Many years ago, I asked a Michigan state legislator to join a national board advocating for increased civic education and enhanced service-learning in schools throughout the nation. That state legislator, Doug Hart, accepted my invitation and made great contributions to our organization, schools and students for several years. Fast-forward a few years and Doug and his family’s journey has expanded well beyond the borders of Michigan and the US.
Doug lived and worked in Ramallah from 2005 to 2006 at the Ramallah Friends School (an American based Quaker institution); in Slovakia from 2006 to 2007 working at Galileo school; in Oman from to 2009 to 2012 working in The Sultan’s School; and in Prague from 2012 to the present working in Riverside International School.
Carolyn, Doug’s wife, served as an Early Years Teacher’s Assistant at The Sultan’s School and again at Riverside School. However, in 2015, Carolyn accepted an Early Years teaching position at a vibrant international school in Prague called Green Tree where she currently works.
Several years ago we visited with Doug and his family in Prague to learn about their experiences and the impact it has had on their lives. Since that time Doug and I have shared our activities, strategies and aspirations focusing on how schools can provide the highest-quality education experience for students to gain academic, social-emotional and civic competencies. What we have discovered is that there are many benefits to taking risks, exploring other countries and making a life that is engaging in every way.
Here is a little more about Doug and his family including what they have learned from living abroad and implications for education, citizenship and self-identity.
The Hart family’s first overseas experience was in the West Bank that came about from some work Doug was doing with a nonprofit in Ramallah that connected him with a school there. He was seeking to move from his work in public policy to really get back to working directly with students. He was offered a position in a school in Ramallah and the family conducted a risk assessment that favored moving and taking on this adventure and doing good. They fell in love with living overseas finding it exciting in every way and stimulating to their two young children. Their son Justin was 5 and daughter Anya was 2. According to their Palestinian friends, Justin was fluently speaking Arabic without accent when they left Ramallah. Currently, Justin can speak some French (after several years of classes) and Anya can speak some Spanish.
According to Doug, he and his family were “ready” to take on the challenge of living abroad as “we wanted our children to have an identity beyond a nation state. Have a sense of affinity with others and a kinship with people of the world – humanity-. We have now lived in several different countries and celebrate different holidays, live with people who live and look different, understand different religions and see the humanity in everyone.”
As part of the initial risk assessment Doug and his family examined economic mobility but from a downward perspective trading material goods for diverse life experiences. “We have never regretted our decisions and only look back at the richness of our lives in other countries. We were also willing to take on the risks of not knowing everything we would encounter but also not knowing all the great benefits of living abroad.”
According to Doug “We have found that there are a lot of good schools in other nations and that they provide safe environments for diverse students to learn, engage and acquire knowledge and skills.” In addition, Doug believes there is a lot the US can learn from schools in other nations including how to (1) ensure equity among students from diverse backgrounds; (2) build on students’ experiences, interests and strengths; and (3) create and sustain engaging learning environments.
Doug provides the following advice to individuals and families considering moving and working abroad:
- Do not base decisions on the news
- Do serious exploration of opportunities and potential challenges
- Feel free to consider places you do not know much about
- Know that differences leads to awareness and the opportunity to learn about humanity
- Be willing to test your assumptions about the world and about yourself
Likewise Doug identified the following challenges of living and working abroad:
- Lack of economic security
- Being away from extended family
- Third culture kids challenges (i.e., children raised in a culture other than their parents’ (or the culture of the country given on the child’s passport, where they are legally considered native) for a significant part of their early development years
- Sense of unrootedness
Upon reflection, Doug indicated that there are not many things he and his family would do differently, but did encourage teachers considering such a move to ensure they keep their certification active to ensure they qualify for school positions.
He further shared that there is no place they regret going to either to work or to explore. Once engaged in a journey across borders many opportunities arise that yield many positive experiences and chances for each of the family members to develop.
Finally, Doug shared that his worldview has changed since they left Michigan for Ramallah in August 2005. He self identifies as an internationalist committed to a view of the world first and how decisions impact the world, rather than confined to a view of impacts on a single nation. He is less inclined to stereotype individuals, groups and nations and very willing to explore how people think and act and how nations govern themselves than centering on preconceptions that are too often misconceptions. And he has learned that nations can develop national health care programs that serve all citizens without conflicting with a healthy economy.
Traveling abroad is not for everyone and working abroad for an extended period of time is less attractive to many. Engaging the unknown takes courage and risks and requires a comprehensive risk assessment to prepare for a journey in foreign countries. The opportunities available are also unknown but as individuals and families, such as the Hart family, embracing the journey surfaces bountiful opportunities.
We do not have to cross international borders to expand our horizons and deepen our learning, we can be bold and seek out and create opportunities that challenge us, require taking risks and make us initially uncomfortable in our local area. As our nation increases its diversity, expanding our boundaries enhances our learning and increases our attributes to be successful now and in the future.