being a teacher

Freedom in Western Escapes

“No pictures! No pictures!” he shouts as he frantically waves his hands and approaches me.

“Just my snorkelling gear. No people!” In affirming the subject of my photo, I'm hoping to assuage his anxiety.

“No camera. No camera.” His curls are tousled from swimming in the sea and then drying in the warm breeze. With continued hand and head gesticulations he blocks any view of his wife and child as if to protect them from my evil intent.

I’ve just created the ideal scene: my fins, mask and snorkel artistically arranged on a rock ledge with the Red Sea stretching out behind. The snorkel gear would be in focus and the rocks and sea would be a blurry nostalgic background. It was to be the perfect reminder of this glorious day. 

Just hours before, the snorkel gear enabled me to slide into the refreshing waters of the Red Sea and discover, just steps away from the beach where we swam, a pristine coral reef alive with diverse and colourful marine life. Floating there and looking down 25 meters along the reef through the clear waters into the undersea world was a true escape from the heat, humidity, cement, rubble, constantly humming air conditioners, and rules of my new life. 

But here this agitated man is reminding me of more rules! I can’t even take a picture of snorkelling gear? I gather my items, without taking the picture, and stow them under the straw beach umbrella where my husband snoozes in his reclining lounge chair.

Later I notice the large “no video or still photography” signs accompanied with an image of a camera marked through with an “X”. I’m glad I didn’t insist on clicking the button on my camera for that one shot.

We are all guests at a private beach. We women have entered the premises wearing our abayas. However, once inside the gates, we immediately remove them. At other locations where women are allowed to swim, we would be required to wear head-to-toe swimming attire. But not here. We swim and enjoy the beach as we would anywhere else in the world. All afternoon families lounge, swim, and eat together in total relaxation. There are sounds of joy coming from the beach and bursts of laughter from groups seated in lounge chairs or around tables scattered throughout the property. 

It is a sense of freedom I have never before appreciated. But it is also a special privilege and no one wants official documentation of it. In all fairness, my frenetic opponent did not want his (or his family’s) picture from this location to be made public in any way. 

The burning heat on the backs of my legs (as I did not anticipate spending so much time floating on the water due to stupendous snorkelling and did not properly apply sunscreen) serves to remind me of the magnificent escape at the surface of the Red Sea this afternoon. And coming home I take a picture of my snorkelling gear on the floor of my house. Not the same but it’s the best I have. Images of vibrant coral, brilliant Bullethead Parrotfish,  pendulous Masked Puffer fish along with a host of other dazzling creatures observed today flutter through my mind. Those relaxing, peaceful moments on the sea are recollections that stay with me long into the night.

It makes me reflect on freedom. What does it mean to me to be free? Today, to me it means being able to act as I am accustomed within my cultural norms and within the laws of the land. Then, I am free.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS: Wearing the abaya

It is a law in Saudi Arabia that all women are properly covered when in public. For local women this means wearing a robe, or abaya, and a head scarf, or hijab. Of westerners in Jeddah it is required that we wear only the abaya.  This has been explained and well-outlined to me before we signed contracts to teach in this country. My husband has been given a robe to deliver to me with instructions to put on the abaya before exiting the plane in Saudi Arabia.

In cities throughout the world fully covered (i.e. abaya and hijab) Muslim women outside their country of origins can be seen. Thus, my expectation was to find, at the gate in New York, before boarding the plane to Jeddah, that most of the women would be covered with both abaya and hijab.

However, there are only a handful of woman wearing both abaya and hijab. Many more women are are wearing “normal clothes” i.e. a pair of pants and a shirt accompanied with a hijab. A young mother in jeans and a t-shirt is wearing a white hijab and corrals two little boys into our same row in the plane.

Twenty minutes before landing in Jeddah,  I contemplate getting into the robe. I reach down to the bottom of my Egyptian tent-maker bag and feel the silky abaya rolled up under my computer like a sausage. Secretly, I fear feeling foolish once I don the robe. Since no other women have made an effort to put on the black abaya, I busy myself with a scrabble game hoping these last few minutes of flight will quickly pass. At one point I look up and am astonished to see that the young mother of the two boys has pulled on a black abaya and has switched her white hijab for a black one and added a veil that falls from the bridge of her nose and covers the lower half of her face (I believe it’s called a Niqaab). In fact, her transformation is so extreme that it is by her boys I actually identify her.

