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It's not better or worse, it's just different.

USA | Wednesday, 5 January 2011 | Views [8115]

Starting a new life, in a new country

The conference room was crowded with teachers from around the world; Ecuador, Australia, South Africa, UK, Mexico, Russia, there was not a continent that was not represented. Eagerly, we attended the orientation, ready to learn all we could to prepare us for teaching and living in America.

Over 1, 000 international teachers were recruited by VIF - the Visiting International Faculty program. VIF hire teachers from around the globe to give children in America the opportunity to be exposed to other cultures and broaden their global perspective.

I was buzzing with the excitement that comes from starting a new life in a new country once again. There is no greater feeling that comes from stepping out into the great unknown and learning something new. I couldn’t wait to experience America, the country I had dreamed about visiting for many years.

The founder, David Young, stood at the podium in front of us and shared some frightening statistics about American’s lack of knowledge of the world outside America. He and his brother had studied and traveled abroad since college. With the awareness of how global education can positively impact the world, they set out to form this massively successful company, to start the change within their own country.

His speech that day is one I have never forgotten. He shared with us some very simple truths about living and working in another country, and travelling in general. I hung onto every one of his words. I had just spent the last 7 years of my life living and travelling the world, and it was as if his words were coming straight from my own thoughts about the powerful benefits of travel. 

It wasn’t long before he began to speak of culture shock, and I started to tune out to information I thought was not needed. Been there done that. Bah, culture shock? In America? Not going to be a problem for me, I’d lived in London, Dublin and Bangkok. You want to talk culture shock, try teaching English to 40 Thai high school boys who can’t understand a word you’re saying.

The Culture Shock

It wasn’t until a month later, when I was sitting in my principal’s office with tears streaming down my face sobbing, “I just don’t understand, why you’ve given me this class. This educational system is so foreign to me and the kids are soo challenging. How could you do this to me,” that I knew I was deep in the throes of cultural shock- educational culture shock.

“Let me tell you what you have come here to do, and let me give you some advice,” were the words that finally brought my attention back to David’s words of wisdom in that conference hall. Words that eventually helped to pull me out of my culture shock, and enable me to have a successful year with those students who initially made me feel so helpless and inept.

“You have come here to teach, and to share with our children your country and culture. You have not come here to change things. You are going to be teaching in a system that is so different to what you are used to. You are going to hate it; you won’t understand it and you will want to fight to change it. Don’t. You can’t and you won’t last long if you try.

Remember this, It is not better or worse, it is just different.”

“It’s not better or worse, just different. Better or worse, just different. Just different, that’s all. Just different” That was my mantra for the next couple of months after my embarrassing talk with my type A boss. I still feel so bad for the squirm I put in his seat; yet grateful for the box of chocolates he left in my mailbox the next day with a note to say how happy he was to have me in the school.

...Just Different

I stopped trying to do what I knew how to do from my years teaching at home and in other countries. It didn’t matter what I thought about it, what mattered was that I adapted my style to suit the new one. And with a lot of trial and error, we got there in the end and had a lot of fun.

I’m sure David would have been ecstatic to see my class presenting an exhibition to the school on Australia. When one person learns to adapt, they can take a child whose reading level in grade 5 was not much higher than grade 2, and have her proudly and with confidence speak to the visiting children and teachers about Aboriginal Australia.

When you see her face light up with the understanding that this may be the only time in her life she can feel such achievement, you realize how important it is to understand the difference you can make by putting your energy into the things you can change.

“Not better or worse, just different,” the traveller’s mantra of adaptation. Without following this, you fight, you lose, and you go home, tail between your legs with the despair of knowing that “this travelling life is just not for me.”

When you learn how to adpat, a desperate situation becomes a joyful one. Four years later, I still remained at the school, making a difference to all those challenging children that walked through my classroom doors.

Overcoming Fear

David had a way of drawing you in with his words, and his ability to simply help you to understand how you could make your experience a worthwhile one. He finished off his speech with this question. 

“Put your hands up if the thing you are most frightened about by being here now is walking into the classroom to teach in a system you know nothing about?”

Over half of the room, raised their hands, including me.

He then asked, “Put your hand up if the thing you fear the most is driving on the opposite side of the road?”

A smattering of people raised their hands while the rest of us chuckled.

“Yes,” he replied. “You don’t need to be afraid to teach in our foreign classrooms, you are capable and you will quickly find your way. You should, however, be afraid to drive on our roads. This is the only thing you should fear, as it’s the only thing that threatens your life. Just remind me to stay off the roads when you do drive”

Fear is what grips so many of us and prevents us from stepping forth into the unknown to live our true dreams and passions. It is this imagined fear, that tells us we are not capable, or knowledgeable enough. This is a fear that does not serve; it is this fear that we need to brush aside.

The only fear we should be paying attention to is the fear that tells us our lives are in danger- this is the true purpose of fear, a survival mechanism. 

I once heard the definition of fear being – False Evidence Appearing Real. Most people react to fear before the thing they most fear happens. This is because they assume, based on this false evidence, that the fear is real.

I was ready to assume that I would not be able to effectively teach in a system I knew nothing about. So I became fearful of this system. The real evidence, as David suggested, was in contrary to this. I am a trained and experienced teacher, and I am capable of adapting.

This fear is an illusionary fear, a fear we create due to our inability to confront it. We can get through these false evidences appearing real with help from those who have been where we want to go and with a little of our own courage to push us through.

I’m glad I was able to control the fear enough to step into that unknown, because in the end I proved David to be right. I was qualified enough to teach and I was skilled enough to adapt to be successful with it. I really had nothing to fear in the first place.

And as for driving on the other side of the road?

There was this really friendly driver, during my first week of school. He was waving so enthusiastically at me as I drove on by him on the double-lane road. I had just made a tight left hand turn off the exit ramp from the freeway and was making my way to the teacher development day at a nearby school out in the country. It was early morning and there were no other cars on the road except him and me.

”Gee the people around here are so friendly.” I thought to myself as I indicated to turn into the side street. It was then that my attention was brought back to reality, and I gave a little yelp as I realized I was making a right hand turn an Australian right hand turn- across traffic that wasn’t really oncoming.

“Ah! So that is what fear looks like, a friendly wave trying to steer you back to the right side of the road.”

About the Author 

Caz Makepeace has been living and travelling the world since 1997, both solo and as a couple, and now with a three year old. Her husband, Craig, and her believe life is all about the memories and so travel to create more of them. Their travel tips, and stories at y travel blog aim to inspire and teach others to make their life a story to tell. Come join their fan page and follow them on twitter.

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Have you ever experienced culture shock? Tell us your story. 

Tags: australia, culture shock, living abroad, teaching abroad, travel, usa, work and holiday

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