10 Days. 4 People. 1 Room. – Lena and Brian

When we agreed to take the charter flight to Tashkent, we knew a hotel quarantine was waiting for us at the other end. But we were so eager to get started with the next chapter of our lives that it didn’t really phase us. Until the van pulled up to the back of a midsized low rise hotel on a side street in middle of the city. We all hopped out, passed through a sanitation tunnel (which the kids thought was like sprinklers and wanted to do again), entered through a back door, and shuffled through a series of unlit grand marble halls to the lobby…where we were met by several staff in full PPE. There were only a handful of us checking in, and we were quickly led to our rooms.

We were met with a lovely welcome kit. Two delicious fruit plates with fresh peaches, nectarines and grapes. Bags of nuts. Adorable totes. Mountains of toys on lend by teacher families, which honestly saved our lives. And laptops and teaching supplies. Ah yes, virtual school started in two days – the reason we were here.

Luckily, the room was quite large, which allowed for all our luggage and plenty of extra space. Yet we knew we were in trouble when Noodle informed us on the first day, “This hotel room is boring.” He was right. No kitchen area. The TV had one fuzzy sports channel. The internet was spotty. And one entire wall was glass. The upside to the windows was being able to sit in sunlight for our daily  vitamin D boost and hang our heads out the window for fresh air. The downsides to all this glass were that we baked during the day and had an amazing view of…the parking lot. So much for catching a glimpse of Tashkent.

About an hour after arriving, the doorbell rang and we opened it to find four plastics bags with to-go meals. Everyone was so tired that we fell asleep without eating. Bug and Noodle woke up hungry around 3:00am, so we set some couch cushions around the coffee table and inspected the cold offerings. They were endless. A big bowl of soup, heaping mound of white rice, a dinner roll, some French fries, and a hunk of meat (for Brian and the kids) or grilled vegetables (for Lena). The food was not award winning but it wasn’t terrible either. Bland enough for the kids and seasoned enough for the adults. But wow, the carbs. Thankfully, Lena had insisted on bringing some healthy supplements from Trader Joe’s, such as chia seeds and flax meal for the oatmeal and kale chips and freeze dried broccoli for snacks. (It was a sad day when the kale chips ran out.) Starvation and malnutrition were not going to happen here.

Breakfast consisted of porridge, hard boiled eggs, yogurt, Laughing Cow cheese, packaged cheese slices, questionable meat slices, cold hot dogs, and apricot juice boxes. Noodle enthusiastically ate all four hot dogs every single day. And Lena’s overpacking was well-received when her preparedness brought forth Starbucks instant coffee on the first day and later a French press and canister of grounds. One cup of fresh hot coffee was worth all those baggage overage fees and a nearly missed flight.

The doorbell rang again, and Brian opened it expecting the lunch delivery. Instead, he was met with two people in full PPE carrying a large metal box. The one with the clipboard announced, “COVID Test,” while the other opened box and began setting up. Bug promptly went into full meltdown, and Noodle volunteered to go first. However, Brian took that honor. He wheeled the office chair towards the door, signed some official papers written entirely in Russian, and sat down. Although keeping calm, his eyes definitely widened when the enormous cotton swab was removed from the package. Later COVID tests confirm that this swab was not thin,  flexible, or designed for comfort.

Extremely uncomfortable and burning was how Brian described it. Noodle was up next. Brian enveloped him tightly, and despite some wiggles, the nurse was able to complete the test on her first try. When done, he burst out laughing because it tickled so much. Bug was distraught and cried before, during and after the test. He collapsed on the bed and watched as Lena had her nostrils swabbed. She also was not a fan of the test and ended up with a bloody nose. 

We needed to wait three days for the results, which would determine if we could leave our room and split up for online learning. While waited for the results and for virtual school to begin, we drew pictures, played with toys, watched fuzzy Russian League football, and made obstacle courses around the room. 