In looking around it is apparent that other women have exchanged their lighter abayas and hijab for black. A few, but not all, have added the Niqaab. Non-Saudi arabic women choose to wear black but most of the westerners remain in lighter colored abayas. I resist putting on my abaya until we have landed and it’s time to exit the plane.

The abaya slips on easily and I snap the buttons down the front, closing the abaya around my body.  Indeed, I feel somewhat foolish. My 14-year old, Skyler, eyes me skeptically and I wonder what it’s like for him to see his mother so clad.

We step out onto the stairs descending from the plane to the bus that will take us to the terminal. The heat and humidity take my breath away and by the time I reach the bus I am sweltering. Immediately I am grateful that it is not expected of me to cover my head and face. 

The air conditioning in the airport is a relief from my short foray in the afternoon sun and makes wearing the abaya tolerable. As Steve deals with our lost baggage, Skyler and I have plenty of time to observe people passing through the airport. The women interest me most. First of all, black is definitely the dominant color. Of the women clad in black, there are different levels of facial covering. A few women have elegantly draped Hijabs that allow for their entire face to be seen. For some the face is completely shrouded in black. Referring to women completely enveloped in black, Skyler remarks, “Mom, you could opt for that technique where you just drape the veil over your face and don’t bother wrapping it”. He seems to perceive the burqa (or total covering) as a method of “ease” rather than a level of covering. As such women pass us, I notice several of them pressing the mesh closer to their face so they can see. Some also wear black gloves. None of them have bare feet (even if wearing sandals they have black socks on). Many women have either the Niqaab, covering the lower portion of their faces or the burqa, cloaking the entire face. Near us a women is eating a snack. She places a hand under her veil and pushes it out from her face a sufficient distance to allow herself to bring the food to her mouth. Her face and hands remain completely covered.

Of the non-black abayas there is a diverse ranges of styles, colors, and fabrics. Some of them look outright comfortable and I make a silent note to self to secure myself a lightly coloured abaya made out of linen or other lightweight fabric. If I plan to be out and about I think it will be worth finding a way to increase my comfort level in the heat.

Once again I feel ludicrous as I stumble over my robe in an effort to manipulate a piece of luggage onto the conveyor belt of the scanning machine at the airport’s exit. I notice none of the other women are handling baggage and I follow their example by simply standing by the cart as my husband places and retrieves all of our suitcases on and from the conveyor belt.

At our new home once again I flounder in my abaya as I try to push our suitcases up the sidewalk. Realizing I am not obligated to wear the abaya on the compound, I shed myself of it and enjoy the freedom of being able to help with our baggage.

The next morning I wear my abaya to take take passport photos and undergo medical examination for my iqama (residence permit). There are three of us: another new hire and our woman escort who is helping us out. While waiting for our photos we decide to walk a couple of blocks away to a Starbucks for some refreshment. We question our decision to walk (instead of asking the driver take us) as the sun’s rays bake us beneath our black abayas. After ordering my mango/passion fruit smoothie I follow the other new hire upstairs to the “women’s section”. Both of us trip on our robes on the way up.

I’ve only been here one day and I already find myself debating whether I want to do a certain activity based on whether I need to put on the abaya. YIKES. Steve and I pride ourselves in getting to know and enjoying our host country by immersing ourselves in local tradition and discovering local history, culture, and sites. In order to do this here, I will need to embrace wearing the abaya. I’m going to have to get my mind around this one! There is comfort in observing my western colleagues, already living in Saudi Arabia for over a year, at ease and comfort in their abayas. Maybe it won’t be so bad!

And no, it is not required to wear the abaya while on site at the school. At least while teaching, this burden of apparel will not be mine!

Uncomplicated but poignant activities

It was a simple idea. It’s possible they’ve even done it before in another class sometime during their education. However, I knew they would learn from it and would thereby approach the learning objectives. So, I prepared the materials.

The instructions, accompanied by an image, were simple: build a model of the ventilation system. The building part was easy and fun. With their hands and minds engaged, they were hooked and as the more challenging part of the activity faced them, they plowed ahead. With the expectations for the write-up in front of them, they reached for the models again and again, seeking deeper understanding. They discussed. They questioned. They pointed. They pulled.


“Oh, I get it” followed by an explanation of the role of air pressure in breathing.

