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Malawi, the Latest Stop on our International Journey

Experiencing the culture.

Wallace Ting | @TingWallace
February 27,  2020
Perspectives

Paola San Martini is a career international educator who has worked in Peru, Ecuador, Aruba, India, Turkey, Uganda, and Malawi. She recently shared her experience living and working internationally with SchoolRubric.

Paola, can you tell us a little bit about yourself, what you’re doing now, and where you’ve been before?

I’m a secondary math teacher right now at Bishop MacKenzie International School in Malawi. I’ve been here since August and I’m here with my two boys. Dominic is 14 and Jonah is 12. They go to the school with me. They’ve always actually attended the school I’ve taught at, which is a super bonus perk because they get to go for free.

As far as teaching internationally, I’m actually an international product myself – they call it a Third Culture Kid. I was born in Italy, but I grew up in Germany mostly and Seattle a little bit. I went to an international school myself, which is how I knew about this whole international circuit. When I finished college, I had no intention of being a teacher, but I wanted to travel.

In order to do that, I went and did an internship in Peru and fell in love with teaching. I’ve been teaching math internationally ever since. We’re currently in Malawi, and the plan is to be here for a while because Dominic is starting high school and we’ve traveled and moved so often that I think we need a little stability by staying in one place. It’s a great school, place, and part of the world.

At the start of the Nile with the boys.

What have been some of the challenging aspects of looking for a new job in a new country and then making that international relocation with kids?

You kind of nailed the big ones right there. I mean, it starts with looking for a job, which is pretty challenging. As a mother, I’m not only looking for something for myself, but also the country and a good school for the boys – the whole package.

The organizing and the shipments are usually a huge headache. And as much as that’s [relocating] exciting, it’s also a bit of a drag. But I think really the hard part is as a mom, because I want my kids to be happy. By now, they’ve come through the process a lot so they know how to make friends,they know how to adjust, and they’ve become really good friends with each other. So that’s a good thing. But every time it’s a transition for all of us, even with simple things like how to get money in the bank, how to prepay electricity bills, how get the generator to work – things like that. And then on top of that, you’re trying to figure out things for the kids such as how much homework, how to get in social circles, and how to make friends. I find it usually takes around six months to a year to feel like home.

By the time you come back for the second year, you feel like everyone knows you more and you know everyone else more, too. Things begin to feel more familiar and start becoming easier. But that first year is always a bit of a struggle as much as it’s exciting.

What have been some of the benefits and the challenges of working in a school in which your children also attend? You know, wearing the dual parent-teacher hat.

It’s kind of funny. Because I’ve never had it any other way [not having my children in the same school where I work], I have nothing to compare it to. There are some very obvious benefits such as having the same daily schedule and vacation days. It’s nice to have the same holidays to be able to spend time together and travel.

I think I have a good relationship with my kids, but it works because they’ve also gotten used to it. They know that there’s a line. We call it “the line.” Sometimes we holiday with our teacher friends and they’re Tony and Rob. But if we were at school, they would be Mr. and Mrs. Harvey. They know that the line is there and they’re very comfortable with it.

In terms of having my sons in class, I haven’t yet had Jonah [the younger one] in my class before. Right now though, we’re doing an interdisciplinary unit week and I’m teaching his class, and he loves it and was really excited about it. He says it’s hard to know what to call me because he wants to say “mom,” but feels like he should say “miss” or maybe even “miss mom.” Dominic [the older one] seems to be pretty mellow about the whole thing. Luckily, both of them like math. If they didn’t, maybe it’d be more of a struggle. But I find that being a teacher where they study keeps me connected to their lives. I don’t know about all of their friends and so on, and I try to keep my distance and give them space. But it feels comfortable.

How has your experience been thus far in Malawi?

