slap on the wrist and send them back to class. Enrollment is limited, we don’t need to keep kids with bad attitudes, and everyone knows it.
This extends past basic courtesy to academic behavior as well. I of course still have students not doing as well as I’d like because that’s just how things are, but I can count on one hand the number of late or missing assignments I’ve had between all my classes, all year. It’s 3 or 4. In the US, I kid you not, my late/missing homework rates were somewhere around 30 percent, and I don’t even assign homework. I constantly had kids not turn in classwork, essays, and even final exams. It’s nice to know that if I ask kids to do something, they’re going to do it.
4. Exotic Travel Means a Healthy Work/Life Balance
Before I moved abroad I’d only completed four years of teaching, but I was already burnt out. It’s not that I had any real beef with where I was working, but I was already over it. I felt like I was stuck in a rut that I wouldn’t be able to leave for 30 years and that I’d made a mistake in my career choice. I actively looked for employment in other fields. Most of this is because teaching takes up such an insane amount of time outside of the actually paid hours that I felt like my life consisted of nothing but work and sleep.
Travel changed a lot of that. I’ve always heard how bloated airline prices are in the States, but I never really understood just how abhorrent they are until moving somewhere else. in Wisconsin it’s pretty impossible to get anywhere vastly different in a weekend. Don’t get me wrong, heading up north is great, but it only gets you so far. Being in SE Asia, where roundtrip airfare to a number of different countries is un 200 bucks, a change of scenery is doable in just a few days. Even a flight of two hours gets you somewhere with a completely different culture and way of life, and being able to get away like that does a lot to reinvigorate morale. Being in a new spot means that even staying in the country offers exciting opportunities for mid-week adventures. With dozens of worthwile destinations within a 2-hour drive radius, boredom isn’t really an issue. I’m much more mentally healthy teaching in Myanmar than I was in the US, and a big part of that is the ability to experience something new every day instead of spending five days a week waiting for the other two to come.
BONUS: SIMILARITY: Kids are Kids
Of course, not everything is different. If you walked into my classroom with a blindfold and a machine that removed the accents from their voices, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you were listening to a bunch of little Americans. It’s not that expected any specific differences between the fundamental core of who my students were between nations, but I thought there’d be something. After all, are there any two nations more different than the States and Myanmar? Between terrible jokes, memes, discussion of the next big phone or video game, and thinly veiled attempts at awkward flirtation, you’d never know these kids are living in a nation with active war zones that only recently escaped the oppressive thumb of a decades-long dictatorship. I’ve got my class clowns. I’ve got my try-hards. I’ve got my just-skating-bys. The only thing that I don’t really have are the “I hate school and everyone connected to it” people, which is a welcome improvement. It’s amazing how personality and senses of humor transcend through even the kids with a lesser grasp of English. This really shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did.