Taking a Sabbatical

Why did I take a sabbatical?
Well, the Covid pandemic has been a challenge for educators everywhere and I was no exception. I was teaching online full-time for a year and a half in Indonesia, the second half of the second year teaching a hybrid model for students who still did not feel safe going back to the school campus. It was a steep learning curve and I do see the positives; I learned a lot about optimising the use of learning management platforms, creating virtual lessons, designing educational websites for asynchronous students, and working with a diverse group of people. However, I also saw the negatives, particularly when I was pursuing new roles – I think that international teaching has changed in the past few years, it is now downwardly mobile where packages are cut left, right and centre, with more and more countries wanting to tax all benefits. If a teacher did not get onto a leadership track very quickly, they find themselves having to take less and less each time they talk to a different school. Personally, I think everyone should be paid what they are worth, regardless of which country they end up working in. Schools trying to justify low salaries (some less than the minimum wage in Canada!) by telling teachers that the low cost of living and cheap travel make up for it, are exploitative at the very least. 
 
As a POC and holder of a passport that is not from a “native-English speaking” country, I also found my job applications last year (as an independent) either ignored completely or was told I was not a good “fit” (once by a so-called internationally-minded school in Singapore that AIELOC has identified as harmful to BIPOC teachers). My 17 years of math and science teaching experience in all levels of the IB, and leadership experience, most of which at top international schools in Asia, notwithstanding. I would add that I was hired at these top schools as a partner to my white, Canadian husband. I had faced micro-aggressions almost my whole teaching career, being expected to always be nice and polite, not have a strong opinion about anything and keep my ideas to myself…these take its toll on a person. I have had “conversations” with at least two male, white supervisors who wanted to talk to me about my tone of voice and “negativity” when I expressed myself in meetings, even though other colleagues who have said or done the same thing did not get a meeting. So, I guess my second reason is that I was just disillusioned with international teaching and needed a break to think about what else I can do with all the education I have had. 
 
For persons such as myself, there was an expectation of presenting and endorsing toxic positivity always. 
What do I learn during my sabbatical?
One thing I am still trying to learn halfway through my sabbatical is to be ok with not doing anything. Having worked pretty much since I graduated from university, having time to just be is not a natural state. But I think it’s needed for everyone. I am grateful I am able to do this and I understand that it’s not something that everyone can just do. Not doing anything and just being, is such a relief. I am also pursuing other interests such as data analytics courses, website design, yoga, swimming and lots of walking/jogging in parks. I am learning to appreciate sidewalks, easy access to fresh produce, and taking the time to reflect on my experiences in the past and what I want to do in the future. I learned that I need to slow down and not stress too much about things beyond my control. I am learning that I am not JUST a teacher, that I can do many other things. 
Advice I would give to anyone thinking about taking a sabbatical.
Do it! If you can, of course. I didn’t really plan this but was fortunate enough to have some savings and no children. So in hindsight, I would say, you need to plan for this, think about where you want to be and what you want to do during this sabbatical and put aside some money each month for it. Have a timeline and work towards it. Take online courses that you think might help you earn some money during your sabbatical while you are still working, it’s always good to have a backup plan. If you have a partner, maybe consider taking turns taking time off. If you want to do this together, then make sure you have lots of savings and no other debt! Finally, remind yourself that everyone needs a break and it’s not healthy to keep your nose to the grind your whole life. We don’t know what tomorrow brings, so why not enjoy the time we have on this planet as best as we can. 

Statement of Support for Sudan & Congo

We, as global citizens, and the AIELOC community stand in solidarity with the people of Sudan and the Congo, especially the vulnerable young children, who have been gravely affected by the devastating conflicts happening in both countries. The conflicts have brought unimaginable suffering, displacement, and instability, leaving a profound impact on the lives of countless individuals across both nations. We recognize the urgency of addressing the dire humanitarian crises and the critical need for immediate assistance to alleviate the plight of those most affected.

