When I got the email stating I’d be interviewed on the morning of Thanksgiving, it took me a second to realize that this is something that might happen often: that teaching in another country includes a host of new experiences, but it also changes those with which I’m familiar. After searching for a position for the last several years, however, I was excited to finally find a school whose mission and vision matched my own -- and not just me as a teacher, but also me as a mom to my two school-age daughters. This school focuses on building “conscious consumers,” “divergent thinkers,” and “change agents.” The mere fact that this school used that vocabulary surprised and excited me. I was offered the position a few days later, with a start date just six weeks away. I learned that the school was operating a middle and high school program that was in it's second year of operation, but wanted to expand to offer an elementary program. Helping to develop and run that program would be my role, as well as being the lead teacher.
Looking back on those six weeks as we prepared to leave our Washington home (closing out my teaching contract, selling the car, renting out our house, finding someone to store the family piano, posting everything on Craigslist and donating the rest...) I am not sure how we managed to do everything while also preparing to live in Costa Rica, a country we had never visited that spoke a language we did not know. I kept reminding myself that this was exactly what we had been planning for so many years and now that the opportunity presented itself the work to “get there” was done, we simply had to reach out and grab it. So, we did.
When I arrived for the first time in what would be my new school, a tiny private school in a small beach town on the Pacific side, I first noticed the completely bare shelves where books wanted to be. I then noticed the saturated colors of the paint on the tables that were either much too high or much too low. I felt the cold rigidity of the tile floors and I heard my voice echo off the cement walls. I learned that the school directors did not have elementary experience other than as parents and were looking for guidance to direct their passion for socially-just education systems and vision for community-based schooling. I was hired to provide that guidance. Before I could even envision this type of instruction, I needed to figure out how to create a space for community, an environment for caring, cooperation, and learning.
I thought back through the conversations I had had about the space and the program design and I did not “see” what the school director had relayed to me. In this position, I was taking over for a woman who had helped to develop the program’s initial launch, but soon realized I could build off little of what she had established. She was not a teacher, had no training or experience creating or directing an elementary program. I would need to structure this entire elementary program from the bottom up in just two days before the students would arrive back from Summer break on January 8th -- a daunting, but simultaneously exciting task. Thinking back on the nine years of the non-teaching aspects of my profession in the United States, I often lamented that it would be so much easier if everyone would just. let. me. teach. Now here I was, with 14 students, an educational assistant, and all the freedom to create as I pleased. I was about to find out if my thoughts about what would make our profession easier were true.
My goal was to build a socially-just, multicultural elementary program. The freedom, I discovered, was also the challenge: I was starting from scratch. In this community, there was no baggage, no history, nothing to learn from, or lean on, or heal from. This was unchartered territory for me. I wasn't working in a "turn-around school" as I had in the past, there wasn't a community of teachers trying to build trust after a damaging principal, nor was I working with a team trying to apply best practice research to a new demographic. The instruction, indeed, the institution itself, was mine to set. I realized I could choose the standards, build curriculum, design the reporting documents as well as decide how our school would measure progress… the potential was almost paralyzing.
I went into super-human mode in the short 48 hours I had before students arrived, taking those two days to backwards map the entire year beginning with the selection of standards, then creating assessment models, followed by reporting documents and schedules, and finally moved on to a scope and sequence. I developed key essential questions to guide instruction and have been relying on online resources for everything as I develop our units -- SO thankful for educators who share freely and frequently for without them I’d be lost!
I initially felt a lot of guilt when my family and I made the decision to move to Costa Rica for this opportunity. Trump would be inaugurated shortly and I knew the storm we were in as social-justice educators was only going to become worse. Was I fleeing for selfish self-preservation? Was I running away in an act of avoidance and privilege? Was I allowing myself to be pushed out, was I being pulled in, or, perhaps, both? These questions continued to plague me until I recently found some respite. I follow Brittany Packnett, an educator, innovator, writer, speaker, and activist, on Twitter who recently tweeted an amazing thread about the resistance: "We have two hands: One is to battle, one is to build." I now see this journey through a new lens: while my CRREW colleagues are back in Seattle battling, I am here in Costa Rica building. I believe it's possible to simultaneously hold two truths in my mind: that I left the US in an act of self-preservation and privilege, and, I am using my privilege to create something beautiful, meaningful, and powerful. I believe I can be the hand that builds here -- to grow and learn and work to build something that is truly revolutionary for education.
It's been six weeks since the day I first walked in to this school and started this journey; my team and I have accomplished a great deal in that time and I will be blogging about it here on the CRREW blog over the next four months as we build this school together. Stay tuned and root for us!