Expat Summer: Stateside HLG

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by Susan Kellerman

High: Visits

As I’ve written before, living away from close friends and family is one of the hardest aspects of living abroad. One of the best parts about having a good chunk of time off in the summer is being able to reconnect with these loved ones. I have to pick and choose who I see and how much time I spend with them, but nonetheless, it is another time of the year when I get to refuel my mind, body and soul.

This summer was no different. I planned out a full month of short visits in various parts of the US to see family and friends, catching up after being pretty out-of-touch for the two years I was in Tanzania. I took my mom to New York for an evening for dinner and a show. I had a girl’s shopping day with two dear girlfriends in Pennsylvania. I spent a weekend with my two sisters and my two sister-in-laws in Chicago to see Sting and Peter Gabriel, two of my most favorite musicians whom my sisters introduced me to when I was younger and are inextricably connected to my youth. I met up with friends from undergrad and the years just after, some of whom I haven’t seen in nearly 20 years.

These trips, these visits, this time – it reinforced that, somehow, I have built a pretty incredible network of support in my life. My friends are amazing people and most of them are ones that I can just pick up with, from wherever we left off the last time we met, be it a month, a year, or 10 years. Yes, it takes time and money because many of them have families and don’t have the flexibility to just pick up and come visit me; I need to go to them, which takes planning and money. But it’s so worth it, knowing that if I ever needed anything, I could call any of them and they’d have my back.

As well, I’ve known all along that I have a pretty special family. Is it perfect? By all means, no. But man, we have it pretty darn good: we get along, we enjoy similar things, and we have fun spending time together. That is a lot more than many people have. Spending two days with my sisters and sister-in-laws was a testament to that. So much laughing, talking, rocking out to good music, and just hanging out watching Wimbledon and the Tour de France.

Call it blessed, call it lucky, call it whatever. It doesn’t matter. There are so many good and loving people in my life that it’s hard to not get a high from that.

Low: Being un-American

One of the reasons I haven’t transitioned back to the US just yet is because I’m pretty uncertain as to how I’d fit in. Personal change is inevitable when you live abroad, and the longer you are out of the country, the more extreme that change can be. Thus the not-fitting-in.

It became clear on this trip that certain things I value are just not what mainstream Americans value. What I believe is a good – and responsible – way to live goes against the general American consensus. Does that mean that I can never live here again? No, of course not. But, it does mean that a transition back to living in the States, with such political division and violence as there currently is, makes it less desirable. Do I really want to spend the time and energy that it will take to go through the reverse culture shock and settling in after so long in other parts of the world?

These questions and thoughts put a bit of a damper on my time here, as this decision comes up every two years, and so just always sits there in the back of my head. I can’t really fathom being so far away from my family and friends for the rest of my life. Yet, I have set up a pretty good deal overseas and have taken the time to cultivate a new family in Madrid to make up for what I’ve left behind.

I’m fully aware that there is no easy solution. That’s life. However, that doesn’t mean these thoughts don’t preoccupy me at times and weigh heavily on my mind.

Glitter:  Meeting People

Flying is pretty much a near-monthly activity for me now. Actually, I’ve always done a lot of flying, with siblings on both coasts, friends all over in between, and being a single and having the flexibility in the summer to take trips. For a while, it was a joke between my friends and I that always met guys on flights and at weddings. It became a joke, simply because it was kind of true. That joke came to a pretty quick death after a couple of years. However, it could be that it’s coming back to life…
A year ago, I went to a friend’s wedding and ended up meeting one of the few single men there. Didn’t amount to much, and I just thought I was lucky. However, here I am ready to fly to San Fransisco and down beside me sits a young, fairly good-looking man. We end up talking a fair amount and have a great time. We talk about my teaching life abroad, his father who is a Persian singer in Dubai, why Chicago is such a cool city, and how guys can be really stupid. Is it that I have my mojo back? Probably not-he drops the bomb in the midst of the conversation that he has a girlfriend. But you know what? Doesn’t matter. It made for a fun (and fast) flight and I have a bit more confidence for when the next available guy makes an appearance on a flight, at a wedding, or perhaps simply in a coffee shop.