Our thoughts are with the children of Sudan and the Congo, who are enduring the brunt of these crises, robbed of their childhoods and basic rights to safety, education, and a promising future. The trauma and hardships they are facing are a stark reminder of the urgent need for a concerted effort to ensure their protection, well-being, and access to essential services.

We call upon the international community to join hands in providing vital humanitarian aid, including food, shelter, medical care, and psychological support to the affected population, particularly the young children who are the most vulnerable and in need of special attention. It is imperative that we prioritize their safety and well-being, shielding them from further harm and offering them a chance to rebuild their lives in an environment of peace and stability.

We also extend our support to the schools in Sudan and the Congo that have been adversely affected by the ongoing conflicts and upheavals in their regions. These schools play a vital role in promoting educational excellence, fostering cultural exchange, and nurturing a global perspective. We urge the Sudanese and Congolese armed forces to cease-fire and prioritize the future generations of their respective countries. We also urge all other stakeholders, including governments, non-governmental organizations, and international bodies, to prioritize the protection and restoration of education in Sudan and the Congo. Investment in the rehabilitation of these schools will help in securing the future generations of both nations.

We call upon the global community to redouble its efforts to provide humanitarian assistance and support to schools within Sudan and the Congo, ensuring that they have the necessary resources, infrastructure, and funding to continue their critical mission. Together, we can rebuild these educational institutions, restore a sense of normalcy for the students and educators, and pave the way for peace and prosperity in both nations.

We stand in solidarity with the people of Sudan and the Congo, emphasizing the need for a sustainable and inclusive peace process that prioritizes the welfare and rights of every individual, regardless of age, ethnicity, or social background. We urge all parties involved to engage in constructive dialogue and work towards a lasting resolution that ensures the protection of civilians within both nations.

Together, let us reaffirm our commitment to supporting the resilience and strength of the people of Sudan and the Congo, especially the young children, as they strive to overcome the challenges imposed by the conflict. Our collective efforts can make a significant difference in restoring hope, dignity, and a sense of normalcy to their lives, enabling them to envision a future of peace, stability, and prosperity for themselves and their respective nations.

Love Letter – AIELOC

Thank you to Dr. Liza Talusan whose REENTRY: A Love Letter from the National Association of Independent Schools and the People of Color Conference was the influence behind this letter to participants who attended the AIELOC Conference 2024.

Dear Colleagues,

We hope this letter finds you well and is filled with inspiration from our first ever in-person AIELOC Conference at the United Nations International School of Hanoi. It was an honor to have such a diverse and passionate group of educators come together to engage in meaningful conversations and share insights on fostering learning environments that are diverse, equitable, inclusive, welcoming, and affirming for all our students. In three short days, we laughed together, cried together, emoted together, consoled each other, and most importantly, we learned and listened to each other. 

Your active participation and thoughtful contributions made this conference a success, and we are truly grateful for your commitment to help us advance the work of AIELOC. 

As we transition back to our respective countries and international schools, we must shift our focus back to our students and begin the process of upholding the commitments we’ve made to them during our time together.  We know that you’ve acquired a plethora of knowledge and resources from the amazing workshops you attended and, understandably so, you’re still processing this information along with all of the emotions you experienced throughout the conference.

To help simplify things for you, we invite you to embrace the following mantra:  “Start Small, Dream Big”.  As we individually reflect on what that radical dream looks like for each of us, here are three guiding questions that you should consider:

  • What is one small thing that I can do immediately to work towards that radical dream?
  • How can I include my students in the process of radical dreaming? What active roles can they play?
  • How will I prioritize my self care as I’m doing this important work? What boundaries will I put in place to protect myself from harm?     

