The Journey Begins, cont.

IMG_5453When we arrive at the education council headquarters in Al Ain, we are ushered into a small brown auditorium with blue theater rows layering down toward the small stage.  Most of us make our way down the two side aisles and find our places before realizing that we could use a restroom break after our hour and a half (+) ride.  Then 2 or 3 at a time begin trickling out.  We aren’t the only ones in attendance, however.

Principals, Heads of Faculty (or HOFs as they are called), and other school representatives have been awaiting our arrival, having expected us an hour and a half earlier.  These folks are eager to grab their new hires for a trip to their schools where tours and introductions are pending.  Our sudden exits to the restrooms are less than welcome but understandable.  Finally, we are all assembled and ready to learn our assignments.  Until now, we were only informed about our general location:  Abu Dhabi, Al Ain, or Al Gharbia.

For those assigned to Abu Dhabi (a few who were not included on this excursion), daily access to the beach and at least eight shopping malls is a life many would envy.  Car enthusiasts won’t want to miss the World’s Largest Car Parade on National Day (this Sunday) or the annual Formula One racing event that fills up area hotels.  And, did I mention Ferrari World?  Just a little Ferrari-themed Theme Park with the fastest roller coaster in the world.  This is a modern city with all the luxuries expats are accustomed to set within a conservative culture.  Don’t let the kandoras, the abayas, the five prayer calls a day, or the laws regarding alcohol and fornication scare you.  You will actually discover early on that you feel safer here than in any other place in the world, including your own backyard, likely due to these unique customs.

A handful of the entire group are assigned to Al Gharbia, the western and largest region of Abu Dhabi.  Some consider this no-man’s land but other’s relish in the opportunities to experience desert safari’s, dune bashing, desert camping, and balloon expeditions.   Those who embrace this location can’t resist a visit to Liwa, an oasis town surrounded by waves and waves of sand.  I understand one can also experience their first camel beauty contest here as well.

For us, our future lies in Al Ain, the Garden City.  Not one person has complained or expressed anything but raves about life in this family friendly community, which is just about equal distance from Abu Dhabi to the west and Dubai to the east.

It’s exciting to hear the assignments and see the teachers exit for their schools.  They realize the principals have not been given their assignments and someone from HR comes up to the stage.  My prayers have been answered!!!  Just a couple of days prior, I e-mailed one of the ladies who spoke at our orientation expressing my desire to lead a Kg (kindergarten) or Cycle 1 (1st-5th) girls school.  I am assigned to Al Nakheel, a Kg school!!

The principals, then, go to meet with their Cluster Managers (CMs).  The CMs work with and evaluate principals.  The Heads of Faculty are evaluated by the CMs and the principals.  Teachers are evaluated by all of the above.

My CM, Jeanna (not her real name), is British.  She has been working here for three years. She and her family plan to eventually move to Australia, where her in-laws live.  We sit in her “available” office for the next couple of hours.  As a CM, Jeanna services eight schools and is never in the office.  In addition to working with the principals to implement the new school model, she observes teachers / classrooms along with the principals and HOFs.  She is very familiar with my school and faculty, having previously worked with some of the teachers who are in the new building (3 years old).  This year she began servicing Al Nakheel and has observed the school routines and instruction more than once since school began in September.

I learned that I have two HOFs, one Western one Emirate.  My VP, who I believe is Emirate, is on maternity leave and just began at this school three weeks before her leave.  My fortune is that I have the rest of the year to observe and formulate a strategic plan since my school is not on the list of schools going through external inspection this year.  School begins at 8am, ends at 12:15, and teachers participate in PD / planning until 1:30 Sunday –  Wednesday.  Teachers are expected to be at school at 7:30am.  Each day begins with a 15-minute assembly.

My priorities will include the following:

1.  develop relationships with faculty, students and parents

2.  collectively establish professional norms and expectations

3.  develop school-wide mission, vision, values and goals

4.  use the ADEC (district) New School Model and the ERTICA (evaluation) to begin the formation of a Professional Learning Community

This list should keep me busy for the next three years, as I navigate my way through cultural and language differences.

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The Journey Begins, cont.

My group consists of teachers, principals, and educational advisors who have come from various parts of the world to teach and lead in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).  Our friends and families see us as brave . . . adventurous . . . pioneers.  One note of caution.  We’ve only just arrived one week ago and we already know the experience is not for everyone.

Those who cannot handle this pioneer life are labeled “runners”.  A runner may resign during the first six months and return home immediately.  Some give no notice, make no announcement.  They simply fail to show up the next day and the day after than and so on . . . So, while all of us have been brave enough to go through the processing (securing passports and authenticating certificates and diplomas at the state and national levels)  and have exhibited the patience necessary to get here, time will tell who makes it throughout the current school year and returns for the next.  I wonder if young teachers with limited experience and no accompanying family members are more likely to become runners.   After all, those traveling with spouses and children have a convenient support system.

