In preparing to teach in Eastern Europe I bought a balaclava. I stockpiled the head covering with the long underwear and sock liners I purchased to fend off my anxiety about the region’s blizzards. But the Ice Age I imagined never arrived. Instead, I enjoyed a mild Bulgarian winter while reading on Facebook about the snowy cold near my Northeastern US home.
Before leaving I created fears that didn’t materialize. I channeled my energy into projects like fretting endlessly over my syllabus.
I learned that my skills are transferable and what I didn’t know could be learned or improvised. The experience was also a powerful reminder of the essential role of a knowledgeable and patient professional network in helping me succeed.*
“Why Bulgaria?” people had asked. Simply, I was joining my Fulbright Scholar partner at the American University in Bulgaria (AUBG). Fortunately, the school needed my subject expertise. The university’s “American-style” academic model eased the transition with recognizable touchstones, from the learning management system to the cafeteria’s vegan entrees. Though American, I was not entirely “foreign” to my students either. Unbeknownst to me, many spend summers working in resorts like Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. And, although Bulgaria is off the radar to many people here in the States, the culture is in many ways familiar. Even still, I would be far from the people and things that mattered.
What I Know Now
I had fantasized about working overseas many times. But when the dream became a reality I needed a plan to accommodate the altered work and social contexts. If you've ever thought about teaching abroad, the short answer is that it’s rewarding. But it helps to keep a few key sanity-saving strategies in mind. Here are some ideas I wished I’d understood before I left.
1. Keep Moving.
While I was abroad I rarely thought about home. Instead, I worked. It was only after I returned home that I realized the long days were a support mechanism. Focusing on others, an essential component of teaching anyway, anchored me.
Being away from daily routines and long-time relationships meant more free time. That, combined with having my own private office—unusual for adjuncts I know in the USA —provided the opportunity and space to connect with students. Individual conversations let me focus on the most enjoyable part of teaching: learning about new people. It’s also the best way to get a read on the class as well as provide individualized instruction.
2. Seek Comrades. I like to talk shop. I enjoyed many “Big Ideas” conversations with colleagues, philosophizing about The Academy. The instructors I met there, like peers at home, worried about their own classroom performance and their students. We bonded over concerns about how the demanding students and those who prefer partying to school will fare in the “real world.” We shared techniques to sharpen the next generation’s writing and critical thinking skills. We found commonality in discussing the influence of social media and communication devices in the classroom. These shared interests gave me a starting point that crossed cultural barriers. It may have also signaled my commitment to the students and to the school.
As a visiting instructor, I was not only interested in learning faculty perspectives; I was also reliant on their experience in navigating new terrain. Suddenly, all the rules of getting by in the world were different. Learning how to work legally, finding housing, and reviewing the appropriateness of my text, had to be carefully considered with the help of my new colleagues. Having the support of a savvy organization accustomed to managing international staff was incredibly important, which never occurred to me until I was overseas.
3. Assume the Best.
It’s difficult to have a grasp of your students’ true capacity until you’re in front of the group. Distance and international boundaries exacerbate that fact.
It’s easier to start with high expectations for the classroom and adjust if needed, giving the brightest and hardest working a goal to reach for and strugglers a path to follow. There’s much back and forth everywhere about whether native and non-native speakers should be evaluated with the same standards. At an American university, wherever it’s located, I expect students to do what’s assigned regardless of their mother tongue.
Lightening the load by removing tasks allows students time to catch up when needed. I also added ungraded project check-ins, like requiring students to submit a bibliography for review before I read their papers. These changes required fluidity. But the alternative of adding more work if I’d underestimated capabilities is a losing proposition.
4. Challenge Convention. “The students here are resigned,” a German exchange student replied when I asked about his experience at the school. It’s unfair to paint the campus with one brush, especially because of its international student body. Yet I too noticed stoicism in my majority-Bulgarian classrooms. In fact the nation’s young people often emigrate in search of opportunities abroad, making it “the fastest-shrinking population in the world.”
My class appeared skeptical about their country’s capacity for social change. Bulgaria, for example, placed last on Transparency International’s regional Corruption Perceptions Index. The students were certain this phenomenon was immutable and scoffed at efforts to end corruption. After a classroom discussion about the nation’s media monopoly a Russian—no stranger to media monopolies-- expressed surprise that his Bulgarian classmates reported the situation matter-of-factly. He marveled over their lack of outrage about the situation.
As an outsider with a short-term appointment, I felt freer than I do at home to make waves. Supported by likeminded school leaders, I challenged the sense of resignation. I realized the students’ pessimism blinded them to local organizations who were addressing social ills. I made a side project of inviting change-makers to meet with students, hoping that a spotlight on these independent individuals would kindle hope and spark action.
The Unknown Unknowns
What made my experience abroad the most uncomfortable and the most rewarding were the unknowns. With the support of my AUBG peers, I did things I hadn’t considered before.
On the surface, the differences were vast. The reality was closer than I imagined. The experience was at times uncomfortable. But I came back stronger, and even more likely to encourage other teachers to do the same.
*Warm waves of gratitude to my American University in Bulgaria colleagues: You made my life better.
Photo credit: Diane Rubino