To continue the momentum and translate the valuable insights gained at the conference into actionable steps within your respective schools, here are a few recommended next steps from the article, “Embracing Uncomfortability In Support of Marginalized Students” that you can take right now:  

  • Interrogation of Personal Biases: We are all prejudiced and biased by human nature, so we need to conduct a personal audit of our feelings and behaviors around the issues of race, class, language, gender, sexual orientation, and other identity markers.
  • Agency Building: Educate yourself on the diverse perspectives of a specific issue so that you can develop your own informed perspective on the matter.  That can be reading books, listening to podcasts, learning from verified subject matter experts, etc.
  • Community Building: Surround yourself with a community of like-minded individuals who are just as determined to disrupt, learn, unlearn, relearn, and grow as you are.
  • Critical Humility: Decenter yourself and create space for your historically marginalized students.  That means recognizing your power and positionality to know that you can’t fully speak about oppressive acts against historically marginalized people without having the lived experience. Educate yourself to understand.
  • Mistakes are Inevitable, So Give Yourself Grace: Understand that mistakes will happen along the way.  That’s expected when you’re truly engaging in deep (un)learning and relearning.  Perfectionism has no place here.  Understand that call-ins are not condemnations but rather opportunities for growth.
  • Critical Empathy: Decenter yourself and take a step back to understand and educate yourself on the emotional impact that acts of oppression and discrimination have on historically marginalized people.  

Remember that fostering a culture of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice is an ongoing process that requires dedication and collective effort. Your commitment to these principles is instrumental in creating positive and lasting change in our international schools.

Once again, thank you for your participation in the conference. We look forward to witnessing the transformative impact of your efforts in your respective schools and communities.

See you in Accra!

Warm regards,

The AIELOC Team

Navigating the DEIJ Landscape: Honest Reflections from a British-Indian Abroad

As a British-Indian woman embarking on an international school posting, I anticipated the usual challenges associated with such a transition: adapting to a new curriculum, understanding diverse student needs, and integrating into a foreign community. However, I was under prepared for the intense focus and attention given to Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice (DEIJ) initiatives within the international school setting. This experience has prompted me to reflect on my own journey with DEIJ and question whether my background had set a lower bar for understanding these critical issues.

Coming from the UK, where conversations around diversity and inclusion are not prominent by any means, I felt out of my depth when I first arrived and in my first month at a leadership retreat, I had to ask the Head ‘what is the difference between equality and equity?’ (whilst I quickly googled what the acronyms DEIJ stood for). My Head of School kindly proceeded to show me this powerful image and I was blown away by something so simple and yet so powerful:

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Interaction Institute for Social Change | Artist: Angus Maguire. interactioninstitute.org and madewithangus.com

Coming from the UK, where conversations around diversity and inclusion are limited and not prominent, I felt a huge lack of confidence in my awareness and sensitivity towards DEIJ matters. The UK’s rich multicultural tapestry has long been a source of both pride and contention, with issues of race, ethnicity, and social justice regularly occupying public discourse. And it is probably due to this that my transition to an international school revealed a stark contrast in the approach to DEIJ work.

At my current school, DEIJ is not merely a topic of conversation; it is an active and vibrant component of the school’s ethos. The commitment to creating an inclusive environment that champions equity and justice is palpable in everyday school life. From professional development workshops to student-led initiatives, the dedication to these principles is both inspiring and, admittedly, overwhelming. For me. I need to add this as, even though I feel we immerse ourselves in DEIJ work, there are people around me who say we still have a long way to go.

The intensity of this focus led me to ponder: Was the bar so low for me coming from the UK? Had my previous experiences inadequately prepared me for the depth and breadth of DEIJ work required in an international context?

It is essential to acknowledge that while the UK has made strides in addressing systemic inequalities, there remains a significant gap between rhetoric and reality. Initiatives often lack consistency and can be reactive rather than proactive. In contrast, the international school community appears to be embedding DEIJ into the very fabric of its culture, striving not only for representation but for genuine empowerment and systemic change. Admittedly different international schools are at different stages of the DEIJ journey, but at least they’re on it.