Susan KellermanBorn, raised and educated in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Susan Kellerman decided to spend all her life savings during her senior year of high school and take a Spring Break trip to Spain with her Spanish teacher and fellow students. This was a watershed event, as it sparked her life-long interest in travel and a desire to one day live in Madrid. Fourteen years later, Susan was able to combine her career in music education with her desire to improve her Spanish speaking skills by accepting a job at the American School of Madrid. Even though wanderlust took her to Moshi, Tanzania for a two-year-stint with her old friend Mt. Kilimanjaro, Susan really enjoys life in the land of Don Quixote, red wine and Manchego cheese. 

Hello and Goodbye from Tanzania

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by Susan Kellerman

High: End of Year Activities

Graduation, Sports Day, Special Focus Days, Assemblies, End of year parties. While it makes for a busy and difficult-to-keep-track-of schedule, the end of a school year is a fun time to celebrate all the great things that have happened over the past 10 months. These celebrations and special days lift the spirit and keep us teachers positive through until the very last day of school.

Two moments that were special highs for me during this time were in the senior graduation and our M5 (sophomore) ceremony. In both cases, I had students who were performing. Even though it’s about the students and what they prepared, it still represents me and my teaching and inevitably pushes the “how is this going to go?” button. This year, in both cases, I was so proud of the performance the students gave, but especially my sophomores. I did not help them at all – it was totally their moment – and they were so mature and serious about it. They played well, listened to each other, balanced and adjusted well, and did not overpower our ears in a multi-purpose hall that has, possibly, Africa’s worst acoustics. I could tell that everyone enjoyed the song they wrote, so it was a proud teacher moment for me and definitely gave me a high for that afternoon.

 

Low: Packing Up

It’s not the sadness that makes this a low, but simply the stress and frustration that comes with all the bits that deal with ending a school year, leaving a job, and moving to another country.

In school, I am the only music teacher, so that means all of the music spaces and all of the equipment is my responsibility to clean up, inventory, pack up and lock up. That is a lot. Instruments, print resources, audio equipment, furniture…and it’s all d-u-s-t-y, DUSTY! It’s such an awful job, not only because it’s tedious, but this year, because I want to be sure everything is left in better shape than when I arrived. It won’t be hard, because it wasn’t in too great of shape when I arrive, but still…I take pride in what I do and want to be sure that I leave the program in a way that I would want to arrive to. On top of that, making sure all the documentation is left in the right place, backed up, complete transition notes left…it’s a lot.

As well, dealing with my personal belongings adds more stress. Deciding what to keep, what to sell, what to give away, what goes to Spain, what goes with me to the US for the summer…so many decisions and hardly enough brain power to make them. Having to pack plenty of (and the right) clothes for the next two months and all that I’m planning to do in those two months, is enough to send me over the edge. If my brain wasn’t fried enough from school stress, then this finished it off for sure. The silver lining to it all is that I did manage to find a shipping company that will pack my shipment for me for a reasonable cost. Needless to say, I took advantage of that.

Glitter: Student Notes

One of the best parts of being a teacher is, once in a while, getting heartfelt notes from students. They may not always be worded in the most tactful or diplomatic way, but nevertheless, it is always a good feeling when you receive a hand-written note that clearly had thought put into it. It brightens up my day and is a reminder as to why I do what I do. The kids really are learning and really do care.

This year, I received some good ones. Amid the sadness that inevitably comes when you leave a school that you have put so much energy into, getting these notes puts a smile on my face and helps me to remember the highlights of my time here, not the frustrations.

Top quotes from notes received so far:

“Thank you for Pizza Friday – it was so yummy!” [5th grader]

“You are the second best music teacher ever!” [5th grader]

“You don’t know how many times I almost called you Mom this year.” [freshman]

“Ms K, aka Mom: thank you for setting me on the right path.” [freshman]

“Thank you for not only being a great teacher, but more importantly, being a great friend.” [senior]

“Thank you for helping me face my fears.” [senior]

Heart is full. Heart has accepted the coming departure. Heart is ready to move forward.