“So, when the diaphragm contracts, the thorax expands.”

“The intercostal muscles are located here and contract and expand with the diaphragm”

Soon everyone in the room can accurately and biologically describe inspiration and expiration. And all it took were some plastic bottles and balloons.

VALUE the power of simple.

Later in the day the health teacher and I were comparing curriculum since we share students who are doing a unit on the respiratory system in both health and biology. He began to describe an activity he had completed with the students and then hesitated, “Oh, it was nothing. It was so simple” he says, almost discrediting the activity because it was simple. “The students were handed a straw and told to run up and down the stairs using only the straw with which to breathe in and out.  He continued, “But they really got it. As they came up the stairs, they described feeling panicked, even though they knew they could remove the straw. Suddenly they had a real idea as to what it would mean to have emphysema."

Today as we continued our learning about the structures of the ventilation system, I asked those same students about what would happen if the airways were constricted. They immediately piped in what they knew about emphysema. They added their experience in the stairways and I asked them what they learned from that. The response was unanimous, “Now I know how it might feel like to have emphysema.” And all it took was a straw.

VALUE the power of simple.

Recently a colleague came to me and said, “I think I need to change the way I teach. I’m too lecture based and I need more activity driven lessons” and then she followed up with an overwhelming description of what that might look like. She had grand but complicated ideas that would require hours of prep time, a luxury she does not have.  “Simple goes a long way” was my advice. “What do you mean?” she queried. “Look at this gap activity – students simply matching concepts with descriptions” but it engages them. We brainstormed a bit and she came up with a brilliant idea. In fact, it’s so brilliant that I’ll be borrowing and reporting on it someday! She ran back to her room and produced the activity in about ten minutes.  And all it takes is a story problem and a stack of paper cut-outs with words to enable hands-on, engaged processing of the problem.

VALUE the power of simple.

Be empowered by uncomplicated ideas. Think outside the box but look inside the box (i.e. your classroom) for your supplies. 


Last night I found myself sitting next to an elegant woman dressed in white.  Her delicate hands rested on her lap highlighting a perfect French manicure. It was quite clear that her hands would never find themselves where mine had been that day. I glanced down at my appendages hoping were no remains of dried blood under or around my nails.

That morning our lab assistant appeared in my classroom doorway with a heavy plastic bag and a huge grin on his face: his mission had been successful. He handed off the bag and I immediately took it to a lab bench. The items inside were contained within a series of thick plastic bags. As I removed each layer it became apparent why. The mounds of pig tissue within were dripping with blood. Untangling entwined trachea and esophagi, I lifted the first set of lungs from the bag and placed them on a work area on the lab bench. Dabbing off blood as I worked, I arranged the bright pink lungs so that the trachea and esophagi extended neatly from the top.

Then I covered them hoping to mask the rawness of the scene from those entering my classroom and giving myself some mental preparation time with the students before they had to handle the organs.

Some students literally fled the room upon the unveiling of the lungs. However, they quickly realized there was no threat and succumbed to their curiousity which was heightened by the “ooh”s and “aahs” of their peers within.

With gloved hands they carefully handled and explored the tissues. Eventually EVERYONE touched the lungs, followed the trachea to the bronchi, studied the pathway of the esophagus, and made observations on the differences between the structures. Several students were brave enough to insert a straw into the trachea, squeeze down and blow air into the lungs.  The inflating lungs were indeed an impressive sight drawing exclamations of amazement from all observers!

My Grade 10 Bio class was the intended recipient of this lab activity as they have just started a unit on the Respiratory System. However, my grade 11 General Science class studying the human body also benefitted from those lungs. Then, my Year 2 IB Biology students were able to review some of their assessment statements from last year as they investigated the organs. As one of them said following her time with the lungs, “That was a really good class”.  The bottom line? The Respiratory System became real to them.  Now they can imagine it. Now they can discuss it. Now they will remember it.

I’d much rather be part of this kind of journey than sporting beautifully manicured nails!  And as always, I advocate to all, risk the mess and find every opportunity to bring learning to the realest level possible.



Costa Rica here we come!

The program and research itinerary are scheduled. The flight tickets have been purchased. The medical forms and travel consent forms are filtering into my classroom. The reality of our adventure is emerging but it’s still five months away!

This coming summer a group of students and I will travel to Costa Rica to participate in the Ecology Project International  (EPI) research program to study the nesting sites of leatherback turtles.