We had not experienced virtual teaching in the spring so this was a steep learning curve for Lena and Brian. Bug and Noodle had finished up their schooling in Mexico online, so that had given a bit of an idea of what to expect. The internet only worked in a direct line from the door to the desk, so after choreographing a delicate internet set-up, we were able to prep and launch the year. Lena and Bug worked at the desk, where kindergarten was happening, and Brian sat by the door with Noodle where he deftly used his mute button to navigate grade four teaching and preK learning. In an effort to make the first day special, we even took the obligatory first day of school photos with the Do Not Disturb sign in the background. 

After learning that our COVID results were negative, Lena and Bug were able to relocate to a separate hotel room with much better internet for the school day. They literally packed their backpacks, water bottles and snacks, and said good bye for the day. However, on the first day of leaving the room, Lena was warned by our liaison at school that the military guard working that day was not so keen on the arrangement and she should be cautious. Needless to say, Bug was tutored on being extremely quiet, walking quickly without looking around, and acting like everything was normal as they passed the elevator. He did amazingly well, and the guard was strangely not at his desk for the three minutes it took to scurry down the hallway. The way back in the afternoon was a different story. Bug got curious and forgot to whisper, and Lena forgot our room number since this was the only time she had left the room in several days. Thankfully, Brian opened the door and they ducked safely inside. 

Throughout our stay, our school community regularly checked in on us via Telegram, which is a replica of WhatsApp or WeChat. After hearing about the meals, Lena’s teaching partner sent over amazing hummus from a Lebanese restaurant, dark chocolate, and carrots. And after hearing that we were subsisting on water, our principal dropped off several bottles of beer and wine hidden within bags of chocolate, yogurt, crackers, and real cheese. 

Once school began, the days flew by. We kept as normal a schedule as possible with wardrobe changes, meals, playing, evening baths, and bedtime stories. With jet lag, excessive screentime, and the cognitive load of virtual learning – we were exhausted by the end of the day. The best part of our time in quarantine was when our school liaison called to tell us that we could leave the next day. The government had announced that the time was shortened from ten days to seven (it has since shifted back to ten, then to fourteen, and now to quarantine at home). As homeless newbies with nowhere to go, our principal graciously housed us and our mountain of luggage for several days while we put the details of our life together.

I Just Want To Go Home – Lena and Brian

“I just want to go home!” Bug sobbed recently as we cuddled his sad little body. We looked at each other over his head, not knowing how to respond. Which home did he mean? Was it China, Mexico, the US, or perhaps even Mozambique?

It had been a difficult decision to return to the US and leave our new life in Sayulita once the pandemic finally reached Mexico. We were just starting to deepen connections and melt into the contours of our lives. However, the truth is the life we loved ended with the quarantine. Before official mandates in Mexico, we chose to social-distance alongside our families in California and Arizona, so the kids had not been to school or played with friends for many weeks. We weren’t going to restaurants or running into friends around town.

Although Sayulita did not officially have any COVID19 cases at that time and the Mexican government was slow to implement social distancing measures, our town was thankfully locked down by The Gavilanes Vigilantes, a group of local citizens who somewhat officially maintain the peace. Energy was positive but uncertain. We were helping to feed families in need and financially support local businesses. We bonded with other isolated expat families through WhatsApp groups. And we escaped to the jungle for magical hikes to secluded beaches. However, the reality of the pandemic began to feel more real as beaches were closed, state checkpoints were set up between Nayarit and Jalisco, international borders closed, and flights were canceled. We started to become concerned about how and when we would be able to get home and onward to Uzbekistan. When the virus first appeared, we watched our international teaching friends get stranded in Asia. With the long game in mind, we knew we could not get stuck in Mexico. We’d already lost one job this year and couldn’t afford to lose another.

