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Teaching Abroad

By Anne Keeling

Summary: Michael Wainwright taught primary music and drama to 3 to 11 year olds at the Overseas School of Colombo in Sri Lanka for two years. Here is an account of a typical day there. Michael is now teaching in an international school in Dresden, Germany.

Moving Overseas - Working Overseas

It's a bit hot today. The tropical birds and neighbourhood roosters woke me up with their loud squawking. That was followed by a monkey screaming outside while I was shaving. It's quite a noisy country. I don't eat breakfast at home as it's too early for me. I'm in school at 7:00am ready for the bell to ring at 7:25am, so there's time to grab a cup of tea and some quick breakfast before the children arrive.

The sun was up at 6:00am today and it doesn't take long to get warm. Within a few hours everything's quite hot. That means about 30ºC. Right now it's the monsoon season so everything's very humid and we get a lot of mosquitoes. Being Buddhist, I don't like to kill them, which makes the whole experience quite challenging. I light so many incense sticks to scare them off that my house resembles a temple! My neighbours are always laughing at the billowing sweet smoke coming from my house.

We start school early because of the heat, but also because of traffic. The traffic here is disastrous. You've got to be completely aware. At any point I'm likely to hit anything from a cow sleeping on the road to motorists obliviously driving on the wrong side! I've never sworn so much in my life!

Sri Lanka is a fascinating country. I found out about the job itself through my recruiting agent. Why did I pick it? Because of the job opportunity that combined both primary drama and music which was something I'd wanted to explore with my teaching. Also, half of my family are from India, so I felt that perhaps I'd be closer to my roots.

There's an extreme range of kids here, some are from humanitarian aid or diplomatic families, as well as Sri Lankans. The school is in a wonderful setting. It was once a rubber plantation and there are still lots of trees. Monkeys often scamper about on the school roof; not at all worried by us. The children love seeing them; there's nothing quite like a monkey to interrupt school work!

My teaching colleagues are from all over the world; Australia, Canada, US, Wales, Netherlands, France, England, India, our Head is from Scotland, and there's a large teaching body from Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankans are emotional and laidback people, very friendly, and not at all inhibited. It's wonderful working with them; one of the favourite parts of my job. I love the different cultures and understanding how different people work and think. The pupils are just as diverse. In fact, in every classroom there are no more than five people from the same country. It's such a different environment to back home. It's so rich with cultural diversity. It creates new ideas, new doorways, especially in the performing arts. We use our different cultures as a ground point to begin exploring. Music is innate to a culture and to the identity of a people. This makes for an exciting and ever-evolving curriculum. How I teach has changed over the years. Being in an international culture changes the chemistry and, as a music teacher, changes how I think.

Today I did voice work but not in a traditional way. We made a pretend fire in the classroom and danced around it using both rhythm and voice. Experiences like this help children get to the depths and roots of who they are.

Music is definitely becoming a greater part of our school life. We have a big production every year which involves the whole primary school. Last year was the 50th birthday of OSC (Overseas School of Colombo) so we wrote and performed our own musical. It was called "My Island Home" and was a story about an ex pat family who'd just moved to Sri Lanka. It follows their trials, tribulations, and joys as they settle into their new environment. Then they meet a Sri Lankan family and become friends. The point of the musical was to celebrate cultural differences but to also see our innate similarities. It went very well. Every single child performed.

I speak a decent amount of Singhalese, but I teach in English. This is typical of all the international schools wherever you teach in the world. I've learnt Singhalese to get around, so that I can chat to my neighbours and really enjoy where I live, but I'm not fluent. It takes a lot of energy to learn but it changes everything. The smiles on people's faces says it all. English is spoken widely in Sri Lanka; even the less privileged population can speak a little English. You can be quite lazy if you want and just speak English, but it's almost a responsibility I think, to try to learn the native language of your host country... and it helps to drop the prices! Buying and selling can be a bit of a game here. But no one gets offended. It's part of the culture and certainly adds to the colour of life.