Some in the group will replace recent runners.  Either way, local schools are eager for us to arrive.  I, like many, have embraced this as a solo journey.  I do, however, bring two decades of experience to guide my instincts and decisions.  I am an expatriate, or expat.  My peers and I left our home countries to live and work in the UAE.  I came to know numerous expats for months before arriving by watching HGTV’s House Hunter’s International.  Families from many countries, including the U.S., searched for homes abroad.  I was impressed by their spirit and encouraged about my own plans.  Each episode validated my desire to live and work overseas.  To get out of my box, my comfort zone, and become a student of the world.  I love the quote my sister posted one day on Facebook for me.  It read, “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page” (St. Augustine).  Now, I’m on page two.

I’m living in the UAE on a work visa which is good for three years.  My residency visa is processing.  I suddenly feel a kinship to immigrants new to the U.S, new to the culture, language, food, and life.  Although I will serve as a school principal, I am here to learn.  To be a student of the people that surround me everyday.

more to come . . .

The Journey Begins

The highways in the UAE appear very similar to the ones at home.  We pass a car pulled over by a highway patrolman, which are parked on the side of the road periodically.  My new country is made of sand.  Regular trees and palm trees line both sides of the four lane highway, as well as in the median.  The homes look like fortresses, palaces.  You will not find wooden houses, siding or brick.

The speed limit is 120 km for cars.  Buses and trucks are not to exceed 80 km.  I’m sitting in the perfect spot to see ahead and to each side, directly behind the driver.  I may have the best access to the air-conditioning as well.  For someone who typically gets dizzy on road trips (when not driving), I am doing remarkably well.  Taking advantage of the scenery helps.  If I didn’t know better, I could be traveling through any of the desert states in the U.S.  My current view offers shrubs across the plains accompanied by electrical lines running east to west, with occasional perpendicular lines meeting.  I feel confident that I could drive this highway.  The signs for Al Ain and Dubai are clear and easy to read in both  Arabic and phonetically for English speakers.

To the right, I notice sand dunes sneaking up.  I grab my Canon EOS Rebel T2i, switch to action mode and snap several, hoping to get a couple of clear shots.  My camera is my closest companion, assigned to document my new life.  I’ve already taken pictures of the beach, the city skyline, and the Grand Mosque.  We’ve only just begun.  Seeing the dunes spurs my interest in a “desert safari”, a popular tourist event that includes dune bashing, a short ride on a camel, dinner under the stars and bellying dancing.

Aside from the obvious cultural differences (women in abayas and/or burkas, men in kandoras), language differences (Arabic, various Asian dialects, French, and many more), and currency differences (use of Dirhams vs. dollars), life here is very westernized.  At the malls, you’ll find GAP, Bath & Body, Sephora, American Eagle Outfitter, and movie theaters or cinemas.  If you can’t live without American food, you don’t have to.  KFC, Pizza  Hut, Baskin Robbins, Wendy’s, SBarro, Subway, McDonald’s, Fudruckers, and TGIF are readily available depending on the mall you visit or the area you’re in.

more to come . . .

One Week Down!!!

One week has passed since my arrival in the UAE.  I already feel at home.  I love getting lost in the sounds of other languages that are constantly being spoken around me.  This goes a step beyond cultural immersion to multi-cultural immersion!

I couldn’t get past the shock of being here for the first two days.  The initial priorities of purchasing a new sim card for my iPhone and visiting the currency exchange was accomplished then.

The next four days consisted of paperwork for banking and residency, a trip to the beach, medical checks, national ID’s, and an orientation.  Yes, we’ve been busy.

Facing Thanksgiving was a little treacherous but we made it through (my crew and I) by spending the day at the mall and the beach.

On Black Friday, I saw Breaking Dawn!!! And today was a trip to the Grand Mosque!

All of that in one week. What’s in store for tomorrow?  Wait and see!

New Chapters: Everyone Can Write Them

Exciting!  I leave for Abu Dhabi tomorrow.  The last few days have been emotional, filled with thrills of what’s to come, brief bouts of sentimental memories, anxiety over the unknown, the fear of forgetting to put something in the suitcase!  Honestly, I’m excited about this opportunity.  Looking forward to doing more of what I think is an important component to life:  making memories.

Received my itinerary on Saturday.  What did I do the rest of the day?  Chilled on the sofa.  Paced myself.

The next day, I took myself to a movie.  Needed some alone time and time to think about something else.  Kind of emotional that day but not quite ready to cry.

On Monday, I enjoyed lunch with my best friend.  The packing didn’t start until Tuesday.  Pacing myself.

Spent time with two of my four daughters (because the other two are in Des Moines and Tampa).  Enjoyed a 15-minute water bed massage, vacuum packed my clothes (filling a large suitcase), and chilled at a Hookah bar with my 18-year old.  All of these were firsts.