 

Susan KellermanBorn, raised and educated in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Susan Kellerman decided to spend all her life savings during her senior year of high school and take a Spring Break trip to Spain with her Spanish teacher and fellow students. This was a watershed event, as it sparked her life-long interest in travel and a desire to one day live in Madrid. Fourteen years later, Susan was able to combine her career in music education with her desire to improve her Spanish speaking skills by accepting a job at the American School of Madrid. Currently, she is the music teacher and program coordinator at the International School of Moshi, in Tanzania and enjoying having Mt. Kilimanjaro as her backyard buddy.

Expat Adventures: Reflections on Roadtrip

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Our 4-person climb group and guide at the top of Mt. Meru.

by Susan Kellerman

High:  Literally High  – 15,000 Feet

I summited Mt. Kilimanjaro nearly three years ago, while on vacation in Tanzania from Madrid. It was the first real mountain summit I ever accomplished and it was an incredible experience. Actually, it was because of the time I spent in Tanzania on that trip that made me think more seriously about living here. More than that, the training and Kili climb changed my perspective on hiking from that of a means to an end (lots of spent calories = a monster hamburger for dinner, sens guilt) to a euphoric obsession, that I now realize needs to be a regular part of my life.

Many people don’t know about Mt. Meru, the “little sister” of Kili, just two hours to the west. It often is an overlooked mountain, which is quite ironic at 14,980ft tall (which you can’t see over at all), technically harder and much steeper of a hike than Kili. It is a volcano that imploded in on itself and then re-erupted, so the summit is a series of rocky points that lean in, towards the ash cone of the younger volcano, and then drop off straight down – on both sides. You have to skirt the outside of each of these, then over a mini-saddle to the next. And do it about 4 or 5 times, at 5 am, after already hiking up for 3 hours that day. However, the first two days of the hike are basically a bush walk, as there are buffalo, zebra, giraffe, monkeys, and other wildlife in the park, and you have amazing views of sunrises and sunsets on Kili on days 2 and 3. In short: the challenge is worth it.

So, despite my ridiculous fear of heights (only of places/things that present a bit of risk), I made the decision to climb it. My time here would not be complete if a Meru summit was not in the books.  I armed myself with three other friends, a trusted colleague who came as our cook and guide, and a crap-ton of mental toughness and set out for 3 days of walking and climbing straight up and 1 day of straight down. There were moments it sucked…bigtime. There were tears, mostly due to exhaustion and wanting my dad there to speak words of encouragement, as he was always my biggest cheerleader, but knew that wasn’t going to happen. There were times I had to suck it up ask my friend for help getting me through the scrambling parts I wasn’t comfortable with.

But, I did it. And it was awesome.

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View from summit into ash cone with Kilimanjaro in the background.

Standing at the top of Meru, imagining that I was on the cliff of what was once an active volcano, looking down into the ash cone, and looking across the miles to Kili, was…well, why I hike. There were more tears up there, but simply out of relief, joy, and the high that you get from accomplishing something you knew from the onset was going to be hard but choose to do it anyway.

A cool (and very rare) 3-horned chameleon we came across on our hike up Meru.

A cool (and very rare) 3-horned chameleon we came across on our hike up Meru.

Low:  Goodbyes

One of the friends with me on the climb was one visiting from the US. In (what will be) my two years here, this was the only person who has come to visit. I know how hard it is to get here – both in distance, finance, and scheduling – so that made it more meaningful that someone was willing to make the effort.

But actually, for me it was more that I had someone fun to spend time with. It’s been lonely down here, and until this past summer, I didn’t realize how much of a toll that loneliness was taking on me. I always prided myself on being able to be independent: traveling on my own, dealing with daily life on my own, appreciating the little things on my own. But, I’ve reached a point of exhaustion. And it finally hit me about eight months ago in a big way, affecting me so much emotionally that I started seeing physical side-effects. I chose to endure this for another 10 months and see out my two year contract here, despite knowing that it was going to be a struggle to not let myself get any deeper into that loneliness. So, having a friend come and accompany me on my final road trip through Tanzania was amazing.

