You don’t have to be famous to be someone’s hero. In fact, most heroes are ordinary people. Everyday people who are authentic and genuine and give from their hearts. We all love to read stories about random acts of kindness and everyday heroics. Part 3 of the Raising Global Citizens Shero Series:Education is highlighting one of those everyday women who are changing the world.
Even though she doesn’t wear a superhero cape, this women makes an incredible difference in the lives of many. When I wrote about why Wonder Woman is such a role model, it was due to her superpower of empathy, not her beauty or her strength.
My goal is to share a few stories of every day women who are not globally recognized celebrities. Raising Global Citizens Shero series is about highlighting every day superhero women, (aka shero), who are accomplishing their dreams and inspiring children to believe they can too.
I think that we all do heroic things, but (s)hero is not a noun, it’s a verb.
-Robert Downey, Jr.
Raising Global Citizens Shero Series
One of the most popular projects for young children is writing what they want to be when they grow up. Answers vary from “I want to be an artist” to “I want to be a rabbit”. However, most children will answer they want to be a superhero. Spider Man, Wonder Woman, the Hulk, you name it. Children believe in themselves in a way that adults no longer do often times.
This series is about showcasing a few little girls who grew up to go against the status quo. They believe in their abilities, but they also have dedicated their lives to make a global impact. They are truly role models for us who want to raise our kids to become globally minded citizens.
Today, Part 3 of our series is with an international teacher named Emily Silva. Most of you would probably agree that a career in teaching is one of the most (sh)eroic jobs out there. When you learn about “community helpers” in school, you learn about the job of a teacher. What is unique about our shero today is that after going to school to become an educator, she now teaches kids from around the world.
There is something to be said about a 4-year-old who believes becoming an astronaut is possible. They do not worry about how competitive it is to become an astronaut. They simply believe in their abilities. I also think there is great value in showing kids non-traditional careers that they many not learn in a “community helpers” unit in the classroom. Sure, astronauts, veterinarians, and doctors are the most popular choices. Every knows about teachers, but today I hope can learn from our shero on her unique profession as an international school educator.
Emily has spent the last 10 years teaching in 6 different countries. (United States, Azerbaijan, United Arab Emirates, China, Venezuela, and currently in Monterrey, Mexico) The children in her classroom have parents who are among the top leaders of the world. Imagine having a parent-teacher conference with a sheikh or a President of a country. They do not train you for talking about literacy to a CEO of an oil company in any teacher education course I took. Below is her amazing story of her journey around the world as a teacher.
Tell us about your job.
“Teaching. It’s a lot like herding cats.” I saw this on one of these Pinterest eCards that were floating around a few years ago. To be honest, no truer words have ever been written. Every day is unique. Some days you herd cats, and other days you hold Socratic discussions on gender roles throughout history. I am an English teacher, but The reality of what goes on inside the walls of my classroom is much bigger than reading and writing–it’s teaching students to be human.
To connect with and care about each other and about the world we live in. And most importantly I teach them have an opinion about things in their lives and to be able to coherently argue that stance and then sit back and expertly listen to another perspective. But because schools cannot call my classes “Life Lessons with Ms. Silva in D102”, labels are needed.
I currently teach Middle School English (grade 8), Middle School Leadership (much like community service), Digital Photography, and I am also the Middle School English Curriculum Coordinator.
How did you decide on a career in education?
The truth is that I never wanted to be a teacher. My mom was a teacher and seeing how tired and stressed she was really made me wonder why anyone would choose a profession that makes you feel that way.
Fast forward to college and my 20 year-old self is wondering what to do with life. I had switched majors three times, failed Organic Chemistry, and questioned if I would ever have a piece of my writing published. One night, during a booze-fueled-pep-talk with myself, I thought about doing the one thing that scared me: teaching.
After a few cups of coffee, I sat at my computer and applied for an AmeriCorps scholarship where I would teach writing to incarcerated women at the detention center in town. (I got the gig)
This was my foray into the world of education. I dove in head first. And I loved it. Working with underprivileged and under-served women gave me purpose. I knew I wanted to work with diverse/unique populations of people. I quickly came to realize that if I got my teaching license, then I could travel the world and work with under-served populations as well. So I added education classes to my course load, and the rest is history.