People often question my choice to spend two weeks of precious summer time to volunteer chaperoning students 24/7. I’ll admit, it’s not a vacation and it’s exhausting. However, I am given a front row seat to a rite of passage in which teenagers experience a once in a lifetime opportunity of rare contact with the wild. The students are offered new and unique perspectives to their relationship with the earth.  As they face issues involving their life-style choices and the future of our world, these students will self-reflect and discover their opinions and where they stand. And what a gift to be part of that!

Of the students still at my school who joined me on the South Africa trip last year, we share a special bond. For those who continue to study with me in the classroom, we enjoy repeated references and curriculum connections to our research experiences from the summer. Daily the exclamation arises, “We learned about this in South Africa!” What a joy to witness the assimilation of authentic science and legitimate issues that link to greater learning later.

Of course, with my students I will also have great pleasure in our participation in research in the Costa Rican wild. So, being in a beautiful area while fostering real education that results in maturation of youth is a perfect way to start my summer holiday. Yes, there is great anticipation for this June adventure!

Substitute Plans

I’ve heard it said that an American businessman measures success by the fact that his company cannot function in his absence.  However, a Dutch businessman assesses achievement by the fact that his company operates perfectly in his absence.

So, where does that leave teachers?  It’s really tough to have classes carry on without you during an absence.  As any teacher knows, preparing for a substitute is grueling and so much more time consuming than just being there.  I’ve decided to record some of the ideas I have for successful substitution plans, at least for secondary school.

How to Pre-arrange for a Substitute

  • Plan a lesson, preferably an open ended activity that will last beyond the allotted time.  You don’t want the students to announce to the substitute, “I’m done.  Now what do I do?”
  • Make sure the lesson plan can be facilitated by someone who doesn’t specialize in your area (i.e. for me, Science).  So, I definitely can’t plan a lab while I’m gone.
  • If you can plan a summative assessment, that works well.
  • Write out the details, being explicit as possible.
  • If you have a web site, put everything on the web site so that the students can self-guide themselves.
  • For multiple classes, place the outline and any handouts in color coded “folders” (I just use a folded piece of A3 construction paper) with instructions written on the outside of the folder with the class name, date, and time of the class listed on the folder.
  • Clear off your desk and leave all instruction folders in the center.
  • I usually also try to unclutter the room a bit but that’s probably not necessary.

The plans I left for my IB students when I was called away unexpectedly.

If you have an unexpected absence i.e. due to illness or emergency

  • At our school we have submitted “emergency” plans to the Principal so if there is an emergency, there are at least three lesson plans for every class.  I have provided a list of web sites with cool science articles and students can select from the articles and report on them.  For IB students I have them study the IB manual or review command terms.  I have lots of laminate cards for review activities that can be used at any time.
  • However, with my web site, I can usually keep progressing with the lesson plan, with modifications to adjust for a non-science teacher in the classroom.  The students are familiar with my web site and are comfortable taking instruction and lesson plans from it.  I can easily link to web sites or upload documents for them to work from.

No matter how well you prepare, no matter how clear you think the instructions are, don’t be disappointed if things don’t quite go as planned.  While I was away last week, it took my 6th graders an entire double block to finish the reflections on the Science Fair.  What was there to show for it?  Single sentence responses!  Seriously?  It took a double block to produce that?  Oh well.  The IB students, on the other hand, accomplished everything outlined for them.

Thus, in contrast to American standards, the Dutch business standards would suggest that I am failing with 6th graders while I’m triumphant with IB students.   I'd like to think that the relative accomplishments are actually more a function of the different age groups represented in the two classes.  In both cases, however, I’m happy for any progress made during my absence.

Does anyone else have any good ideas for substitution plans?

How I keep in touch with my students.  It's great for day-to-day communication as well as communication if ever I am absent or better yet, when a student is absent.

Priorities: Family Comes First Part II – Living Abroad

I am over the ocean again.  The return flight.  Was I ready to depart?  No.  There is still a need.  There is unfinished business.  My heart aches.

We now face a huge consequence of the decision to teach abroad.  We’ve observed other families deal with living in a foreign country: managing familial relations from afar.  Sure, there’s Skype.  Sure, we have a Vonage phone number allowing family members to make US calls to reach us.  Sure, there’s a direct 8 hour flight to Chicago.  However, suddenly it feels insurmountably far away.

