It has been noted that educators never really retire; but rather, they keep on teaching and learning throughout their lives. In our last issue we had the privilege of learning about the renowned Canadian artist and conservationist Robert Bateman. Originally an educator in Ontario and Africa, he continued to use his teaching skills to mentor others even after he changed direction in his main career. In this issue we profile another who has made the decision to continue to actively teach after retiring from a primary career within the education system.
Michael Munro and his wife Nancy had often talked about working overseas when they were younger, but a fulfilling career in BC and a commitment to community involvement and stability for their growing family made that choice impractical for them. As Michael neared retirement, however, with their children well settled in their own lives, the decision was made to take an early retirement and finally open the door to the adventure of working overseas. So, after thirty plus years of working as a classroom teacher and administrator, Michael and his wife relocated to Doha, Qatar so he could take on the challenge of being principal at a relatively new and growing BC offshore school. This new endeavour in the Qatari capital is at Hayat Universal School. Hayat is currently a Pre-K to Grade 6 school; one grade is added each year and will eventually extend to Grade 12. The current school population is over 800 students with more than 90% Qatari nationals, for whom English is a second language. While the BC curriculum is taught in English, the National standard curriculum for Arabic, Arabic Social Studies and Islamic Studies are also taught by Arabic teaching staff from the region. Following are Michael’s responses to our questions about his decision and the benefits and drawbacks of that decision.
How difficult was it to find the position and to find and settle into your new home?
I was helped to get the position by having a former colleague already at the school in an administrative role. The group that runs the school was very helpful in sending information about what to expect and in arranging for travel, pick-up, housing, etc. As the school provides housing for international staff—that includes all necessary household items, including a stocked fridge and cupboard to start with—it was very easy for us. We have been very fortunate to work for an organization that manages these details for all new staff.
What challenges did you encounter that you did not expect?
No matter how much information and advice you receive, the reality is never as one could imagine when making such a major change. Qatar is a small nation, but currently one with the highest GDP per national. It is also a very conservative Sunni Muslim country and temperatures in the summer reach 50 Celsius. Doha is a truly beautiful coastal city in the desert. This was our first trip outside of the usual tourist trips to Mexico, Hawaii and other North American locations, and from the moment we got off the plane we experienced an entirely different world and culture. For the first time in our lives my wife and I were members of a minority cultural group. It takes time to begin to recognize and understand the many differences; if you embrace the experience, you are fine.
What were the most surprising or unexpected aspects of the move and your new work?
The main surprise was that Qataris, many of whom have visited the West many times, and other non-English speakers have a good conversational English vocabulary. So it often appears that the exchange of ideas has been clear for both parties. However, there are significant differences in the cultural experience and heritage of non-English speakers, so it comes as a surprise when apparent understanding is actually misunderstanding. The root of these unexpected misunderstandings, I believe, is fundamentally different views of the world. Again, if you embrace the differences and work to understand them, you can thrive, and one’s sense of humour proves invaluable!
Some other surprises that I have experienced during the time we’ve been part of the Doha community are:
- The incredible city—a mix of ultra-modern architecture with a variety of housing, from Qatari mansions to family “camps” in the desert, to compound housing, as well as western style apartments and more modest homes. Great modern malls designed to encourage visitors to shop during the heat of the day, some with incredible facilities such as hockey rinks, and the older, traditional “souks” or markets.
- The wide mix of international peoples, with well over 50% of the community being non-nationals: the domestic, service and construction workers from southeast Asia and Pakistan and a world registry of professionals with many from western Europe, Australia, etc.
- A city built around the automobile (23 cents a litre for gas!) and the most aggressive driving I have ever experienced.
Professionally there have been some surprises as well:
- Working with a staff composed of both Arabic and English speaking teachers and teacher aides, most of whom have a limited understanding of the other, is complex in a way I’ve not previously experienced.
- The students, who are much like children everywhere, but from the very different and dominant Qatari culture. Access to great wealth and technology mixes with a strong emphasis upon family and traditional Muslim and Arab culture, and it often takes one or two years for our students to appreciate how to learn in a BC style classroom versus traditional “old-school” classes that their parents attended. It takes one or two months for the new teaching staff to adjust to the differences in the students when they first arrive.
- Ultimately, the best surprise has been the positive working relationship amongst the staff and my administration team. Both Western and Arabic staff are working toward a common goal of providing a Western, English based education combined with Arabic instruction while emphasizing character development and an appreciation of universal values.
How did all this impact your family?
The family has been very supportive. We shocked many with what was seen as a bold move, although we had visited our daughter who was teaching in Korea. During our time in Qatar we have been able to spend time during the summer break with family back in BC because contracts here include one paid trip home each summer. Technology also makes a huge difference—we are in regular contact with family and friends via Skype or Skype phone, all at basically zero cost. So, the distances feel much shorter than I am sure they would have only a few years ago.
