College Admission Officer Elizabeth Elger and aspiring Sports Broadcaster Joey Elger enjoyed aspects of their first careers, but the strain of completely different schedules led this fun-loving and adventurous couple to brainstorm another career path in which they could be together. Positive past experiences with tutoring/coaching got them thinking about education. Liz reached out to the superintendent of their hometown school system in Habersham, Georgia for advice on how to get into the profession—never expecting that their first meeting with Dr. Judy Forbes would include interviews with an athletic director and two principals about starting jobs in the following months!
That whirlwind career change involved moving back home, buying a house, and jumping into 6th/9th grade classrooms with not a day of formal teacher training beyond pre-planning! Joey and Liz remain “eternally grateful” for the patience of the administrators who saw them through the steep learning curve that first year, “fraught with obstacles along the way.” They add,
Even though exhaustion became a state of being, we loved it. It checked the two main requirements of a successful career in our minds—never feeling bored and feeling that one’s work makes a difference. Still to this day, these two things have kept us in the profession regardless of what else has gone on around us.
Sixteen years later, the Elgers are thriving, certified international educators and parents of two citizens of the world, daughters Niall (9) and Grady (6). They have experienced thrills as well as challenges: long-distance separation, two massive hurricanes, and the temporary fostering of three teenage age boys—all former students. Having learned a thing or two way beyond pedagogy, they speak about managing the COVID-19 crisis:
Improvisation is really the key word. We take it day-by-day, not forcing our daughters into any online learning that would jeopardize their social/emotional health. . . As for our own students, two things are most important: positive energy and quality over quantity. Everyone has been knocked down by the virus, so being able to be engaged, encouraging, and flexible helps students more than anything. Just like with our own kids, having a pulse on what’s needed that day should override any plans coming in.
Joey and Elizabeth met in 9th grade English class at Habersham Central High School in a small town in the north Georgia mountains. Their relationship endured despite attending colleges across the U.S. and Liz’s post-graduate year at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. They married in Habersham in 2005 and taught their first five years in Habersham at two different schools. Liz and their daughters returned to Habersham when Hurricanes Irma and Maria decimated the island of St. Thomas, where the family had been living and working. Liz explains,
After Irma hit during the 2017-2018 school year, we, along with our daughters and dog, were evacuated to St. Croix and then back to Georgia. Maria hit while we were in Georgia. Joey returned to help our school start back up, while I stayed in Habersham with our daughters.
The Elgers certainly kept a pulse on what was needed during that crisis. Liz took a position teaching elementary PE in Habersham while working remotely as a college counselor for her school in St. Thomas. Joey shared an apartment in St. Thomas with a good, couple friend while the school worked on re-opening, which happened a few weeks after the storm—despite a lack of electricity. It took nearly four months for government-controlled power to be fully restored on the island.
During that time, two brothers from the island, whom the Elgers had taught for five years, moved to Habersham to live with Liz and the girls. Quinn and Grant, Grades 10 and 12, respectively, had been training to earn soccer scholarships for college, but when all of the facilities in St. Thomas were destroyed, the brothers moved to attend, train, and graduate from Habersham Central High over the course of three years. In 2018-2019, Alex, a third student-athlete and former student of Joey and Liz—a baseball player—also joined the Elgers for his senior year and graduation. Liz and Joey reflect:
It is amazing how such a traumatic event (the hurricanes) has ultimately had such a positive impact on our lives. . . Only in the world of international teaching, and its tight-knit communities, would such a scenario have been possible.
What compelled the Elgers to teach abroad? On the eve of their 30th birthdays, after five happy years of teaching in their home county, they took stock. They craved opportunities for culture, travel, professional development, and broader educational opportunities for their children’s future. And they dreamed of attending international football/soccer matches, as well as the ideal climate and seasons. They developed a spreadsheet of cities and schools within those regions meeting the Elgers’ criteria, followed by an Excel spreadsheet with a point system for various preferences. In the end, they targeted schools that seemed like the right fit. “If you build it, they will come” (Field of Dreams, 1989).
The Elgers’ first job fair experience through the University of Northern Iowa involved a whirlwind Saturday of 10 interviews, two job offers, two near misses, and nothing set for the next year. They were fine with the prospect of remaining in Habersham County for the time being, but fate had other plans. One of their old high school friends, a lawyer in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands— a U.S. territory in the middle of the Pacific Ocean—wanted to know if the Elgers had any interest in teaching there. Three months later, Joey and Liz were on a plane to Saipan, about to begin work at Marianas High School, a 1,500-student public school right across from the beach. Though they were technically still in the U.S., Joey and Liz felt as if their careers in international teaching had begun. After working at Marianas High School one year, the Elgers moved to Tbilisi, the Republic of Georgia, where they taught the International Baccalaureate Programme for the first time at the New School, the International School of Georgia, and where their daughter Niall was born.
Joey and Liz heard about Search Associates (SEARCH) from teaching friends who had found success with the agency. Despite confidence in their ability to find jobs by using school sites and subscribing to databases, the Elgers registered with SEARCH. They explain,
For us, it was all about having an advisor to ask questions to and bounce ideas off of. Senior Associate Julie Ryan was fantastic in all parts of this.
Liz and Joey attended the Search Cambridge Fair in January 2020, and because job fairs are crucial to their decision-making process, they will continue to attend them, if at all possible. The teaching couple interviews with the schools that have a lot of boxes checked on their spreadsheet, but they say the face-to-face interviews are what settles it. They recall their interview with Stephane Ruz from the American International School of Vilnius (AISV).For us, it wasn’t about a school having certain measurable achievements as it was about the chemistry that existed between ourselves and the interviewer. When we talked with Stephane, it felt like a good match. We asked a range of questions and were impressed with how forthright he was and how relatable he was.
The benefits of education and life abroad have been immeasurable for the Elgers. Niall and Grady have been able to avoid specific cultural norms against which to measure themselves, which has made their lives much richer. Joey and Liz love that families in international communities greatly rely on one another and as a result, grow close. They also observe time and again that international kids are much more resilient. Because travel and learning through experience has been a priority for Joey and Liz, they have been thrilled for opportunities to take students on trips. When the Elgers lived in Tbilisi, Joey took students to Azerbaijan for athletic competitions. Their school on St. Thomas made it possible for the teaching couple to take students to explore academic and personal passions during two-to three-week trips to Mauritius, the Netherlands, Canada, and the Yucatan Peninsula.
The Elgers have transformed their dreams into reality, by communicating their desires, getting specific, and meeting the whirlwinds of chance and challenge with improvisation, hard work, and generosity. Even though they are sure you too can be self-sufficient, they leave you with one strong recommendation:
When it becomes feasible again, go to a SEARCH fair and meet people face-to-face. Interview the interviewer: it’s about making a match as much as being the most qualified.