Give us a few of the highlights of each country you have lived in.
Baku, Azerbaijan: Taught me to appreciate the little things in life. Like running water and prepackaged meat. I also learned about how much I truly love to travel and experience other cultures and people.
Abu Dhabi, U.A.E.: Challenged my personal self. I traveled the Middle East and also dealt with the shocking loss of my father after he died in a skiing accident.
Qingdao, China: It was a test of my tolerance. Not only did it test my alcohol tolerance–there were many a crazy nights here–but I had to dig deep to see the beauty of the culture and people. China has some incredible sights, and it also has some bothersome habits.
Ciudad Ojeda, Venezuela: Showed me about the world of politics as the economy’s infrastructure collapsed and protesters and rioters took the streets daily. I also met my first love, in the form of a street puppy I rescued named Lucy.
Monterrey, Mexico: Gave me a real home outside of the United States. I rescued another puppy, Lola, and have furthered my career by working at one of the best schools in Latin America. Mexico is so diverse culturally and geographically that I know I will be here for a long time.
How did losing your dad influence your decision to move to China?
My father loved China. He loved the idea of this Ancient culture. He was obsessed with the Great Wall. The dichotomy of new and old fascinated him. And he fascinated me. The only reason I moved to China was because I lost my dad.
When I got the news that my dad was in an accident I was devastated. When we made the decision to take him off life support, part of me died. The world didn’t feel right anymore. Staying in Abu Dhabi didn’t feel right. Returning to the U.S. didn’t feel right. I was in limbo–aimlessly floating around. So I applied for jobs in the only country that made sense to me at the time: China.
In a way I went to honor him. He had never been, so I was going to go for him. It was some noble cause–I thought it would make me feel closer to him. It didn’t make me feel closer to him, but it strengthened my relationships with my step-mom and siblings who came to visit me while living there. We ate Peking Duck in his name, lit incense for him in temples, and hiked along his beloved Great Wall.
What languages have you learned while living abroad?
While living in Azerbaijan, I attempted to learn Russian (I took lessons for two years), but my commitment to the Spanish language has lasted much longer. Learning Spanish is like being in a relationship, some days I am obsessed with it and can’t get enough, and others it frustrates me for no reason.
When I took the job in Venezuela I knew nothing of Spanish. The summer before leaving, I took Spanish lessons from a family friend every day for a month. My instructor refused to speak to me in English which forced me to awkwardly make my way around the foundations of the language. When I arrived in Venezuela we were required to take Spanish lessons every week for a minimum of 6 months. I loved this.
Since I was not a “beginner”, like all the others, I had a teacher all to myself. Of course I made mistakes, but I also took risks. In my personal life I was immersed in the language. Once I stepped outside of my house or job, I could not escape the need to communicate in Spanish–being immersed in another language is a great intrinsic motivator. It teaches you a lot about the culture and people of the country, but it teaches you even more about yourself.
Tell us a couple of your funny stories with the language barriers.
Two of my favorite “language” stories happened during my first few weeks in Venezuela. The city I was living in was not very “international” and so English was not widely spoken. If you needed something you would have to express that in Spanish.
One of the first days I was there, I went to the Carniceria (butcher) with another teacher. We wanted to buy some chicken. While I would have been fine with a whole chicken, my friend was adamant about wanting chicken breasts. Since neither of us had been there very long, the word “pechuga” was not in our current vocabulary.
It was getting hot, and I was growing tired of spouting all the wrong words in Spanish and so I looked the butcher right in the eye and said, “yo quiero [insert me placing my hands on my chest] de pollo.” Needless to say that butcher about died of laughter, but we walked away with our chicken [insert hands on chest] breasts.
After taking a few more Spanish classes I was growing more and more confident. I was taking more risks with the language and playing charades less and less. I had to go to the pharmacy for a new hair brush/comb. Where I was living, the brushes were not in an aisle like they are at stores in the US. They were behind glass which meant that I would have to ask for one, but I was ready.
