Adventures in Overseas Teaching
Heritage University alum Pat Silkett (M.I.T., 1999) has held classes at the Great Wall of China and taught about ecosystems along the Taiwan Strait. She’s driven past the Persian Gulf and the Royal Palace in Kuwait City, Kuwait, on her way to work. This is the life of an international teacher, and it’s one in which Silkett has thrived for the past 13 years. Her work has taken her to Morocco, Taiwan, China and now the Middle Eastern country of Kuwait, where she teaches at the Ajial Bilingual School.
“It sounds exotic when I tell people that I live and work overseas, but for me, it’s just an ordinary day,” said Silkett. Kuwait has a population of 3.6 million, with just 1 million native Kuwaitis. Most of the expatriates who live in Kuwait are from other Middle Eastern countries. The official language is Arabic, but many people speak English. The country embraces its Islamic heritage, so even though it’s acceptable to wear Western-style clothing, many Kuwaitis wear traditional attire: a full-length robe called a dishdasha for men and the abaya (black robe) and head scarf or “burqa” for women.
Born in Washington state, Silkett grew up in Minnesota and still returns there for summer vacations. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in theatre, she eventually relocated to Seattle and worked on movie sets. In the winter, when film work was slower, she would substitute teach at a local school. As she spent more time in the classroom, she realized she had a passion for teaching. She decided to return to school to obtain a degree in education. She enrolled at Heritage University’s Seattle campus and was grouped into a close-knit cohort of other education students who came from a wide variety of backgrounds.
“Heritage did a really good job preparing me,” remembered Silkett. “In my cohort, there were people from all different parts of the area, from Stanwood to the inner city. I enjoyed the diversity, and I think, perhaps, it planted a seed for me.”
Recruitment Fair Opened Doors to Jobs Around the Globe
Silkett graduated in December 1999 with a Master in Teaching in Education, and within the year, she decided to explore opportunities to teach overseas. She attended a recruitment fair that brings together the heads of international schools with thousands of teachers looking for jobs. It’s a busy, pressure-packed environment in which job offers are extended to candidates on the spot.
Silkett described her first experience: “It was overwhelming. It's a very strict process, and it involved meeting lots of people.” Silkett received several offers during the conference, and ultimately chose the Casablanca American School in Morocco as her first overseas post.
“I chose Morocco because it was a very intriguing place, and I really liked the woman with whom I interviewed,” she said.
After her two-year contract ended in Morocco, Silkett taught in Taiwan at the American School in Taichung for two years, and then she moved to China, where she spent seven years.
“I love the Far East,” said Silkett. “Traveling through China was awesome. The different parts of the country have totally different cultures. It’s massive and interesting.”
She spent the bulk of her time in China at the International School of Tianjin, about 75 miles from Beijing, and the final two years at Access International Academy Ningbo in the Beilun District near Shanghai before moving to Kuwait. One might think that living in China for so long would lead to fluency in Chinese, but Silkett admits that many times she relied on her theatre training to act out what she couldn’t verbally communicate.
American Educators Coveted in International Schools
The opportunities to move overseas and work in an international school are plentiful because new schools are opening every year. Most were originally founded for expatriate families and their children, but today, approximately 80% of students enrolled are local children whose parents view an American curriculum as necessary to advance their children’s education abroad. Even in countries in which Western culture is kept at arm’s length, parents seek out American teachers.
“Many parents want their children to attend top American universities,” said Silkett. “So they greatly desire teachers who have been educated in the system they covet.”
Silkett spent 10 years in the classroom, teaching fourth-grade math, science and language arts in English, using coursework you might see in any U.S. elementary school. Three years ago, she began working as an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher, providing additional English tutoring to students who needed to strengthen their skills.
When the director Silkett worked for in Beilun took over in Kuwait, he recruited her to come there to develop the school’s first ESL program. Although the students could speak English well, they struggled to read and write the language. Today, as the school’s Learning Support Unit Coordinator, she oversees four ESL teachers who provide full-out support to students in third through sixth grade.
“The school is the largest I have ever worked in—1,500 students—so that is an enormous challenge,” explained Silkett. “This is a new program so there have been many glitches to overcome.”
She also needed to adjust to things unique to Kuwaiti life, such as the hot climate, students who are strictly separated by gender, and the need to censor curriculum for specific content.
“The reward is certainly working with such a diverse population of faculty. They are literally from all over the world,” she said.
Heritage Coursework Equipped Alumni With Confidence to Teach Overseas
When she looks back on her experience at Heritage, Silkett can readily see how it gave her a solid foundation to teach overseas.
“What I learned at Heritage gave me the confidence to take risks in the classroom,” she said. “To trust what I believe in and to feel free to take it in an unconventional direction. I learned how to not only adapt lessons to meet the individual needs of my students, but to create them as well.”
Silkett’s one-year contract in Kuwait ends in June, and she is unsure where she wants to go next. She admits that the longer she lives overseas, the harder it is to imagine living back in the States. She names Eastern Europe, the east coast of Africa, Argentina and Chile as some of the destinations at the top of her wish list for future teaching assignments.
“In every new place I go, it’s challenging to adapt to the climate, school, food and language,” she advised. “But I really like being around people who are completely different from me. There’s so much to learn, see and experience!”
She gives other Heritage graduates who are curious about international teaching a word of advice: explore your options and be open-minded about where you might teach.
“Don't discount any place. Talk to everyone,” she said. “If you’re curious about the world around you, it’s a wonderful way to live. The world is an inspiring place.”