And that made saying goodbye at the airport all the more difficult. Those ten days were like a little glimmer of healing light…that was quickly dimmed by an airplane, by work schedules, by life. I’ve always had trouble with saying goodbye to people who mean something to me, but this one was particularly hard given all that I’ve gone through and realized in the recent past. My house seemed that much more empty and quiet for a few days. Thankfully, there were some friends that stayed in Moshi over the long holiday, so I was able to spend time with them and get myself over that low. Just like I’ve done before and will continue to do so, as long as I have to.

Glitter: Wildlife

Foreword: this probably falls under “Firecracker” rather than “Glitter”.

In addition to Mt. Meru, we spent three days in Tarangire National Park; another of the lesser-known parks in Tanzania, due to overshadowing by the Serengeti, which is about three hours to the northwest. I love Tarangire, as it’s close to home, small enough to be able to navigate yourself yet with gorgeous landscapes and great wildlife viewing opportunities.

This time around, there was not a lot of wildlife as it was quite green and the animals can have food everywhere, so they hide in small corners of the park away from us on-lookers. We did see lots of elephants though, as Tarangire is known for them. And, we got quite a show on our second day, as we happened upon a small family who was happily grazing and crossing the road that we, and the truck in front of us, were on. We stopped and turned the engine off to watch, admiring their size, grace, and mannerisms, which for me are always fascinating.

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Early-morning scene from Tarangire of a much calmer elephant.

And these elephants made sure we got a show. The mother decided that we were too close or annoying or something, because she suddenly turned around, shook her head, yelled at, and then ran after the truck in front of us. It took off and we waited an instant to see what she would do. She turned around and yelled at us as well, taking a few steps forward, so we backed up a bit. She went back into the brush (which, being green and in full bloom made it that much harder to track her movements) and just as we thought everything was fine, a young teenager came out of nowhere – closer to us – and started what we thought was a charge. That’s bad news. I believe what came out of my mouth as my heart was literally in my throat was: “Back up the car. Now. I don’t want to die at the hands of an elephant.” Thankfully, it was just a testing-the-waters move and once it decided that we weren’t going to cause any harm, it went back into the brush and continued on its way. We quickly moved on as well, as I didn’t want to chance still being there if this one really didn’t want us around and chose to do something more about it.

Those five minutes of excitement more than made up for all that we didn’t see for those three days.

Susan KellermanBorn, raised and educated in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Susan Kellerman decided to spend all her life savings during her senior year of high school and take a Spring Break trip to Spain with her Spanish teacher and fellow students. This was a watershed event, as it sparked her life-long interest in travel and a desire to one day live in Madrid. Fourteen years later, Susan was able to combine her career in music education with her desire to improve her Spanish speaking skills by accepting a job at the American School of Madrid. Currently, she is the music teacher and program coordinator at the International School of Moshi, in Tanzania and enjoying having Mt. Kilimanjaro as her backyard buddy.

Birthing Babies, Bugs and Books Abroad

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Book Door

by Susan Kellerman

High:  Baby

One of my closest friends here came back to school last August with the surprise news that she was pregnant. There have been several pregnancies here at school over the past year, but this was different as it was someone who I was close to and would have an ‘inside scoop’ on the pregnancy, birth, and early life of her new little one. And right away I knew that it would be a learning experience for me, going through the miracle of life in an area of the world where many women still give birth at home in the village.

The day of the birth was incredible and one that I will never forget, as it was one of those moments that clarified just how distinct each human culture is. Rather than have the baby in Nairobi (an 8 hour drive away) where hospitals are cleaner, more western, and staff is arguably more knowledgeable, she decided to give birth at the local hospital right across the street from where we live. It is was close to home, a short drive with no chance of having the baby in the car on the way, and where the mother of some of our students is a doctor (albeit a neurologist, but down here, a doctor is a doctor – you know something about everything because it’s a necessity).