In my best accent, I said “Hola, necesito un pene.” The woman (thank god it was a woman) receiving this request immediately turned bright red. It turns out I had told her that “I needed a penis”.
There was no trying to make that request any less awful. Once I realized what I had done, I turned around and high-tailed it out of there. By the way, the word I was seeking was “peine”–an honest mistake.
How do you teach global citizenship in your classroom?
My Leadership class challenges students to think outside of themselves for an entire semester. They dedicate their time and effort toward one main community service project. We brainstorm ideas that can help locally, but have a global impact one day. Through this project they learn a lot about the community that surrounds them.
In my English classes I make sure to include supplemental texts into the curriculum that start conversations about our world. During our Science Fiction unit we talk at length about the environment and what will happen to it if we don’t make a change. We pair these discussions with documentaries as well as short stories by Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury, and Isaac Asimov.
Next, we do a lengthy study of The Holocaust and through that we teach about current genocides. Also, we read articles about the war in Syria, and the genocide in Darfur. During our short story unit we have “Socratic discussions” about women’s rights and how reading allows us to understand the human condition.
Honestly, English/Socials/Humanities teachers truly have the ability to teach about global citizenship at any time–any story or writing piece can be catered toward this theme–we just have to value it enough to make it a priority!
Give us your top 5 book recommendations for students.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood- A totalitarian regime has taken over the United States and women’s rights have been abolished. Although this novel was written in 1985, the events are eerily close to what is happening in the U.S. today. The novel is haunting and insightful and makes you wonder, just how close are we to this dystopian society? (Now a TV show)
Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario-This book shows the incredible and dangerous journey that 17-year-old Enrique takes from Honduras to The U.S. as he searches for his mother. It is an eye-opening story that might make you re-think the current policies and ideas that the U.S. has regarding immigration.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee- In this classic novel, Harper Lee crafts her beautiful story about racism in the U.S. through the eyes of a child. The themes in what she claims as a “love story plain and simple”, are profound and relevant today. There is a reason it is still widely taught in schools.
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros- Esperanza shares what it was like to grow up as a Latina in Chicago through a series of vignettes. It is a quick and easy read that stays with you for a long time.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie- This chronicles the story of Junior, a boy living on the Spokane Indian Reservation, as he changes from a child to an adult. Alexie expertly crafts humor and pain into his story which makes it a quick read. Though the book is frequently challenged for its heavy topics (abuse, alcohol, poverty, sexuality, etc) it is an insight into what life is like for Native Americans living on reservations.
What are some of the unique challenges you have faced as an ex-pat teacher?
I have been detained by immigration, mistaken for a member of the KGB, forced to bribe police officers, experienced socialized medical care in a 3rd world country, and those are just the stories I was willing to write home about.
But none of that compares to being trapped in Venezuela. In 2013, problems in Venezuela began to get more volatile. People were unhappy about the new President and the food shortages were getting worse. My second year of living there milk, sugar, chicken, detergent, shampoo, dish soap, and toilet paper were literally non-existent. And not only that, the government was denying entry into the country. This meant that if I left, I would not be able to return.
I was trapped. And it was scary. People took to the streets. My city shut down. And even after days of protesting nothing was happening. So the protests became violent. Blockades of burning tires and hoses with nails poked through them lined the streets. Police shot rubber bullets and protesters threw molotovs into crowds. A curfew was put in place and we were not allowed to leave our complex.
I still have a hard time thinking of this year of my life. It was hard, but I got to leave. Many wonderful people are still in Venezuela because they cannot afford a ticket out.
What are the most expensive comfort items you have bought overseas?
While living in China I remember paying something like $20 for a can of crappy Maxwell House Coffee. I will also pay an exorbitant amount of money for any cup of coffee, especially after a long day or night of travelling.
