Packing for Success: How to Establish a Teaching Abroad Experience
Originally published in TEACH Magazine, May/June 2019 Issue
By Dr. Christine L. Cho and Dr. Julie K. Corkett
The idea of travel evokes excitement for some and trepidation for others. A successful trip usually involves some degree of planning, as well as the ability to manage expectations and deal with the unknown. Earlier this year, as university teacher education professors, we ran a three-week community leadership experience (CLE) for sixteen soon-to-be teachers enrolled in our Bachelor of Education program.
The purpose of offering a CLE is to provide opportunities for teacher candidates to apply their teaching skills in a self-directed, non-traditional community setting to broaden their practical knowledge. Our teacher candidates were about to embark not only on a professional journey, but also an actual journey, to teach abroad. Our destination—France!
France is a country rich in history, with charming towns and vibrant cities. Synonymous with wine, cheese, and great cuisine, France is a wonderful destination for many travellers. We were headed for Angers (in the Loire Valley), a beautiful and welcoming eco-friendly city with a very young vibe and a historic city-centre. A highlight of the city is the Château d’Angers founded by the Counts of Anjou in the 9th century. Along with the draw of freshly baked croissants and Paris fashion, we set out to provide a teaching experience that would encourage risk-taking and, hopefully, open-mindedness.
When we asked our teacher candidates why they wanted to teach in France for three weeks, some told us that they had considered teaching abroad after graduation and this seemed like a safe way to test the waters. Many had a working knowledge of French and wanted to improve their competency. Some wanted to travel, but not by themselves. Some had never travelled before and this seemed like a great way to begin. Regardless of their reasons for coming, we found that the teacher candidates returned with increased confidence in themselves and in their capabilities. For them, this was a “trip of a lifetime.”
Taking teacher candidates to France was a new CLE for our university and, as it was our initiative, we had to do a lot of ground work that started well over a year prior to getting the project up and running. There were many initial factors to consider:
- Location: as primarily English speakers coming from a bilingual country, we wanted a safe place where teacher candidates could practice Canada’s second official language, French.
- Schools: we needed to find suitable “host schools” for our teacher candidates that were within walking distance from our hotel, and that had teachers who would permit our teacher candidates to teach small group and whole class lessons.
- Accommodations: we wanted clean, self-contained hotel-type accommodations that teacher candidates could share.
- Affordability: we wanted to make most of the arrangements ourselves to reduce third-party costs (i.e. booking the hotels, arranging ground transportation, and establishing the partnerships with schools, etc.) and make it cost-effective for our teacher candidates.
- Experiences: we wanted our teacher candidates to be able to see neighbouring cities, spend some time in Paris, and visit Versailles.
Our biggest challenges establishing the CLE were, first, finding host schools and, second, securing budget-friendly accommodations for the final part of our trip—Paris. Assistance came in an unexpected and remarkable way: through the American Field Services (AFS) intercultural programs.
AFS works in conjunction with the Canadian Education Exchange Foundation (CEEF) that offers two- and three-month exchange programs, primarily for high school students. Although we had no contacts in France—which is why finding host schools was such an obstacle for us—we did at CEEF. Luckily the foundation was able to connect us with AFS France to see if they might be of assistance. While they had never done anything like this before, it was AFS who ultimately recommended Angers, and volunteers from that organization were the ones who selected the schools and arranged for our site visits.
Our second dilemma was also solved by an AFS recommendation. We were able to obtain accommodations in Paris at a youth hostel that was situated mere blocks from the Notre-Dame cathedral. Fortunately, we were able to visit the site just before tragedy struck earlier this year. The location and budget-friendly costs meant our teacher candidates had four days in Paris. We were even able to include a day trip to Versailles.
From the outset, our goal was to provide an experience that would encourage open-mindedness, independence, and risk-taking. Also, we knew the teacher candidates would have to handle some adversity in order to realize their own capabilities, not only as teachers in the classroom, but also as travellers and tourists.
Our teacher candidates had to acclimatize quickly after arriving in France. We wanted them to have as much time as possible in their host schools, and the journey is long from Toronto to Angers. In addition to the flight, we had another three-and-a-half hour bus ride from the Paris airport to our hotel in Angers. The first evening we took the teacher candidates on a walk to show them where their schools were located, as well as some highlights of the town. We did not have a lot of time as they were starting at their schools bright and early the next morning. This meant the teacher candidates had a lot of discovering to do on their own, such as:
- Navigating a town that was new to them. This also meant developing their mapping skills.
- Eating new foods and navigating the grocery store (we chose to stay in a hotel with kitchenettes to reduce food costs).
- Functioning in an additional language: French.
- Learning first-hand about another culture and adjusting to a different pace.
While most of the teacher candidates had been able to contact their host teachers via email before we left, there were still a lot of unknowns—for them and for us. We had met some of the teacher hosts on our previous reconnaissance trip, but only for a brief amount of time. Back then we hadn’t even known if we’d been approved for the project.
For some teachers the first day was chaotic, while others had a smoother transition. Our schools varied in size as well as with their previous exposure to hosting teacher candidates. Three of our four schools had new principals, so the people we had met the previous year—the ones who had agreed to host us—were no longer there. At some points we were just as nervous as our teacher candidates who were also managing the many unknown factors. Thankfully, we were able to place four teacher candidates in each school so nobody was alone.
A lot of learning occurred on our inaugural CLE to France. Through this intercultural experience we have gained a deeper understanding of the French school systems, both public and private. Our teacher candidates will be able to take their newfound self-reliance into the teaching profession this fall. And going forward, the two of us will be able to proceed with greater confidence as well. We now have a better understanding of the partner schools with whom we will be working, the structure of the school days, and the teachers’ expectations for our teacher candidates. Likewise, the local teachers in Angers have a better understanding of what we’re seeking from this CLE experience.
We are cautiously optimistic that our university will approve the same trip for next February. This will give us a chance to refine the experience and expose a new group of future teachers to the incredible learning that teaching abroad can offer: higher expectations for student behaviour, strategies for working with English language learners, and the joy that can be found from moving out of your comfort zone and learning in a new environment.
Dr. Christine L. Cho is an award-winning educator at Nipissing University’s Schulich School of Education. Prior to that, she was an elementary and intermediate teacher in Ontario, Canada, for over a decade.
Dr. Julie K. Corkett is currently a tenured Associate Professor at the Schulich School of Education. She has also worked as an intermediate and high school teacher.