Aside from some of the understandable differences one could imagine knowing that you’re giving birth in a third world country (not having your own birthing room, having to bring your own supplies to the hospital with you, no NICU), what struck me most was the accepted practice with visiting the new mom and baby. I was at the hospital within an hour after the birth, but that’s just because I had the extra key to her house and knew where to find the much-needed ice packs for some soothing relief (yup – you even have to provide your own ice packs). I was surprised, though, when a group of three co-workers were right behind me in visiting her, and ones that she really isn’t that close to. I mean, she wasn’t even out of the delivery room and all of these women were going to visit her. It seemed odd, as I was used to just family and close friends being the ones who are welcomed into the hospital straight away.

This visit came up in conversation the next day with one of those colleagues, as I has sent out a Google Doc for people to sign up to take meals over for her (again, another typical American custom) and she was asking me about it. This woman, who is Kenyan, said that in their culture, they visit at the hospital, straight away, when they are in the safe care of doctors, with clean sheets to keep them modest, etc. (What I saw in the delivery room would SO not be considered modest by western standards, but it likely was for Tanzanian standards.) When the mother goes home, that is the time when they leave her be, to recover in her own way, get settled into her home and have time to bond with her baby. I found it fascinating that we as westerners think, in a way, opposite of this; let the mom heal up and recover in the hospital, then when life gets back to normal at home and she’s left to do it on her own, help out, visit, bring meals, check in. I was glad we had that conversation, as I was a bit taken aback by their behavior and I didn’t like feeling that way. Knowing that it was cultural made all the more sense. And, in the end, it didn’t matter as it was just so great to be a part of the day and welcoming a new little one into the world.

Low:  Bugs

When I took the teaching position down here, I knew that there were a lot of things I would have to withstand that normally I would choose not to: regular power outages, warm weather for the entire year, no fresh buffalo mozzarella and basil (although now I can get fresh basil. SCORE!) The one thing that I was most concerned about, and it turns out rightfully so, was the bugs. From a young age I’ve hated bugs and the idea of bugs. Period. I don’t like things crawling on my skin, even if they are harmless. It’s just a feeling I prefer not to experience. But, I have matured a bit since my younger years of weeding the flower gardens at my parents’ house, and so I thought that I could handle it for just these two years. How bad could it be, right?

I was wrong.

I am at my wits end with bugs. If it’s not the *&$£#* mosquitos that are out at all times of the day and looooove my skin, then it’s the tiny ants that have taken over my kitchen, or the termites that are burrowing through my windowsill, or the giant furry spiders that somehow make their way into my living room, or the crickets that make their way into my bedroom and start chirping at the top of their lungs just when I’m going to sleep. I have tried to be at peace with it all and realize that I am in their territory, not the other way around (similar to how I’ve tried to deal with the monkeys), but it’s just not happening. My lovely little gecko housemates aren’t doing their job well enough and there are still uninvited guests all over my house and it drives me bonkers. Daily.

I have taken to being attached at the hip to my can of Doom (yes, that’s the name of the bug spray here), but then I have this guilt hanging over me when I see the big fat ants wriggling around on the floor. I shouldn’t be killing another living creature. I shouldn’t be playing God.

It doesn’t last long, though. I get over pretty darn quick as soon as a small speed-racer spider runs right in front of me. Out comes the Doom again.

Glitter:  Book door

We celebrated International Book Week here at school at the end of February. One of the ways we do that is by getting each homeroom to choose a book and re-create its cover on the door to a room. Last year, it was a complete disaster with my homeroom (then freshman, now sophomores). They just couldn’t get it together and all that came out of Harry Potter was a black background…and perhaps a yellow lightning bolt? I choose to not remember, as it was so embarrassing. A minimalist would have called that finished, but there are no minimalists at our school.

So this year, I was so pleasantly surprised when we actually made a group decision on a book, then one person volunteered to create a design within a day and agreed to be the master artist. The kids were making progress, but started slowing down and there was a point where I didn’t believe they would finish it by the deadline. However, randomly one day, their Life Skills teacher gave them a free period so about seven students came in to work together and finish the door. I had a free period, so had no trouble having them around while I was getting work done. We put on some music, they cut, colored, pasted…I did some planning…it really was a lovely thirty minutes. And, I must say, that I’m so proud of the work they did and the fact that they made it a priority to finish. We didn’t win the competition, but we didn’t care. This is the first door that anyone sees when they walk on campus, and I think it’s a great one.