Our original plan had been to drive home because we had accumulated stuff and needed a car in the US. But both the states of Nayarit and Sinaloa had closed hotels, and we were concerned about safety. Although we wanted to avoid flying – especially because the airport in Puerto Vallarta had recently been flooded with tourists and expats rushing to get home before travel restrictions – we were running out of time. Within a week, we sold our car, golf cart, kitchen appliances, camping gear, and donated tons of toys and clothes. It was a mad dash to pack and catch the only remaining flight to Phoenix (which was canceled the following week). 

Masked and doused in hand sanitizer, we boarded a nearly empty flight. Including the four of us, there was a grand total of 9 passengers on the plane. We were nervous about entering the US after all the hype, but there were no lines at Customs, no questions, no temperature checks, no interview about quarantine. The airport was dark and deserted, and we wandered around a bit looking for the parking garage where Brian’s mom had left us her car. Due to health concerns in Brian’s family, there really wasn’t any point staying in Phoenix because we couldn’t interact with anyone even after our initial quarantine. Since his family wouldn’t be leaving their homes any time in the near future, they very generously lent us a car. 

Upon finding the car and hidden key, we had our first wardrobe change and began the Tetris game of cramming our stuff – including two huge carseats – into the tiny vehicle. It took an hour. Then we found the SIM cards Mimi had left for us and spent twenty minutes on the phone with T-Mobile so we could be in communication and access maps while driving to San Francisco. When it was finally time to get on the road, Bug and Noodle were extremely unpleased with us. It only slightly had something to do with us breaking Noodle’s toy guitar during the luggage transition. Thankfully, Mimi had packed us a kit, so we pumped the kids full of peanut butter sandwiches and gold fish. Welcome to America. 

Despite the risk of staying in a hotel, we knew the kids couldn’t do the drive in one push. We decided to break up the twelve hours to San Francisco with a stopover in Palm Springs. Not the fashionable getaway one might imagine. A very short stay limited to the car and the hotel room. So after another wardrobe change, we brandished Bug and Noodle with disinfectant wipes (thanks again to Mimi’s kit) and set them loose. Of course Lena was right behind double wiping door knobs, toilet handles and remote controls. But we couldn’t wipe the sheets or the couch. Everything we touched felt like a potential exposure and we were on edge.

Driving through the Sierras the next morning was a special reprieve as they were covered in colorful swaths of wildflowers and capped with snow. Although far away on peaks, the kids were excited to to see snow for the first time and inundated us with questions about the “snow gear” they would need to climb to the summits. Little did they know that their parents had been fantasizing about a long term plan to section hike the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail, a through hike from Mexico to Canada that paralleled some of our driving route) as a family someday. Similar to those hiking in the mountains alongside us, we survived the road trip on junk food and stopped occasionally to run around in fields and attend to nature calls outside the confines of public toilets. As the roads were empty except for trucks fulfilling the frenzy of online orders (which we would shortly contribute to), we made excellent time.

Our next stop on the Thomsper Displaced Tour of 2019-2020 was Lena’s sister’s house in San Francisco. She was not there as her clan was riding out the shelter-in-place restrictions in the isolated winter wonderland of Montana. This meant we had their house to ourselves for a month. The space was kid-friendly, well-stocked and full of natural light. It was also wonderful to just leave the back door open for the kids to run free in the fenced backyard while we were strictly quarantining for our first 14 days back. Socially distanced stoop visits worked well for Lena and Bug’s birthday parties, as we sat at the top of the stairs and guests stayed at the bottom. And we regularly took advantage of urban hikes and open green spaces throughout the city. 

Sadly, we had to relocate again when Tía and family returned. It was decided that two families with four toddlers and one on the way (not ours!) was just a tad too much. It was bittersweet to move 45 minutes away from family and our stoop visits, but we are quickly adjusting to dreamy suburban life in Marin County. After some adjustments to make the space more kid-friendly and copious cuddles as the boys acclimated to yet another home that wasn’t theirs, they have grown to love deer sightings in the large backyard, bike riding on the quiet streets, and hiking through the magical forests that surround us. Treks into town for gelato are also a plus.