This realisation has been humbling. It has forced me to confront my own assumptions and prejudices whilst recognising that there is always more to learn when it comes to advocating for equity and justice. The bar was not only extremely low; it was different. In the UK, much of the work seems to be superficial and glanced over, like a tick of a box, but the international school environment has expanded my perspective in ways I could not have anticipated.

The emphasis on DEIJ work at my international school is not without its challenges. The diversity within the school community—encompassing various nationalities, languages, religions, and cultural backgrounds—creates a complex landscape in which to navigate these issues. The potential for missteps is high, and the pressure to get it right can be daunting. The leadership team has had unconscious bias training, particularly as we deal with a lot of recruitment, we have had some well-known consultants from the LGBTQ+ and DEIJ sectors and all this has been mind opening for me. It never crossed my mind to reflect on how other people suffered because of their colour, gender or sexual preference as I was too consumed by what I had had to endure throughout my life with the racial abuse and bottles thrown at me from the age of 3 on the streets of Northern England to working in the city of London and dealing with what I now know as micro-aggressions on a daily basis.

While I initially felt overwhelmed by the amount of attention given to DEIJ work at my international school, this experience has been enlightening. It has also taken me on a deep journey of self reflection and I’m not going to lie – it has been extremely emotional. The best way to describe it is being in a room full of mirrors – where I have been unable to ignore, hide and forget who I am but rather address it and acknowledge it in a profound way. I have let it empower me and fill me with a sense of purpose.

I talk to many of my experienced peers about it on a daily basis and ask them numerous questions to help solidify my perspectives. I have learnt that there is no universal bar when it comes to understanding and implementing DEIJ initiatives; rather, there is a continuous path of learning and growth. As we navigate this path together, I am grateful to be surrounded by some inspiring colleagues who have been leading on this work for years. I never want my children to go through what I went through when I was their age so if it means having a deep long look in the mirror and having to face those demons I ignored for all these years, then so be it.
The journey towards equity and inclusion is ongoing, and I am still at the beginning of mine. Yet, I am grateful for the heightened attention to DEIJ at my international school. It has challenged me to elevate my practice and become a more effective advocate for change. Together, let us strive for a future where equity and inclusion are the foundation of our educational communities.

I Was a Child of this World but Never in It

I Was a Child of this World but Never in It

Peace from the Lens of a War Child
A Personal Appeal

by Dzenana Kurtovic Ceman

For the past few days, I have come across articles on how to address conflict in the
classroom from people who have never experienced war. I have noticed intelligent people, people I hold in high regard racing to write about conflict. Individuals looking at conflict through lenses of everyone but a traumatized war child. That’s privilege. Individuals writing about conflict without mentioning who is the victim and who is doing the victimizing leaving it to the audience to negotiate a meaning instead of constructing one. Your opinion on conflict may be distorted if you have distanced yourself from the suffering of a war child.

I was worried that there will be a day where I would have to write about this. I ask of you to stop treating the word “peace” like it’s a frisbee. You can have peace but not have freedom of expression. That’s not peace. You can have peace that simultaneously harms identity. Before you dive into the discourse on peace, social media misinformation, post-truth era and importance of offering multiple perspectives, here is something you should know.

Of all the horrific news coming out of Gaza, a particular image evoked a deeply painful part of my past. For the first time I felt like one of those rotating ballerina jewelry music boxes that never played its beautiful melody. And by the time I wished to play the melody of my childhood, the childhood was over. Gone. My childhood was disrupted by war. It is like the heaviness of this world had been pulling on me for decades now. It was an image of a fragile twelve-year-old girl underneath the rubble in Gaza that evoked something in me. Her frail body lay dead and helpless.