Susan KellermanBorn, raised and educated in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Susan Kellerman decided to spend all her life savings during her senior year of high school and take a Spring Break trip to Spain with her Spanish teacher and fellow students. This was a watershed event, as it sparked her life-long interest in travel and a desire to one day live in Madrid. Fourteen years later, Susan was able to combine her career in music education with her desire to improve her Spanish speaking skills by accepting a job at the American School of Madrid. Currently, she is the music teacher and program coordinator at the International School of Moshi, in Tanzania and enjoying having Mt. Kilimanjaro as her backyard buddy.

Glitter: Swim Gala in Tanzania

by Susan Kellerman

High:   Back to Madrid!

I’ve known for over a year that Tanzania was not a place where I could settle down. Not only is it just a bit too much ‘in the bush’ for me, the job I have here is a really difficult one, and one that I choose to not continue for any longer than I have to. I started searching for a job back in early October, and just recently did I make a final decision. While many people suggested that it wouldn’t be a good idea to go back to someplace you’ve already lived/worked, I’ve made the choice to return to Madrid, going back to the school that I taught at prior to moving to Tanzania.

It’s funny how in just a few short years, your priorities can change quite radically. I didn’t think I was ready to settle down when I left Madrid in June of 2014, so I sought other professional opportunities in an exciting place on earth. After having to live through that “excitement”, I’ve decided that settling down a bit is, indeed, what my soul needs. So, thankfully my school was in need of a music teacher again and I made a lasting enough impression that they were very eager to hire me back. It has been fun to begin the moving process, one that will be so much easier than others, simply because I already know the city and school so well. My excitement is, however, mitigated just a bit with the knowledge that I need to be prepared for life to be different than it was before and that I need to work on creating my “new Madrid” to be just as great as the “old Madrid” was.

Low:  More loss

The hits just keep on coming, it seems. A few months ago, I wrote of the passing of my uncle. Within a week or so of that, I found out that the dad of one of my four senior music students passed away suddenly…and as is the custom with many families here in Tanzania, they didn’t tell my student anything until he was home. I was in shock that news like that would be kept from a teenager about to embark on university and having to deal with being an adult, for all the positives and negatives that brings. After a while of trying to understand why that was the custom, I decided that I didn’t have to understand, but simply to respect it.

Unfortunately, today I got the awful news that another of my senior students lost a parent yesterday! One of my female students’ mom died yesterday, just days after my student went to visit her in the hospital where she was recovering from a brain tumor surgery. This particular mom I knew quite well – she was very involved in her daughter’s education and we had very frank discussions about ways her daughter could improve in order to make the most out of her experience at our school and be truly prepared for university. The sad fact of it all is that I’m just becoming numb to the news of such loss. I feel like it’s everywhere, all the time. That’s a hard thought to shake.

Glitter:  Swim Gala

As an IB World School, we are bound by the IB philosophy to encourage students to be, among many traits, balanced. One way that we do this is by having period sports days where all the students are expected to participate in some way. As well, as role models, us teachers are encouraged to participate as well. And, many of us do, simply in the spirit of having some fun, but many of us because we are active and athletic people in general.

Today was our Secondary Swim gala, were all students from grades 6-12 spent hours competing in various serious and not-so-serious swimming events. All students and teachers are assigned a house (think the houses at Hogwarts!) and it is a fun day of cheering on your housemates. Even us teachers got relay teams together to prove to the students that we still have it in us! While the teachers in my house aren’t overly athletic, we were still able to scrape a team together (all-female, no less) and display our skills. I love things like this. I love a bit of healthy competition – it was instilled in me from quite the young age – and opportunities like this don’t come around often. I will say that this is one aspect of my current job that I will miss, so I am attempting to make the most of all of these days that we have left.