This year has been quite the ride. Failed move to Moscow. Scrambling to figure out where we were going to spend our year on not off. Locking down and relocating internationally during a global pandemic. Staying in two different houses once we returned to the US. And waiting to find out when we will be able to get to Uzbekistan. We have learned and relearned about the importance of resilience and focusing on the blessings in the present. But we have also realized how desperately our children are needing a place to call “home.” This is the endless dilemma of the expat life.

Job Search…Soul Search – Lena and Brian

Apologies that our fledgeling blog has been neglected. Aside from unreliable internet, we have completely lost ourselves in the job search for next year. This involves hours of searching on databases, strategizing for job fairs, researching about schools and locations, revising cover letters to address the specifics of each school, completing detailed applications on individual school websites, maintaining communication with former colleagues and potential employers. Taking breaks to mop the floor, do laundry, organize the pantry. And parent. Oh, and Brian is now a longterm substitute at the American School of Puerto Vallarta (woohoo!). And I am supporting a family in beginning the journey of homeschooling (yay!).

Our #YearOnNotOff just got a little more ON. We’ve hardly recovered from the intensity of last year’s job search and were looking forward to not doing one for a long time. There’s also unease after putting forth so much effort and watching the results slip through our fingers. But we love what we do and are very eager to dive back in.

Reflecting on our job search experience last year, we think our ultimate success was due to in-person interviews at a job fair. No doubt, we also bombed a few. But overall, we felt that face-to-face conversations brought our CVs to life (quite literally). Where we struggle is standing out on paper. Each school receives thousands of applications for one position. And most applicants have equal years experience, share our pedagogies, and feel the same passion.

How do we set ourselves apart? After revamping our CVs last year with an updated look, the new message we are now receiving is that they should be basic for software scanning. Additionally, we are vacillating about how to handle this big gap at the top. Do we mention being hired and released at no-fault? Do we add our current short term positions? We’ve decided that the cover letter is where we can tell our story about truly making this year count. We hope that our positivity and creativity in response to this detour demonstrate why we would be great employees. But we also need to paint a more vivid picture of ourselves as experienced educators.

Researching how to refine our message led to Kerri Twigg’s website which is full of nuggets on “using your story to find your strengths.” We felt that reflecting on her ten prompts could help us get past “being passionate” and better define which skills and assets we actually offer.

We’ve decided to post the questions and our answers for multiple reasons. First, we do offer links to our social media outlets to help recruiters get to know us beyond the bullets on our CVs or the two paragraphs each in our joint cover letter. Second, the portrayal of teachers in the media and by politicians is often negative and flat, so we hope this more positively and deeply illustrates our professional identity. And finally, our friends and family from home don’t actually know much about our lives as international educators. They know we live far away. Hopefully this post will explain more about why.

Brian

1. What are three things you get complimented on?

  • Building connections with disengaged students
  • Efficiently managing my time and keeping meetings on track
  • Staying calm and unflustered amidst hyper students, report deadlines, concerned parents, etc.

2. What do you get asked to be a part of?

  • I’m the go-to guy for planning and leading nature activities, science experiments, or field trips.

3. What do you end up doing in any role regardless of the sector?

  • In my “past life” I was a researcher for the US Forest Service and then an environmental educator at national parks, which ultimately led to teaching. The skills that tie all these roles together include:
    • Taking a systematic approach to identifying and addressing challenges in the environment (tree illness, inclement weather, student behavior challenges)
    • Collecting, sorting, and analyzing data (tree measurements, animal tracking, assessment outcomes)
    • Utilizing a variety of environments to keep learning stimulating

4. What work feels effortless?

  • I love guiding students in identifying, planning and implementing projects that address authentic problems in their lives. I’m energized when my work has deeper purpose.