I love Malawi and Uganda. Actually, the first time I moved with the boys alone was when we went to Africa for the first time. And although I’ve lived in the developing world most of my life – India and Brazil come to mind – Africa was a bit more of a step off to me. There were some huge adjustments for me that now seem silly. For instance, we have to prepay electricity here. I had no idea until something started beeping and we were told that we had to go to a shack nearby and buy however much you felt like you needed to use. The whole thing seemed so different and foreign, and it’s taken a little bit of time to get all of those systems in place.

Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world, and can sometimes be really intense. I admit that we’re really privileged because we have a house, a car, and gardening people that work for us. One of the very first trips I went on with the boys here was to a place called Jina, which is where the Nile river starts. We went horseback riding and rode through the villages, and as we did so, the boys got to see the huts and mud dwellings where everyday people live. Trips like this have really helped the boys gain a broader perspective on life. They see environmental problems, overpopulation, malaria, and disease – but they also see people with big smiles on their faces who only make 45 dollars a month. It’s been a wonderful experience for all of us to see these things.

Joining my Ugandan “family” for a day of cooking and birthday celebrations.

As a seasoned international educator, what kinds of tips or advice do you have for young teachers looking to get into international education?

I think my number one tip is to keep an open mind, because I think a lot of people that graduate from university want to go to Paris or London. And there’s so much more to this world than Paris and London, and so much more to experience.

Pretty much every place I’ve moved to was not on my “list.” In many cases, I just ended up talking to somebody at a school and thought, “this is inspiring!” When the director of the school here and I were talking, I had to look up where Lilongwe [the capital of Malawi] was. The more you’re willing to try something new, the better off your experience would be. I also think if you’re expecting to get and do the same stuff as back home, then moving overseas isn’t necessarily for you.

I really try to live life to the fullest all the time, but there are definitely downsides. Family is really far away and you really don’t have any roots. When someone asks one of my boys where they’re from, they do not know what to say. So there are definitely downsides, but it’s been such a great life experience for all of us.

There are a number of organizations, such as ISS (International School Services), that you can apply through. There are hundreds if not thousands of international schools out there of different sizes. So the last thing I would say would be to try and find the school that is the best fit for you. There are big schools, small schools, more international schools, more local schools, more American curriculum, more British curriculum. At the end of the day, you just have to take a leap of faith and make the most of it when you get there.

Our school trips usually involve service….here the kids are helping to make briquettes from recycled paper to use instead of charcoal in fires….

Is there anything else that you’d like to share or you’d like readers to know as they read this article about your experience?

International education has changed me as a person in terms of my perspective on life and what I think is important. I think for the boys, too. It’s a great way to raise kids.

Last summer, I went to visit a friend in Sun Valley, Idaho. It’s a pristine, beautiful, and gorgeous place. We went hiking all day. We swam in these crystal clear lakes. People eat earthy, crunchy food there that’s all organic. And I found myself thinking, “If you live here, how can you possibly know, empathize, or consider real problems of the world that you see in the news? How can some of these problems about overpopulation and the climate seem real to you?” Living abroad has allowed me to see many of these issues and also what people are doing about it. It’s definitely made a difference in my life in terms of understanding the way people interact and how we can make a difference.

I often feel like I live in the pages of National Geographic. It’s even the little things. I sleep under a mosquito net every night. Because there is lots of malaria here and we have to. But I am also lucky because we have them. And a house that closes and has windows and running water and electricity (usually). Traveling is not the same as living in a place. But I so think anyone that “can take it” should do this. I know it has made my boys stronger, more empathetic, better people. I see evidence of it all the time! When asked last summer in Seattle what Dominic would do if he were CEO of a company, he said “work at getting water pumps to more people. Because I don’t like seeing people hungry or thirsty” He is 14!!

Dr. Wallace Ting is originally from Dallas, Texas and began his career in education as a public school mathematics teacher in Texas and New York City (as part of the NYC Teaching Fellows program). He has also worked in international education for a total of 10 years as a Principal, Deputy Director, and Director in Guatemala, Colombia, and Nigeria. Currently, Dr. Ting resides in Orlando, Florida with his young son, Phillip and enjoys playing tennis, camping, and hiking.

: www.schoolrubric.com

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