Compared to where I was just one year ago, I’ve come to realize that my life these days is reflected in a near perfect mirror image across the other side of the Mediterranean.
A year ago, in Thessaloniki, Greece, I would wake up each morning to the smell of the sea and wander sleepily down apartment-lined streets to catch a city bus to the outskirts of the city. I would disembark at an abandoned cement factory, the inside converted into a refuge for families displaced from Syria and Iraq. I would enter the building, ascend the stairs to a room overlooking the former factory floor, and greet a room full of youth who were part of the first ever education program in the camp. For some, it was their very first experience in a classroom, even a makeshift one. For me, it was my first experience as a teacher.
The beginning of this month marked the start of my second term as a class teacher at Elm International School in Alexandria, Egypt. These days, I wake up each morning to the smell of a different sea. I wander a short ways down a tree-lined street to reach the gates of a historic villa converted into a school. Once inside, I walk up the stairs to a sunlit classroom, its green-shuttered windows looking out onto a canopy of fluttering leaves.
Reflecting on where I was a year ago has allowed me to trace an unexpected connectedness within my own life, as I look across my journey in international education. I’ve seen that learning can occur in the least expected places, from former factories to converted villas. Along the way, I’ve picked up skills, practices, and frameworks that I can adapt to any new environment.
Teaching is the first job I’ve had that can be described in a single word. This role has enabled me to tap into a more creative side of myself, to extend my patience beyond what I imagined myself capable of, to appreciate spontaneity and allow myself to be surprised, to expand my capacity to care, to be dynamic. Thinking of the ways that I’ve already grown within the space of a single year, I feel more focused, capable, and excited about my path forward.
My experience in Greece taught me that learners with different needs, aspirations, and life experiences—those who don’t look like traditional students—are typically relegated to realms of the education system that offer limited pathways forward. My experience in Egypt has shown me that a student-centered model can effectively provide meaningful pathways to advance education, while also valuing each learners’ unique next steps.
One year ago, I was working against severe resource constraints, policy barriers, and lack of political will to design meaningful learning opportunities for displaced youth. Now, I teach at an international school that draws learners from a wide variety of backgrounds and life experiences. While the education model I’m currently working with isn’t without its own unique challenges, teaching at Elm International School has certainly expanded my perspective. It has allowed me to see that challenges can push educators to think more creatively about what education means in the most fundamental sense.
My journey over the past year has reaffirmed my commitment to expand the opportunities students can have, regardless of their circumstances. For a generation of youth eager to learn, grow, and make change for a better world, this could be my greatest impact.