Susan KellermanBorn, raised and educated in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Susan Kellerman decided to spend all her life savings during her senior year of high school and take a Spring Break trip to Spain with her Spanish teacher and fellow students. This was a watershed event, as it sparked her life-long interest in travel and a desire to one day live in Madrid. Fourteen years later, Susan was able to combine her career in music education with her desire to improve her Spanish speaking skills by accepting a job at the American School of Madrid. Currently, she is the music teacher and program coordinator at the International School of Moshi, in Tanzania and enjoying having Mt. Kilimanjaro as her backyard buddy.

It’s No Joke: A Teacher’s Life in Tanzania

Our track with the "normal" background, Mt. Kilimanjaro

Our track with the “normal” background, Mt. Kilimanjaro

by Susan Kellerman

High: Holidays!

It’s no joke: teachers look forward to long holidays just as much as the kids do. This year is no different, and in fact, many of us at my school needed our December holidays more than normal. We are all stretched too thin the entire year, in many cases teaching an overload of courses, asked to volunteer to work with boarding students in the evenings and on weekends, and then also have had to pull together documentation and evidence for an upcoming re-accreditation by a leading educational organization.

On top of that, we have been squeezing in material in daily classes, to try to get through in 6 weeks what we normally do in 8 or 9, due to a late change in our school calendar that made Quarter 1 unusually long and Quarter 2, consequently, unusually short. (Neither of which are great, by the way.)

So, when the last parent left our gymnasium, and the parent teacher conferences had concluded around lunch time, it was with a huge sigh of relief that I walked back to my classroom, sat down, and for the first time in weeks was able to let my thoughts come together in their own time, without the urgency of needing to run off to get more work done. I pulled everything together on my desk, wrote my holiday to-do list (yes, many of us still get work done over the breaks!) and sauntered home, looking forward to some coming weeks of much-needed slowing down and ‘me’ time.

Low:  Difficult parents

It’s no joke: parent conferences are not normally something teachers look forward to. It’s unfortunate, that, no matter how hard you try, you can never help having that one difficult parent come and seemingly attack you for something that is not normally your fault. While it could have been worse, today was no different. It was a parent whom I had never met before, a mother of a boarding student who was new to us as of the beginning of the year. Her son is 14 years old and fairly self-sufficient, but let’s face it, still a teenage boy. I’m not a coddler; I deal with my students using the ‘tough love’ approach, especially with the boys. I have not held this boy’s hand, but instead set parameters within which he could easily take responsibility for himself and succeed in school. And if they can’t work within those or make some unwise choices, then there are consequences which they suffer.

For the 15 years I have been teaching, this has worked 90% of the time. Apparently, Mom would prefer that I take a more hands-on approach, and no matter how I tried to explain to her that I felt it was not appropriate for him, she wouldn’t budge. As the air in the room became more still and my seat became a little more uncomfortable, I tried every trick in my book to help this mom understand that we’d be doing her son more of a disservice. Didn’t work. Another important skill as a teacher: know when to back down and give in.

Glitter: A moment with my housekeeper

It’s no joke: local help is super cheap and easy here in Tanzania. If you hire one, your dada (the word we use for housecleaner, but that literally translates into ‘sister’) also comes so much more frequently than most people in the West are used to. Mine comes three times a week! She is Frida, this lovely older Tanzanian woman, who walks about 45 minutes one way to come to my house, do all the washing (clothes and dishes), cleans, irons my clothes, and pretty much does anything else I’d ask her to. I’m not sure how I would have survived these last 18 months without her. I have not taken the time to get too close to her – sometimes that can backfire and you are asked for help with everything from a new phone to doctor’s bills to grandchildren’s school fees – however I do enjoy my Friday afternoons when I come home from school and she is still here finishing up things. We often will take time to chat as we are both doing work and I have learned a little more about her, her life and her family. We laugh because, inevitably, I start cooking dinner and messing things up as soon as she’s finished cleaning my kitchen. She is so good-natured about it, though.

