Do it. The answer given from four very different people to the same question: What would you say to people who want to teach in another country?
“It definitely enhanced my teaching in so many ways,” said David Youkey, a 47-year-old philosophy instructor. “It enhanced my interface with the world.”
Youkey spent several years between traveling between Beijing, Ulaanbaatar, Kathmandu and Boulder teaching philosophy to college students. With a Ph.D. in Philosophy from CU, Youkey had 10 years of teaching experience before he left for the International College of Beijing in 1999.
“I was just excited about travel,” he said. “To have a job teaching Chinese students was just so cool.”
Youkey said his travels led him to a deeper understanding of the cultures he lived in as well as the classrooms in which he worked.
“The students themselves were one of my objects of research,” he said. “I hung out with students. In all of these societies, the student-teacher relationship is really important.”
Griffin Colegrove, a 27-year-old studying for his master’s in education at CU, said he had a similar experience in Mexico.
“I got to learn so much about people there,” Colegrove said. “The more people you meet from other places, the more you realize we’re very alike.”
Colegrove taught students at Colegio Inglés in Torreon, Mexico for a full year in 2006. He said his time in Mexico provided personal reflection as well as challenges.
“When you do something like that, you’re challenging yourself and making yourself uncomfortable, which teaches you about who you are,” he said. “It’s the best school you can go to. The school of life. The school of hard knocks.”
Youkey said there are definitely some universal challenges in the classroom, but also opportunities.
“You always have serious students and you always have slackers,” he said. “With the serious students, you can plug them into the world of ideas, everywhere.”
For Nate Reaven, a 22-year-old also studying for his master’s in education at CU, said the differences between his teaching experiences in China and the U.S. taught him an important lesson in flexibility.
“You have to be as flexible as possible because things are going to get messed up more frequently than you can ever imagine,” Reaven said. “I think that’s great preparation for the education world.”
In the summer of 2009, he joined a leadership program with the Orbis Institute and traveled to Zhenzhou, China where he spent a month teaching English.
“I think it opened up my eyes to see the differences in education culturally,” Reaven said. “It really helped me try and develop strategies to reach kids more based on their learning styles than general strategies that work with the medium.”
Colegrove said teaching in a different culture provides you with a useful perspective. He said his experience in Mexico directly applies to his teaching in the U.S. and made him appreciate the struggles of minority students.
“Down there, nearly everyone is not a native speaker of English,” Colegrove said. “It’s so transferable, because there are so many students in schools in the U.S. like that. It makes you think about what you take for granted.”
Jenna Novaral, also studying for her master’s at CU, said she had a similarly empathic experience in Daegu, South Korea in 2007.
“It definitely impacted what I’m doing now in my master’s program, especially working with ESL students,” Novaral said. “I was a non-native speaker in Korea. I got a sense of what it was like to live in a country where you’re expected to know the language and it directed me to the specific population of students I wanted to work with.”
Novaral applied for the Fulbright U.S. Student Program in her senior year of undergraduate study. This scholarship funded her entire year in South Korea and provided her with an opportunity to experience the country of her birth, as she was adopted and moved to the U.S. at 3 months old.
Novaral said she believes variety in teaching experience is important for all teachers.
“The teaching force right now and for many, many years has been about 90 percent white, female, middle-class, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant,” Novaral said. “There is a huge cultural mismatch in terms of a lot of the classrooms these teachers are stepping into. I think that’s important, to be able to work with different students and people who have different experiences.”
Reaven said he agrees that an international teaching experience can be valuable, even to non-teachers.
“It’s an experience that even if you fail miserably, it’ll still be the experience of a lifetime,” Reaven said. “Knowing that, it’s impossible to turn down.”
Despite the many different struggles and motivations for these teachers, they all agree on one thing: The positive experience of expanding your mind through travel.
“We’re citizens of the world and we need to recognize that,” Youkey said. “The more world experience you get, the better you are going to be as a human being.”
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Emma Castleberry at Emma.firstname.lastname@example.org.