Woke up at 4am this morning.  Couldn’t sleep for anticipation! There are a number of things on my list today but the most important is having dinner with my family this evening.  Spending quality time.  Cherishing every moment.  And, looking forward to our time together again.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the small things that provide balance and peace to my life.  Going for scenic walks and taking afternoon family naps are a big part of that.  Appreciating the smell of rain, freshly cut grass and the fall leaves, barefoot walks on the beach, walking the streets of Chicago or New York, breath-taking architecture, capturing nature and faces with my camera, going to movies, babies, our pets, reading a good book, laughing, good quotes, . . . each other.

A Lesson in Patience

It’s been over a month since my last post.  Why?  The fear of nothing to say?  The fear of saying too much?  Actually, it’s probably both.  When I created my blog, my job offer to go to Abu Dhabi as a an Elementary Principal was a mere week and a half old.  I envisioned a quick turn-around offering a wealth of topics from cultural experiences, to new friends, and plenty of adventure.

Instead, almost six weeks have passed since my last blog.  My anticipated quick turn-around is actually par for the course.  It takes 6-8 weeks for my work visa to be completed.  Knowing the timeline does not make the wait any easier.

Waiting is not an easy thing to do.  Waiting patiently is almost impossible.  How have I managed to survive my personal purgatory?  I’m not gonna lie . . . the first four weeks drained my emotions and my motivation.  Here are some things I did to make it through.

1.  Utilized a calendar:  Having 2-3 events to look forward to throughout the week was similar to setting small, easy to accomplish goals. (i.e. dinner with friends, a pre-departure webinar, going to a movie)  One memorable family activity entailed getting a tatoo in Arabic!

2.  Took a short trip:  When I faced the fact that my work visa was not going to be miraculously completed in two weeks, or even four, I drove to Des Moines to spend a few emotionally healing days holding my youngest grand-daughter, Lillian.  At that point, she was about 7 weeks old.  I returned home with a positive outlook.

3.  Studied Arabic:  Not only does this keep me busy and out of trouble (no shopping), I am confident that the time spent with Rosetta Stone will enhance my ability to function and experience the culture once in the UAE.

4.  Exercised:  While I had already established a regular exercise routine prior to the job offer, I knew that maintaining was going to be a struggle but a necessity.  The stress of waiting challenged my motivation to workout.  Reducing my workouts from 5 days a week to 3 allowed for the unmotivated days, relieving me of self-induced pressure.

5.  Networked:  Facebook provided an invaluable tool for meeting teachers and administrators who were already in Abu Dhabi, as well as those in the same waiting stage.  We commiserated, supported one another, and made plans.  Having a group of internet friends, who have or are going through the same process, waiting on the other side of the world creates a secure feeling when embarking on an adventure in a foreign country.

My work visa should be completed in the next week or two.  Meanwhile, I am feeling positive about my future and ready for the challenge.

Solitary

While the decision to go abroad (in my case, to Abu Dhabi as an Elementary Principal), to move 7520 miles away from family, to walk away from the known into the unknown, to shed the familiar, to embark on an adventure, and to embrace and acclimate to another culture is exciting, it can also be a test of independence and perseverance.  My personal journey will differ from others in that I am not traveling with my husband or children, which demands a great deal of persistence.

Many make the move with family in tow.  They bring their circle of support with them.

Some make the move and life-changing transition without the ties of spouse or children.  They are flying solo with support of other ex pats in the same position.

In my case, my youngest is a high school senior and my spouse is working on a degree in Music Administration.  Both whole-heartedly endorse this, our family “adventure”, which serves to inspire them to reach their academic goals and inspires me to hold fast to a life-long dream.  Their support, however, does not reduce my personal anxiety about leaving or diminish the second-guessing.

The hardest thing is the waiting.  I applied for this amazing experience in February . . . interviewed in Chicago in March . . . and waited to hear from the recruiters.   There was some back and forth about one position in April and then more waiting.  That position was filled but the potential for another placement was possible.  More waiting.  Authenticated my teaching / principal license and highest diploma at the state and national levels at the beginning of June, sent them in and waited.   After a few more weeks of waiting, with on-going communications from recruiters, I received a call indicating that my name was being moved forward for security clearance.  A few days later, I received an offer letter and given  24 hours to decline or print, sign, scan and e-mail acceptance.  One week later, I submitted a travel form, indicating my passport information and lodging needs (single).

This week, I attended a Pre-Departure seminar.  And, now, I wait for my work Visa to be cleared.  Once this is done, I will receive my travel date and departure information.

The “waiting” is a solitary torture.  No one else can experience the insomnia or gauge the anxiety that ebbs and flows.

Even so, I know that my family (spouse, children, siblings, cousins) and friends (you know who you are) are going on this journey with me, if only in spirit and via blog.  Some are planning to visit!!  And, although I possess an independent spirit and have a great deal of perseverance, I couldn’t do this without you.  I’ll keep you posted!