This afternoon, with my renewed energy due to it being the first few hours of my long holiday break, I had some Christmas music on in the kitchen as I was making some pasta sauce to prepare for a friend coming for dinner. Frida sings in her church choir, and is something that we have talked about, both because I’m a music teacher and because I was raised Catholic, which is the religion she practices. I heard her start to hum as she was washing my clothes in the small room right off my kitchen. O Little Town of Bethlehem was playing. I listened in more closely and realized that she was humming the song. I asked her if she knew that song and she said, “Yes, nzuri sana!” (Yes, it’s really nice!) We continued for the next two minutes, her humming and washing my clothes and me singing softly and cooking dinner. It was such a lovely moment of bringing two totally different lives, cultures, and age groups together and stripping everything down to the root of it all: two women enjoying time together through a shared love of music and the season. No more, no less. I will never forget those two minutes with Frida.

Susan KellermanBorn, raised and educated in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Susan Kellerman decided to spend all her life savings during her senior year of high school and take a Spring Break trip to Spain with her Spanish teacher and fellow students. This was a watershed event, as it sparked her life-long interest in travel and a desire to one day live in Madrid. Fourteen years later, Susan was able to combine her career in music education with her desire to improve her Spanish speaking skills by accepting a job at the American School of Madrid. Currently, she is the music teacher and program coordinator at the International School of Moshi, in Tanzania and enjoying having Mt. Kilimanjaro as her backyard buddy.

Welcome to the Expat HLG Family Tanzania

by Susan Kellerman

High: Ninth Grade Music Class

The words “music theory” typically strike fear in the hearts and minds of developing musicians. With so much of the music in today’s world shared and learned via iPods, iTunes, Spotify or Pandora, it is rare to have students who actually understand, or even want to understand, the theory behind what they are hearing. However, as a music educator, it is important to me that, on some level, my older students have a basic understanding of the nuts and bolts of music as we know it in the western world. That is why, as I am focusing on Blues music with my 14-year-olds, this week we focused on intervals, scales, and triads (if those words mean anything to you)…all in the name of understanding the 12 Bar Blues progression-a key feature of any blues song. It wasn’t the most exciting material to discuss for an hour, but somehow I kept the attention of each student in the class and they were all actively engaged, asking questions, critically thinking and showing signs of comprehension. In the oppressive heat of an approaching Tanzanian summer, it gave me energy to finish out the day! 

Low: Not being surrounded by a  familiar support network

There are many amazing things about being an expat, however it’s not all a bowl of cherries. And, I think that friends and family back in the US sometimes forget that we, as expats, sacrifice many things for a life of adventure and travel. One of those things is being surrounded by family or a familiar support network during the tough times in life. This hit home today as I got word that a dear uncle of mine passed away overnight. Regardless of the fact that it wasn’t an immediate family member or that I wouldn’t get to see him often even if I did live in the US, it still is hard to receive and process this kind of news being so far away from family and close friends who know you well. Dealing with loss is something we each do in a very personal way and we all need just the right people to be near us during those times of loss. Being an expat means that sometimes, you have to grieve on your own or in a way that is not ideal. That will be my hurdle to jump over the next few days.

Glitter: Surprise Day Off!

Tanzania just went through a hotly-contested presidential election within the past two weeks. It was an interesting time to be here and I learned a bit about how elections work in another country. Unlike the US, where we wait several weeks to inaugurate the new president, here it apparently happens nearly immediately. Not quite a week ago was the winner announced, and already the inauguration is tomorrow. Living in a bit of a bubble, I had no idea this was going on. Neither were any students or teachers prepared when the outgoing president announced, just this afternoon, that tomorrow would be a national holiday. What does that mean? No school! I had students running into my classroom at the end of the day, bouncing up and down, asking me if it was true. Not only does it seem like Christmas for them, but the teachers are sometimes just as happy to have an unexpected day off as well!

Susan KellermanBorn, raised and educated in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Susan Kellerman decided to spend all her life savings during her senior year of high school and take a Spring Break trip to Spain with her Spanish teacher and fellow students. This was a watershed event, as it sparked her life-long interest in travel and a desire to one day live in Madrid. Fourteen years later, Susan was able to combine her career in music education with her desire to improve her Spanish speaking skills by accepting a job at the American School of Madrid. Currently, she is the music teacher and program coordinator at the International School of Moshi, in Tanzania and enjoying having Mt. Kilimanjaro as her backyard buddy.