I credit a wonderful friend for turning me on to International School Services. I followed a curiosity about working overseas to an ISS job fair in San Francisco and was contacted there by the headmaster of a brand new state of the art high school in Istanbul, Turkey: Would I join their team as Dean of Students and to teach a class of English? Now I had Italy and France on the brain, Turkey was not on my radar. However, after two weeks of research and fun skyping with teachers at the school, I accepted the job. Six months later I was moving to Turkey, sight unseen, with 13 suitcases, a piano keyboard, guitar, and my adorable lhasa apso poodle mix dog named Mr. Happy.
This opportunity for a completely unusual adventure was surrealistic and filled with glee. I so looked forward to meeting the students and faculty, and becoming part of the Istanbul lifestyle. I was given a generous send off by family, friends, my church, and only felt some anxiety — like “what am I DOING?” — when I was about to board Turkish Airlines for the 13-hour flight and 10-hour time change. However, Mr. Happy and I had the most luxurious flight on Turkish Air, beginning with Turkish delight candy and then sharing salmon and rice and movies. Flying on Turkish Air is one of my favorite things now.
Arriving in Istanbul, as part of my contract, I was given the most cozy two bedroom apartment in Uskudar on the Asian side of the Bosporus, with windows facing south so I always had delightful sunshine and the sweetest view of colorful homes across the cobblestone street. The apartment was in a secure compound housing teachers from my school and another high school. We had friendly and professional security guards, and my team of teachers were bussed each day about 30 minutes east to our school in the countryside. My office had a view of hills and my classroom had a view that stretched for miles to the west, a herd of wild horses often appeared, and the sky was especially gorgeous when it snowed.
Students are students everywhere, and I was dean of 181 amazing Turkish teens who stole my heart and made me laugh every day. There were two young men who were always so precise in their work, their heads bowed together over projects, clean cut and polite and all-around dedicated students. I joked one time saying, “I am going to call you the Kennedys, Jack and Robert.” They knew their history, and their faces lit up with that remark that they took as the high compliment intended. The students were simply amazing. One day one of the horses below our window looked clearly in distress. It laid down on the ground and one of the sweet girls in my class who was normally passive, stood up and took charge. She asked for permission to “do something” and I said yes. She got on her cell phone and made some calls and within an hour there was a team of men with a hoist lifting the horse off the ground and taking it to care. I was so proud to be her teacher.
The system for getting a work visa and settling in to Istanbul was carefully managed by the school. This is an important aspect of taking a job overseas, to ensure that you are working with a school that has a tradition of managing paperwork and resources that allow you time to adapt in the first weeks in a foreign environment, especially when you do not know the local language. My school provided the warmest welcome with an evening cruise on the Bosporus and visits to major tourist attractions.
I made one misjudgment in that I assumed that a foreign school hires Americans to help bring American educational ideas to their programs. I learned that more often than not, you are expected to fit into existing programs and adapt. This may vary from school to school and something you should always ask about before accepting a position.
I served on an administrative team of four leaders, we had productive and fun weekly meetings as we addressed school and student issues, and supported the new school to successful IB certification. Most of the Turkish faculty spoke English. There are not many schools in this world, I am sure, where you are luxuriously served tea by a kind waitress dressed in white during administrative meetings!
The advantages of working in Turkey included a cost of living that was about 1/3 of the expense in the USA. For example, cell phone service cost about $20/month, and when I finally decided to get cable TV, I had the best assortment of channels with a full range of American and foreign movies in English and very funny Turkish sitcoms, for about $20/month. The same service would easily cost four times that in America. Travel to anywhere in Europe cost an average of $140 US round trip. If you stay in a hostel or Airbnb, and traveling all over Europe is a breeze and very inexpensive. In one year I traveled to France (twice), Italy, Greece, Germany, England, Portugal, Spain, and of course, Turkey.
The hidden and unexpected problem of overseas teaching is how culture shock can creep in without warning. When so many things are opposite of what you are used to, at some point your brain might not cope so well. Culture shock is common and I saw it in myself and other new teachers. Schools that have support for foreign teachers should include some professional development on this issue, so that people recognize it for what it is. It might sound silly, but after months of things like doors and windows and even notebook paper and pencils being different, not to mention the language and customs and holidays and streets and smells, etc., you might find yourself with unusual symptoms. Now some take to drinking under these circumstances; not me! I just got dizzy! A trip to London at spring break where I could hear my own language for awhile was very healing, not to mention seeing Matthew Perry’s new play and getting his photo as he left the theatre.
Alas, the school year 2015-2016 was the year violence in Istanbul began to escalate beyond anything predictable. There were numerous suicide bombings in the city and in Ankara, as well as right near my Christian church, then the airport was attacked, and the coup attempt on July 15th provoked the government to policies that altered the democracy I had entered. I had planned to stay in Turkey indefinitely, as it is a gorgeous country with adorable people, but realized this adventure had to end.
So I would say, spend a year in a country before you do what I did — set up a complete home — as I gave away a lot of things I thought I would be using for many years to fly back to the states. Hey, there was an Ikea and the Grand Bazaar! But what I gained was something there is no price tag for, as Istanbul stole my heart, and the memories of my year there are so rich and vivid and treasured like gold.
I hope you can find a great overseas position in a country that you come to love, because seeing the world from a different perspective while immersing yourself in a school culture and experience, is like spices for the soul, spices spread out in neat piles waiting for you to inhale in a way that reaches all of your senses, and thus, is never forgotten.
There are a number of agencies that support overseas jobs for educators. Do your research, read online reviews for overseas schools, and make sure to skype with prospective colleagues before packing your suitcases. You may want to travel more lightly than I did, of course. Good luck, have a safe and wonderful adventure!