“She reached the abyss” I thought to myself, thinking of the young Palestinian girl. Then I remembered, a ten-year old child alone in an elevator descending into an abyss. She screams, she shrieks, bangs on the doors to be freed, but no one hears her. No one comes for help and no one ever will. And the worst part is, her ten-year old mind knows that no one ever will. That was me in 1992. And this particular photo of this sweet Palestinian girl resuscitated the darkest memories of my childhood.

The images of children in Palestine evoke the fear that I don’t remember having since Sarajevo and the brutal ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. It is that fear where you don’t know whether you are going to see your mom again once she leaves the house to fetch some food. You tug on to your mother’s legs until she cannot physically leave the house. Because you’d rather be hungry than be an orphan. Those are the options you get as a child of war. But majority of the time you do not have an option because of the constant shelling and destruction.

Always being overly aware that this, this may be the last time. There is the fear of not seeing your friends again because there may not be a next time. To this day, I make sure that I never leave a day on a “bad vibe” with my family members. I have to hug and kiss them goodnight. I can never allow my family members to be upset with me. To this day, I am scared of the authority and anytime I see a police officer or a man in a uniform it reminds me of the first time I saw tank rolling in my direction. Finally, as a child, there is that false and naïve hope that someone will intervene and validate my experience, my suffering. By not acknowledging who the victim is, an educator adds to identity harm.

It was on April 21, 1992 when I parted from my father and left Bosnia together with my mom and my younger sister. My father was a doctor and had to stay in Bosnia. At that time, I didn’t know it was going to be forever leaving my childhood home. My mom made it look like one of those scenes from Life is Beautiful, as if this was an expedition or a week-long camping trip. I remember waiting with my mother by the phone for countless hours for my father to call. I remember being so sad and disappointed when the phone didn’t ring. Eventually, I did learn that my father was wounded by a Serbian sniper.

Little did I know that my years as a refugee in Germany would present other struggles. Struggles of living in a single-parent household, struggles of assimilation and inner turmoil. Not to mention I was surrounded by educators who were devoid of culturally responsive teaching. But I’ll save that for another time.

I was a child of this world but never in it. And today, so many children are alive but not living. Teach their stories. Amplify their voices.

Does your school teach about Bosnia? Do you even know about Bosnia and Herzegovina?

On April 22, 1994, I saw my father again. Even decades later, I remember that skeleton-looking figure that rang our bell at the refugee housing in Germany. This image is engraved in my memory. It was and is the happiest day of my life. And I was the lucky one. There are no shortages of Bosnian childhood horror stories to tell.

For us in Bosnia it took almost FOUR years for the world to intervene and by that time, it wasn’t an intervention. Genocide occurred. The world stood there and watched. At 1601 dead children later, the siege of Sarajevo ended. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, an estimated 100,000 people died in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

And here comes the painful part – you may be living in Europe and your academic institution has never mentioned or taught anything about Bosnia. For the past two decades I have been teaching literature and my whole career I have dedicated to giving voices to those who don’t have one. Sometimes, I think, subconsciously, one of the reasons I became a teacher is the ability to be a child again playing the melody of childhood that I never got a chance to play myself.

There are so many layers to my experience as a child of war and this is just a glimpse of it. It’s late to save all our children. It’s been late for years. For decades and centuries. It is imperative to look at Palestine and turmoil around the world through lens of a war child.

Now let me ask you this question…

Is anyone in your school teaching a Palestinian author? If not, what is preventing you from doing so?

As educators, I ask of you to amplify the stories of Palestinian children and all our children suffering around the world. Today, as you read this article you have given me a platform to remind you of Bosnia and Herzegovina and it means a lot to me. For melody of every child breathes life in us and is to be cherished. And there is no future without that sweet melody. And sadly, so many years after Bosnia, I find myself again yearning for an orchestra of sensible adults who are entertained by that childhood melody and that melody alone.

Dzenana Kurtovic Ceman is a Bosnian-American educator. She has spent over two decades teaching literature in New York City, Brussels and is currently residing in Vienna, Austria.