Murat Gökalp and Canan Cermen have been working with Search Associates (SEARCH) since Day 1, they say, having learned about us from international educators posted in their home country of Istanbul. This teaching couple met while working at the same school, and with the help of SEARCH, Canan and Murat have enjoyed appointments in Qingdao, China; Bali, Indonesia; and Shanghai, China. “Thanks to the SEARCH database,” says Murat, their last two job offers came from schools that they hadn’t even applied for! Being an international teacher had been a life-long goal for Murat, and Canan says her husband and colleagues gave her the wings to fly. Canan reflects on a line by Greek Ottoman poet Hayali:
"The fish in the sea doesn’t understand the sea." We were the fish in the sea before we started international teaching.
Teaching internationally took Murat and Canan on an introspective journey. From a distance, they were able to look at themselves and their own culture critically, realizing their own biases. It allowed them to appreciate certain aspects of their own culture taken for granted when they were home in Turkey, and it allowed them to question aspects of their home culture they had always considered as “right.” The couple became more in-tune with their personal needs and insecurities as a result of new and challenging circumstances, becoming more open-minded, flexible, and accepting in the process. They believe they have grown as individuals and as educators from working with many excellent educators from around the world. They have also realized that students are students everywhere; their worries, misconceptions, and causes for laughter are similar, no matter what culture or nationality they belong to.
Before committing to a career in overseas teaching, Canan taught for a year in a Los Angeles public school as a Fulbright Exchange teacher and Murat worked for two years in an International Baccalaureate (IB) summer school on Spetses Island in Greece.
For job searches, Murat and Canan construct their own school profile based on their intersecting desires before diving into SEARCH’s vast database. After they zero in on positions in IB schools, they create a color-coded spreadsheet which helps them measure their criteria against the available jobs on the SEARCH database. A positive response to an application moves them to research details about that school’s location and salary and benefits package. Through the internet, they discover what the city offers in terms of supermarkets, museums and the arts, landmarks, public transportation, sporting activities and events, safety, hospitals and health facilities as well as ease of international travel. A red flag for Canan and Murat is a high crime rate. They add,
We search for elements of our culture within in that city, for example a Turkish restaurant and supermarket or groceries as well as a consulate. . . The existence of the Turkish consulate in Shanghai is one of the aspects that affected our choice positively.
The interview process allows the couple to capture the academic climate of the school by asking as many questions as they can about the curriculum, community, and resources available for professional development. They talk to friends and colleagues about prospective schools and try to connect with teachers who have worked or are still working at the school. In the end, Canan and Murat are confident that they have made the right choice when they feel that the administrators are caring and the community supportive.
From March 2020 until October 2021, at the height of the COVID-19 crisis, Canan and Murat taught a combination of online and blended learning. After the lessons, their day usually ended with regular school meetings and meetings with students. During the pandemic, students requested more support to fill in the gaps of their learning. Murat and Canan say that their iPads and Apple Pencils were the best tools for facilitating their online teaching capabilities.
Last year, the illness and passing of both their fathers compelled Murat and Canan to fly back to Istanbul from Bali. For around 10 weeks, they had to teach online with a five-hour time difference between Istanbul and Bali. A regular school day for them was 2 a.m. to 11 a.m., and bedtime was between 6 and 7 p.m.! They say,
We were basically trying to fit two time zones into 24 hours. Unfortunately, your sleeping routine adapts to local time during the weekends, and every Sunday you have to adapt back to your 2 a.m. routine!
In August 2021, the couple started working for a school in Shanghai, but because of COVID-19 regulations, they were prohibited from flying to China and compelled to teach online again, adapting to the China time zone, again five hours ahead of Istanbul. Eventually, Canan and Murat were able fly to China where a three-week quarantine awaited them: two in a hotel in Guangzhou and then one more when they moved to Shanghai. Teaching at the same time in a hotel room meant that one of them had to conduct lessons in the bathroom. Fortunately, the couple had already practiced this during their quarantine in Indonesia when they had returned from Istanbul. This amazingly resilient couple reflects:
When we flew to China and felt no jet lag, we realized that we had been in constant jetlag when we were teaching online from Istanbul! We are thankful to both of our schools in Bali and Shanghai for being incredibly supportive during this difficult period.
Murat says the hardest part was teaching to a black screen for hours because many of his students preferred to keep their cameras off during the online lessons. For Canan, the most difficult part was assigning science labs to be completed at home. Unable to be with her students to check their learning and give them immediate feedback meant “everything took twice or three times as long, depending on the activity, and student motivation, etc."
Despite rough circumstances, it is easy for Canan and Murat to be grateful. Murat thanks Steve Jobs for the innovation of the iPad! Canan says that amazing technology in general and the ability to teach online allowed them to go to Istanbul and be with their families during very difficult times. They were able to keep up with their school work while helping their families during the day and being with their fathers before they passed away. Murat adds,
Another unexpected blessing was being under lockdown in Bali, with blue skies, sunshine and 30 degrees temperature every day, easy access to outdoors, beach and amazing resorts–whenever we were allowed.
This experienced and reflective international teaching couple wants prospective international educators to be as practical and vigilant in their research as they have been. Murat recommends that young teachers begin teaching abroad as soon as possible! He also says that being able to teach more than one subject and/or being able to coach a sport is a big plus for landing overseas teaching jobs. Canan’s final recommendation:
Analyze yourself first—honestly and realistically—to decide what would be suitable for you, in order to minimize disappointments later on. Then, have an open-minded, positive, and curious attitude about all experiences, and make a vow to learn from every opportunity.