5. What work comes easily to you, but others struggle with?

  • I think some teachers feel overwhelmed by the details of organizing and leading field trips, but this actually allows me to combine my calm nature, organization skills, and pedagogy framed around experiential learning. 

6. What do you research all the time?

  • I am always looking up random facts, usually in relation to a nonfiction book or article I’ve been reading. 

7. What action needs to be part of the work you do?

  • My work needs to be connected to the reality of our classroom, the school, local community, or current events in the world – and it needs to have a positive impact on one or more of those places. I need students to realize how important they are for the future of our world.

8. What makes you feel alive?

  • I am happiest when I am outside, in the woods or at least accessing natural elements of wherever we are living. In urban environments, this can even be a patch of grass or a cluster of trees.

9. What are you the proudest of doing in your career?

  • In a grade four unit that inquired into goods and services, the students designed and implemented businesses on campus. Once they began earning profits, we researched and selected female entrepreneurs within our local community and provided microloans through Kiva

10. What are you most introduced as having done?

  • Colleagues tend to talk with me most about the projects I am currently involved in, which could be service initiatives involving teachers or some type of creation that my students are making.

Lena

1. What are three things you get complimented on?

  • Displays of visible thinking and students’ learning in progress
  • When students I work with are building confidence and showing improvements in other classes
  • Contributions I offer during collaborative planning meetings

2. What do you get asked to be a part of?

  • I often get asked to attend curriculum development and unit planning meetings to ensure that differentiation (especially for language) is being addressed. In this bigger picture, I want to look at content, process and product and ensure that both content and language objectives are defined and accounted for throughout the learning journey.

3. What do you end up doing in any role regardless of the sector?

  • I’ve had some interesting jobs! I’ve worked in sales at a wine store and for a company selling boutique doggie wear (my puppy came to work with me). I’ve served gourmet meals at fine dining restaurants. I was a project manager for nonprofit that researched ethical culture in the workplace. And I’ve taught everything from preschool summer camp in the woods to adult English classes in the West Bank. The unifying factor in all of these is that I truly believed in what I was selling (cute dog collars, delicious wine and food, improving work environments, joy of learning), and I was able to convince people why. These jobs also required setting goals, maintaining timelines with lots of moving parts, taking pride in presentation, communicating effectively, and managing a wide variety of expectations. 

4. What work feels effortless?

  • Building relationships with students is everything to me. When a student is struggling, my immediate thoughts are, “What need isn’t being met to cause this behavior? What can I do to meet that need?”

5. What work comes easily to you, but others struggle with?

  • I love breaking down the big picture of a unit or lesson to anticipate challenges (especially for language learners) and then planning/creating scaffolds to make the learning experiences more accessible.

6. What do you research all the time?

7. What action needs to be part of the work you do?

  • I need to see systems and best practices that demonstrate equity; students and teachers need to be given a voice and they need to be supported and celebrated as works-in-progress. I need to see collective effort to bring out the best in colleagues and students, and I need to hear CAN DO language.

8. What makes you feel alive?

  • I am most alive watching children (my own and students) engrossed in meaningful play and sharing excitedly about their discoveries.

9. What are you the proudest of doing in your career?

  • I am most proud of the shift toward inclusion that I initiated at my last school. It was challenging to change meeting agendas, classroom practices, and deep-seeded beliefs about language learners. I led the EAL team in advocating for, planning and implementing these changes at many levels. Although this will remain a longterm project for the department – and we learned as much from our mistakes as our successes – I believe my contribution was significant in shifting the essential culture of the school toward a more inclusive mindset.

10. What are you most introduced as having done?

  • Colleagues often stop by to see my classroom because it is such a flexible environment filled with visible learning. I’m also known as an advocate for language learners because I am constantly asking questions about how we can improve our practice to better meet their needs.