When I lived in Venezuela there were food shortages and the only way you could get certain items was to buy them off the black market. There were a number of times that I needed milk, and so I would find someone, anyone, who had it and buy it at 10 times the market price. When I could find soy or almond milk I was in heaven. No amount of money would keep me from purchasing either one!
Tell us about the street dogs you have adopted in your travels.
I found my first dog, Lucy, outside of my school gate in Venezuela. She was a puppy, and had cuts and burns all over her paws. Lucy was covered in ticks–like hundreds of tiny ticks. She didn’t want to be touched, but for some reason when I picked her up she was calm. It was clear that someone had abused her. I took her home and nursed her back to health and she left Venezuela with me. That summer we made a 2,000 mile road trip from Boise, Idaho, to Monterrey, Mexico.
My second dog, Lola, I found after returning home from a hike (about a year and a half after picking up Lucy). She was sitting outside of my school’s gate. It was the strangest thing, to see a half-dead puppy just sitting by a guard house–it was serious deja vous. At first I drove past the school, but something inside made me reverse and go check on this skinny little dog. I got out of the car and she immediately rolled on her back and let me give her some love.
She was incredibly skinny, and I honestly feared that she was going to die and I had planned to just be there to love her until she passed. However she is a fighter, and when I took her to the vet and we began what would be a 4 month healing process. She had every issue you can imagine. Worms, ticks, stomach infection, fever, skin disease, and things I am sure we didn’t even know about.
Fast forward a little bit, and I now live with two lifelong friends. As humans, I firmly believe that we need to treat all living creatures with compassion. Lucy and Lola have made me a better person. The dog cuddles and excitement they have every time I walk through the door is pretty nice too!
Who are some of your own sheroes?
Sofia Prado proves that little people can do big things. She began a non-kill dog shelter in Monterrey, Mexico, at the age of 13. Her shelter, Huaperros, has successfully saved over 100 dogs in the past 10 years. They run free spay and neuter campaigns and help inform the public about responsible pet ownership.
I spend a lot of time here (volunteering, campaigning, helping some of the dogs get adopted, etc.). My dogs go to Huaperros for “day-care” so I have gotten to know Sofia and her Huaperros family quite well. She is a remarkable young woman.
Margaret Atwood- a Canadian writer and activist and one of my favorite people to follow and read. She is a strong and opinionated woman and that is what I love. Her novels are incredibly raw. After finishing one of them you are always left wanting more. She is also an environmental activist (which also shows through her writing). We need more female voices like hers.
Malala Yousafazi- she has recently become a common name in my classroom and I love that. My students admire her for her bravery and I love that we can have conversations that revolve around the right to education.
Simone Manuel- Olympic Gold Medalist who made history last year. As a swimmer myself, I know first hand that there are not very many African-American participants in the sport. When she won the 100 free, I was moved to tears. She broke down so many stereotypes and barriers; her performance was an amazing night for the sport of swimming.
Why should someone choose an international teaching career?
Living outside of your home country is a humbling experience. It is an experience that allows (and at times forces) you to grow and to become a more tolerant and caring person. I am not the same person that left the US nine years ago. I have become more understanding and compassionate and have changed for the better. Besides, this world is full of incredible places to see and explore to not take advantage of a career that allows you to see the world.
I really went into teaching so that I could teach internationally. In just 9 years I have been to 26 countries new countries and made friendships all over the world that have not only allowed me to experience new places, but new cultures as well.
How has teaching internationally changed your perspective on education?
Living abroad has allowed me to see the extreme differences between the classes. Just like in the states, the countries I have lived in offer some sort of public education. However there is a huge disparity between what this looks like. My perspective on education hasn’t necessarily changed. However, I am hyper-aware of my white privilege. Having this knowledge is empowering because it allows me to be a leader for change when it comes to the disparities in education.
In case you missed the rest of Raising Global Citizens series, catch up now!
Read Part 1: an interview with international human rights lawyer HERE.
Read Part 2: an interview with a United States Diplomat who runs the health clinic for the Embassy in Accra, Ghana HERE.
Read Part 4: an interview with a sociologist working in a mental health facility HERE.
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