News: The Stephensons: From Peace Corps to International Classrooms - Dec 15, 2023
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Friday, December 15, 2023Candidate Stories

The Stephensons: From Peace Corps to International Classrooms

While wandering the exhibition hall of a conference in San Francisco for the National Council for Teacher of Mathematics (NCTM), Dwight Stephenson discovered international teaching and Search Associates (SEARCH). He took a picture of a brochure someone had flashed and set a reminder on his phone that this opportunity was out there. He says,

It took five years to be in the right place in our life to do it, but here we are teaching internationally.

Now in their fifth wonderful year at Xiamen International School (XIS), the Stephenson family is preparing to move to Seoul, South Korea. Though it will be the family’s first international school transition and second international move, Dwight and Mari began teaching overseas years ago during two transformative years in the Peace Corps.

The couple enlisted right after graduation from San Diego University, looking for adventure and a chance to be of service. In Burkina Faso, West Africa, Mari was given the role as an education and empowerment mentor, mostly for girls in primary schools and groups of women, and Dwight—who had wanted to “save the world by planting trees”—was told that if he wanted to serve in the Peace Corps, he would have to teach math and English. He recalls,

After three months of training in pedagogical techniques and language instructing in French, I was thrown into a local school with 50 students in my class. The only resources at my disposal were a chalk board and some chalk. I was teaching mathematics, in French, to students whose home language was Moore. It was the most challenging experience of my life, and yet I found myself loving it. I had moments of awe and inspiration at the creativeness of my students and the passion and joy they brought to the classroom. These moments convinced me that I wanted to be an educator, and I haven’t regretted my decision.

Driven by the recognition that providing educational opportunities to underprivileged communities could empower them to "break free from the cycle of poverty," Mari obtained her teaching credential in California while raising their two young daughters. Concurrently, Dwight contributed to Math for America Los Angeles, an organization he deems "invaluable" for his professional development as an educator.

During that time, Dwight and Mari decided that they would reenter the world of international teaching in a professional capacity, “to continue to make a difference in the world while also pursuing a rewarding career.” So, when Dwight heeded his phone reminder from five years earlier, the teaching couple registered with SEARCH. They were assigned to Senior Associates Robert and Jennifer Imholt who helped them register for the San Francisco Fair in February 2019. They say,

It was an exceptional experience that left a lasting impression…Being able to participate in in-person interviews allowed us to engage directly with school representatives and showcase our qualifications and passion for teaching. And the personal interactions we had with other teachers there provided valuable insights into different educational environments and cultures.

The fair yielded job offers for the teaching couple from three schools in China. Dwight and Mari explain how they knew XIS was ideal:

First, the head of school impressed us greatly…We felt confident in their ability to create a positive and supportive environment for both staff and students. Additionally, the city of Xiamen itself…with its pleasant climate and coastal charm, resonated with us…as a conducive and enjoyable living environment…Furthermore, XIS's offering of the International Baccalaureate (IB) continuum was a significant factor in our decision. The value and rigor of the IB programs… align with our educational philosophy and provide students with a well-rounded and globally recognized education.

XIS has not only been a great place to teach but also a place a great place for their two daughters Thao (10) and Thi (8) to thrive. They have been exposed to different educational systems, approaches, and perspectives. Living abroad among different cultures and languages has instilled in them tolerance, adaptability, and open-mindedness. Also deeply enriching have been family trips to Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Sanya, Thailand, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, and many areas near Xiamen. Mari explains,

When we visit these places, we walk the streets and visit the local areas. We talk to our kids about the way others live their lives and ask them to identify similarities and differences. Many of these trips have given our children perspective and appreciation for what they have.

After a family decision to make a change, this fall, Mari and Dwight contacted SEARCH to reactivate and update their files before initiating a fresh job search. Using the SEARCH platform to explore vacancies, apply for positions, send important documents, and interview, the couple secured positions aligning with their aspirations. Within one month, Dwight and Mari accepted an offer to join Seoul Foreign School (SFS) for the 2024-2025 academic year. This “extraordinary” outcome is not lost on them; they are extremely grateful for the support of SEARCH and their associates Jen and Bob Imholt. Mari will be teaching kindergarten and Dwight will be teaching math and science in grades 9 to 12.

While the whole family continues to cherish their experiences at XIS and life in Xiamen, Mari and Dwight share their anticipation:

This exciting new venture promises to be a remarkable opportunity for personal and professional growth. We eagerly anticipate the chance to contribute to the learning community at Seoul Foreign School and immerse ourselves in the vibrant culture of Seoul.

If you are considering teaching abroad, Mari and Dwight share four pointers:

  • Embrace cultural diversity: It is an opportunity to learn and grow both personally and professionally.
  • Be flexible and adaptable: Teaching in an international school often means dealing with a dynamic and ever-changing environment.
  • Seek and take advantage of professional development opportunities: International schools usually provide a wealth of professional development opportunities, ranging from workshops and conferences to collaboration with educators from around the world.
  • Build a supportive network: Moving to a new country and starting a teaching job can be both exciting and challenging. Build a supportive network of colleagues, both within your school and in the wider expatriate community. Connect with other international educators, join professional organizations, and participate in local events and activities.

Did You Know…?

Many international schools start recruiting in September for the following school year.