Were you ever worried that you might have made a mistake in your choice? And, if so, what was your Plan B?
We knew that for many the change is simply too difficult to adjust to, so we decided that we would initially commit to only one year, although it is more common for people to spend two or three years here. We were content knowing that we could spend ten months abroad and return home if things did not work out well for us.
Why did you choose this course of action rather than some other retirement project?
I still had lots of energy and our idea of travelling and working overseas was still something we were intrigued by and strongly interested in. The decision to give it a try also allowed me to, once again, work as a principal and give me closer contact with students and staff, something that I had missed in my last administrative role.
How does your specific background in education aid you in what you are now doing?
The variety of experiences I have had at all grades and levels from the classroom to the District Boardroom have been very helpful in working at the school level and with the head office and directors of this private school. Although many of the experiences are different in type, they are seldom different in kind from those experienced in my many years as a principal. Most relate to interpersonal issues, human behaviour, learning problems and facility issues. Well-grounded, experienced staff that have patience and an enduring sense of humour do well here, as they work to help students achieve success.
What are you learning now, that you might have missed out on if you hadn’t made this decision?
The experiences here have been both life-altering and a positive challenge to me as a professional. This part of the world is growing and thriving; Qatari families often have five plus children, we are constantly running out of classroom space and are looking forward to building a new school soon. Declining enrolment is not an issue, and having to turn away many families who very much want to join our schools, is. Living in a different culture has helped me appreciate both the many similarities and differences in people, and to have an even greater appreciation of what makes our experiences as Canadians unique and very special in the world.
What do you miss about life in Canada?
Even with good communication technology and summer visits, family and friends are missed. I miss the fall, but less so the winter. I miss a level of driver courtesy that I was unaware existed in Canada before living here. I miss the occasional cool day with a brisk wind, and fresh drinkable water out of the tap instead of a water cooler.
What’s the best thing about how you live now?
In addition to being a part of the vibrancy of this growing country and the many modern fitness, sport, arts, entertainment complexes and the international level events which take place here, we have had many opportunities to travel to a variety of places. Doha really is a central point for air traffic between Asia, Europe and Africa. To date we have visited Vietnam, Thailand, India, Sri Lanka, Italy, Oman, Dubai and other Gulf states and we are planning further travel. The cost of travelling from here is very low compared to from North America, and these are experiences we might not have had if we had not moved here. All of this travel has occurred within sixteen months—an extraordinary experience for us.
How long do you intend or hope to be doing the type of work you are now doing?
My wife and I review our decision year by year. We will either just finish the current school year or perhaps remain for one more year. Regardless, when I leave my current role, it has been agreed that I will continue working with the school in a different capacity with occasional long-term visits. When I leave this particular position I will not consider another role for some time—I will take time to see how real retirement, even with occasional overseas work, feels for us.
Are there opportunities for other educators in the area where you now work?
Many countries make it difficult to work overseas once you have reached a particular age (65 for some, 60 or 55+ for others) so it can be difficult to find a spot in every area of the world. However, we hire many teachers from those early in their careers to those who have retired, and each brings strengths and skills to the school. In Qatar, private schools are expanding and growing in number. Some organizations are very good and others are not well regarded by staffs, so prospective teachers from overseas need to do careful research on whatever region, country or school they might be considering. Again, working overseas is more challenging than working in your own communities—but it also brings many different rewards.
Tell us what you would like known about yourself in this change from work in education in Canada to what you are now doing.
I think I have covered most of what I would share above. For my wife and me it has been, and continues to be, the right choice for us. We have lived our dream of working overseas—we often joke that had anyone told us we would be living and working in Qatar, say four years ago, we would have laughed and thought nothing of it. We would not have guessed we would be here in the Middle East, in this small, wealthy, developing and complex community. I enjoy the work at the school and my wife and I very much enjoy the country and the varied opportunities we have here. When we leave, it will be for family and personal reasons, and our desire to go home.
Each person’s retirement decision is unique; but for those who chose to continue to teach, an overseas position is an interesting option. As we’ve learned from Michael’s comments and observations, this option, should you choose it, can be challenging and rewarding in equal measure. Should you want to consider teaching overseas after retirement, the following sites might be of interest:
This site lists all Canadian jurisdictions that have accredited overseas schools.
This is the Council of International Schools’ site which has accredited schools worldwide.
This site lists international teaching positions.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Enise Olding and Carol Baird-Krul
Carol and Enise (firstname.lastname@example.org) are the creators of a series of pre-retirement and post-retirement planning workshops: Transition to Retirement: The Uncharted Course©, Recently Retired: Charting a New Course© and Ideas… Enhanced and Advanced©, and authors of Transition to Retirement: The Uncharted Course. Previous articles on retirement may be viewed in back issues at CanadianTeacherMagazine.com.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s May/June 2013 issue.