Parenting Not Sharenting – Brian

We have had serious discussions about the role our children would play in the evolution of this blog. Their very existence underpins all our decision-making, and this blog is essentially about the decisions we make as an expat family, so clearly they need to be acknowledged. Using pseudonyms was an easy agreement, and if you know our kids, Bug and Noodle are apt names. Yet we did not so easily agree on how to visually represent them. Photographs are integral to a blog, as the images capture readers’ attention and create an immediate stimulus to accompany text. If we are writing about our kids, we need to show them in some way. 

We ultimately decided not to show our children’s faces but were uncertain about exactly how and what impact it would have on the blog. Can mood be created without seeing their faces? How much emotion is lost? What if we blurred them? Would that be distracting? Is blurring enough protection? How about putting shapes over their faces?

But wait. This isn’t only about our amateur blogging aspirations. Our children’s identities will be impacted by having an online presence. Each time a photo is uploaded to the internet it leaves a digital footprint that can never be fully erased. How will this affect our toddlers? Or their future selves? What could happen to a photo once it is downloaded off our blog and we’ve have lost control of it? Consider the Tweet we shared about losing our jobs. It was seen by nearly 12,000 people and almost 1,500 did something with it. Do Bug or Noodle want that many people seeing a photo of them playing in the park? 

As veteran teachers, we have well-resourced “toolkits” to pull from when making parenting decisions. To tackle this challenge, we chose to lean on the International Baccalaureate Enhanced Primary Years Program, which centers learning around an agency framework of voice, choice and ownership.

They deserve ownership of their sense of self. It is important that we allow them to develop this identity outside the confines of a forced online one that they didn’t create. We want them to have the freedom to explore and experiment without worrying about how they appear to others. That is the innocence of childhood, and we don’t want to steal it. We do capture precious moments and occasionally share them on our closely controlled personal social media accounts, but that is not the intention of this blog.

We also want to give our children voice and choice about how they are portrayed to the world. It is unfair for us to make this decision for them, and they are too young to give informed consent, so we are including them in deciding which photos they are comfortable using. Although they may not fully understand the significance of the choice, they are learning that it is a choice that exists and we feel it is important. Hopefully this understanding will stay with them as they grow older.

The term sharenting has been coined to describe this act of posting children’s lives online as they grow up. With so many established parenting blogs and celebrity moms and dads with millions of followers posting constantly about their children, the phenomenon has now come to a head. Now-teens are expressing strong feelings about discovering the photos of themselves that their parents have been posting. To protect these children, France has actually passed laws allowing parents to be fined or jailed for posting pictures of their children online.

The immediate dangers go beyond disrespecting the kids’ ownership of and autonomy over their identities. There is also a very real risk of online role-playing and digital kidnapping, where photos are stolen from social media and used for other purposes, such as advertisements or on explicit websites. The Thomas family experienced this when they found their family photo being used for a local political campaign without their permission, which then led to them discovering its use in ad campaigns in many different countries. They have never consented to or received compensation for the photo’s use, and getting companies to take it down has been a nightmare. Even more concerning, the BBC warns that photos easily linked to an abundance of personal information could make our children vulnerable to future financial fraud

Research for this post made Lena and I realize that we needed to check out our own media footprints to ensure that geotags, contact information, and location-identifiers in photos were removed enough to keep the children safe. We started by self-Googling and were comfortable with the results. Except for one picture. We had originally opted to blur the kids’ faces, but seeing it appear in a Google image search gave us pause, so we decided to re-edit the photo and add shapes over their faces. Perhaps more distracting and detracting but better for our children. As an additional safety measure, we will also watermark the photos.

Not our favorite option for concealing faces

Parents make a million decisions every day in the best interest of their children. We try to be as informed and intentional as possible, but ultimately we go with instinct. Are we perfect parents? No way. Do we make mistakes? Most definitely. Are we comfortable with the level of anonymity that we’ve attempted to maintain for our children? We think so. 

We can’t prevent “right click, save,” but we can take measures to protect our images and the people within them. What decisions have you made regarding your own, your children’s or students’ digital footprints? We’d love to hear your thoughts.