Lunchtimes at school are served in the canteen which caters to all tastes, from Western style to Sri Lankan. The local food is extremely spicy! I like spicy, but I still like to be able to taste my food! Having said that, I couldn't go back to eating non-spicy food now; it would taste like lifeless cardboard!

School finishes at 2:40pm and lots of children remain for after-school activities until 3:30pm. Evenings are a great time of the day. The weather is always warm: it's 29ºC at the moment. It's perfect for enjoying the outdoors, though you still want to stay in the shade; as the sun can remain quite sharp. The most beautiful thing is that you can wear T-shirt and shorts year round. Even during school time, clothing is comfortable. The children don't wear uniform and teachers are casual but still professional. Light breathable fabrics such as loose cotton and linen are vital for staying comfortable in the heat. I love the wonderful local materials.

Heading home from school, I'll stop off to buy my fruit for the day from my regular tropical fruit stand. The tropical fruit here is incredible: the best pineapples ever. And mangos, papayas, and a ridiculous amount of bananas and coconuts. I'm vegetarian so it's great for me and it's all so cheap. This is a very enjoyable part of my day. I'll blend it all into a big smoothie or fresh juice... delicious!

I have a housekeeper and cook. Most families here have the same set-up. She also looks after my dog while I'm at work. I'll get home usually to find some basmati rice and a few curries that she's made waiting for me to heat up.

There is a small ex pat community here, but the Sri Lankans mix into it. There's not much division and everyone lives very happily together. However, the political situation is unstable here at the moment and, living near Parliament House (I can see it from my window, built in the middle of a man-made island), I do see quite a bit of activity as a result.

When my current contract at OSC finishes I'll be heading off to teach somewhere else. I'm looking at a few options at the moment, maybe southern Europe, equatorial Africa, Indonesia, there are many possibilities. When you're teaching abroad, there's wonderful stimulation from the varying environments and from the children and colleagues around you. It's quite an amazing opportunity that I thoroughly recommend to any teacher that is willing to take a risk. You're expanding your knowledge teaching different people and in different ways and you're expanding your wisdom of the world and your cultural perspective. It's also a massive confidence builder. It really does allow you to find a little more about yourself.

I would earn more back home, but you do have to weigh up the contractual benefits such as the free housing, health insurance and, here in Sri Lanka, the low cost of living. And it's such a great way to travel.

Weekends are a great time to explore. It's so easy to do, even though the roads are often bad. Sri Lanka is a beautiful country. There's the tropical jungle paradise, the tea estates, fantastic resorts, safaris. It's easy, and very tempting to get away for a couple of days. I do try and avoid the places where my students tend to go….I'm sure they're happier about that too!

It's the special, unique moments in the classroom, the utter distraction when a monkey pays the class a visit, my daily stop at the fruit stand, and the weekend exploring. It's in these moments that I tap into what I'm really doing here, the journey that I'm on, and the incredible memories that I'm making.

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About the Author

AS Teachers International Consultancy (TIC)Anne Keeling works for Teachers International Consultancy (TIC) which specialises in advising and recruiting teachers for international schools. TIC can offer advice about jobs, careers and conditions in schools from Buenos Aries to Beijing.

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Comments about this Article

inakshi
Sep 12, 2011 13:02

Greetings! Lovely to read about teaching music and drama in Sri Lanka. Am a singer myself from Mumbai-India and ever since i saw SriLanka,i have wanted to come back there and so i am,pretty soon. I also am a spiritual writer/life coach. Would be wonderful to be a part of your school. Shall i touch base when i arrive? Much love and wishes for a great night Inakshi Singh.

First Published: Jun 02, 2009

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5 Tips For Living In Sri Lanka

Expats in Sri Lanka live in a country just south of India that is regularly reported by expats as being a clean and hospitable place to create a life abroad.

Expats in Sri Lanka live in a country just south of India that is regularly reported by expats as being a clean and hospitable place to create a life abroad....

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