Zach Groshell has been teaching overseas for six years and is particularly fascinated with instructional coaching and technology integration. He currently lives in Sudan and, despite the challenges listed here, has fallen in love with the Sudanese people and culture. Follow him on Twitter @MrZachG.
Teachers are notorious for bringing the work that we do at school into our homes. Married teachers are even worse. I’ve tried reinstating a household ban on talk of school every year of my career, to no avail. If I’m not careful, my white-knuckled rant about the day’s events during my drive home can quickly ascend the stairs and enter the living room of my Sudanese apartment.
And it’s not just the venting that enters the home; there’s the planning, the marking, the reporting! Even in the field of international education, there never seems to be enough time during free lessons to get everything done. Ask any teacher, and they will all tell you that it’s hard to balance the need for leisure with the demands of this career.
Now, if I had access to a gym (or a local watering hole for that matter), this balancing act might at least feel built into my daily routine. The problem is, I work in Khartoum, Sudan – a so-called “hardship post”. Needless to say, leisure doesn’t come easily here – you have to work for it. In a city with 120+ degree heat, no mall (unless you count Afra, which I don’t), no bars, slim pickings for restaurants, and no real central meeting place, you have to get creative and build your own fun.
Despite the challenges that come as part of the package of living in Africa, I’ve fallen in love with this country, this region, and the warm and welcoming culture of the Sudanese people. The following tips are focused on how I balance the incredible responsibility of being a teacher with my desire to live a happy and fulfilled life in the heart of Sudan. Whether or not you’re stationed in the middle of a desert, I hope these tips will help all teachers to navigate the challenge of living a balanced home and work life.
1. Take care of your well-being
Many people ask me what I eat in Sudan to stay nutritionally charged throughout the week. The answer I typically give them is, “normal stuff, but without much variety”. There are very few choices when it comes to fresh fruits and vegetables in this city in the sand. In order to keep myself mentally and physically fit, I’ve had to get used to having to eat frozen and canned produce several times a week. As a green-leaf diet isn’t possible, I’ve supplemented with heavy doses of beans and lentils, which are available everywhere. The point is, I know that I need to maintain a healthy body regardless of where I live, so I try to be resourceful with what is around me.
Here in Sudan, it is important to take advantage of the limited recreational activities that are available to teachers. The city isn’t very friendly to runners or cyclists, and the dust and heat make all forms of cardio nearly impossible most of the year. In addition to stretching, light meditation, and the occasional nap, I need exercise to be at my best. As there is no world-class gym in the city, I took up golf, and use my school’s gym and pool. As there are about three or so months of tolerable outdoor weather in the capital city of Khartoum, I need to be better at busting out my running shoes and going for a late afternoon jog between November and February.
2. Socialize with non-teachers
Don’t get me wrong, I love a good education rant once in awhile among teacher friends. It helps me to focus my thoughts towards problems that actually matter, and to begin to search for solutions. But in a small expat community like the one we have in Khartoum, you can quickly find yourself going down a path towards negativity if you’re not careful.
This is why I make a conscious effort to develop friendships outside of my school. Most of the social events in Khartoum take place at embassies and at peoples’ houses. Getting an invitation or my name on a guest list is often a weekly struggle, but I’ve found that it’s well worth the effort. Expanding my friendship base to non-teachers is not only great for networking, but it keeps me from becoming too absorbed with the challenges at work. It is comforting to hear that other people outside of teaching have similar problems in their organizations, and I just think it’s healthy to talk about things that are not entirely school related. If the school culture takes a turn for the worse, I find peace and sanctuary hanging out with my outside friends.
3. Turn your concerns into positive provocations for your #PLN
Another strategy for avoiding too much negativity in this profession is to sort of channel positive energy outwardly while building your personal learning network (PLN). This is why my wife and I started a website specifically from the perspective and the experiences of international educators, educationrickshaw.com, and why I am so active on Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit, even over the summer. I use my PLN to expand my knowledge beyond the small fishbowl that is Khartoum, and beyond even the medium-sized fishbowl that is international education. To read more about the benefits of a PLN, click here.
The point is not to increase the work that I am doing, which is counterintuitive to this post, but to achieve some of the personal and professional satisfaction – and to some degree, vindication – that is necessary to remain in this profession. As I told Jeff Bezos in my plea for education, teaching is and will continue to be in crisis if we do not begin to re-professionalize what we do. At the end of the day, the small amount of time I spend making connections that go beyond the small community of teachers in Khartoum contributes to my overall level of happiness, to the point that my stamina is improved and there is greater clarity in my purpose.
4. Commit to the “Couch Potato Approach” to educational technology
One of the biggest stressors that I hear being reported by teachers, especially from those that are not comfortable with technology, is that there is just not enough time to learn how to use the newest available edtech tools. The problem is that not a lot of schools are willing to make time for this extremely important professional development. I’m talking about a faculty meeting entirely dedicated to edtech, and in which the only directions given are a list of apps to play around with. If you’re ever feeling like your school hasn’t developed you enough, I have a solution for you: The Couch Potato Approach to Educational Technology.
Again, this post is about balance. I can’t always expect to achieve what I want to achieve in the eight hours that I have at school. However, rather than stressing over the seemingly infinite amount of edtech stuff that seems to be coming out every day, I just crank up the A/C and chill on my IKEA couch with my iPad in my lap. Without straying from binge-mode at all, I am able to watch my favorite shows (yes, we do have cable) while messing around with the latest edtech tools. I recommend it to all of the teachers I know in Khartoum (even with our terrible home internet), and for any teacher that wishes to develop a curriculum that meets the needs of the 21st century learner.
5. Take great vacations
Like Adam wrote in his blog post, international educators generally have the time and money to make the most of their vacations. Even if it’s only a four-day weekend, I don’t stay in my Khartoum apartment. I try to get out and enjoy the advantages that this geographic location allows me; Trips to Dubai, Egypt, Ethiopia, and elsewhere in Africa and the Middle East. There are even reasonably inexpensive opportunities here to fly to Europe and Asia.
At my most work-obsessed moments, I have to ask myself the question: am I working to live, or living to work? The answer should obviously be the former. I’ve even heard of some people following a strict regimen of 8-8-8; eight hours of work, eight hours of sleep, eight hours of leisure. Even if I can’t quite get to that magical ratio during the week, my vacations are there to pick up the slack. When I’m on break, I take a BREAK, and I’m serious about it. There’s nothing that reminds me better about why I became an international educator, or helps me balance out work with some play than a stroll along the Great Wall of China, or a trip to the pyramids.
I hope you enjoyed this post, and possibly incorporate some of my advice into your own routine. Living and teaching in a “hardship post” doesn’t have to be so hard, and after a few adjustments to my life early on, I can truly say that I am blessed to call this East African country my home. I want to thank Adam for the chance to share this guest post on his blog. For more thoughts about teaching and life on the international teaching circuit, visit educationrickshaw.com and follow me on Twitter @MrZachG.