A price is paid to live abroad.  You miss moments with grown children and grandchildren.  You aren’t with aging parents.  You miss being there when your help is needed.

It’s moments like this that cause you to question all your decisions leading to this point.  You suddenly revisit all the pros and cons you evaluated when you took the job across the ocean.  You question whether the pros still outweigh the cons. You are unsure.

The miles pass below me in the plane as I return to my family and job in Europe.  I will land and immediately travel directly to the school where I will greet my 9th graders.  Moving on I will face the 8th graders and then my IB Bio and IB ESS students.  It’s a full day, on no sleep. 

I had no time to even think of schoolwork while I was away.  I barely had time to scan emails and attend to urgent matters such as the Internal Travel payment due for the South Africa trip.

However, the plans are ready for my students.  They’ve been reworked in the plane.  A twinge of excitement resides in anticipation for the lab that should await the high school students.  There’s an eagerness to know how the students faired in my absence.  A hope lingers that progress was made. 

My husband and children have reported that “all is well” with them and I am eager to see and embrace them.

Once again, I am caught between three worlds. 

The one I left behind:  Will all be OK? I could have stayed longer.  I wanted to stay longer.  I will return in July.

The one that lies ahead.: My teenagers are anticipating graduation day, summer plans, and the next year.  My husband is considering changes at work. 

The parallel world of my work: The part of my life that I will face first as I’m heading there directly.  I will find out how the Science Fair went and what students learned in my absence.

The next few days will be a time of reflection for me as I settle back into my expat routine of teaching third culture students.  We’re anticipating the end of the school year – only 3 weeks left.  And I have to decide, is this where I truly belong?

Spring Break Lab Preparations

This afternoon the students scatter at 15:05.  No tutoring.  No afterschool activities.  Silence.  I glance down the abandoned hallway but slip back into my classroom and survey the scene.  Where to begin?

The Living Organisms

The fish tanks are first.  I siphon while cleaning the gravel (Thanks to a super-convenient hand-held device I found at the pet store in the fall), clear away algae, and deposit the vacation food.  “Mr. T” the turtle also receives a tank and gravel cleaning.  However, he finds himself in a plastic bowel in his emptied aquarium, prepared for travel to my house.  Finally, I make a round with the plastic pitcher to douse the plants.

Floors or Table Tops?

A gloriously simple decision faces me: do I want my floors cleaned or the tabletops wiped?  Images of all those hands contacting the apical surface of the tables flash through my mind and visions of festering germs flourish, however, I opt for the floors.  The dispersed pencil shavings definitely influence that decision.

The Lab Area

Really?  How did I miss that?

Next I tackle the lab area.  Oh my.  First to be sorted are the chemicals from a plant lab and the mealworms from the energy transfer lab.  I work my way through stranded beakers, heat protective gloves, test-tubes, pipettes, stirring rods, grease pencils, wire shields, and an assortment of other little “left-overs” from labs completed during the last few weeks.  My favorite is the pile of tape that had clearly at one time been a set of labels for an experiment but was now stuck to the counter top. The final step is to take down some old, frayed posters that students had completed months ago.  It is time for newer work to be displayed.

I should have done a "before" and "after" picture.  


It’s approaching 16:15 and the lab is nearly ready for the 10-day Spring Break.  Lastly, to ensure that my fish and the plant experiment survive the holiday, I place a “do not unplug” sign on the necessary outlets. My mind feels cleansed to have everything sorted.  It’s relaxing, even comforting.  I know it will feel great to enter the room again in 10 days.  

I gather my pile of things, including “Mr. T” and make my journey to the front of the school.  Admittedly, I’m tired.  Really tired.  Knowing that I will still be engaging in lesson planning, some grading, researching, work-related reading and activities doesn’t thwart the profound anticipation I feel for the Spring Break.  

Just need to get it all home....

As I descend the stairs I hear music and laughter.  Our facility managing team has graciously thrown a little “Easter Party” for teachers and staff at the school.  How wonderful it is to take a moment and relax a bit and enjoy some refreshment with my colleagues.  Absolutely, it is a perfect way to end the week and begin a holiday. 

As I depart, I reflect on the great people I work with and the wonderful students I teach and I know that, indeed, it will be fabulous to see them all again in ten days. 

This weekend celebrate the positives in your life!