Cecil Mack: Fostering creativity and critical thinking in China

Can you tell us about yourselves?

Our stories began very differently, my wife Irina grew up in Khabarovsk Russia, studying to become an instructor of the Russian Language, art history and was fascinated with Mandarin. I, on the other hand grew up in a small town in Georgia, separated from a lot of cultures but very well cared for by my ‘village’ before moving the ‘big city’ of Orlando where I went to college gaining degrees in film, theater, humanities and organizational behavior. These degrees allowed for a variety of jobs from movie theater manager, call centers, cattle ranching, insurance clerk, reality tv show coordinator and even managing projects at Disney World Orlando.

At the same time, Irina had followed her passion of singing and joined a Russian Ensemble that toured all over China, singing, dancing and entertaining thousands as she would organize transportation, logistics, host all performances and over years she had mastered the ability to speak, write and sing in Mandarin.

After a career as a traveling artist, Irina was settling down in Dongguan as a Russian Leather company was being created. We met through mutual friends and as two avid travelers we decided the best ways to get to know each other would be to take turns picking holiday locations. Seeing everything from a Russian snow to Florida sun, constantly learning about each other we grew closer with travel locations. We were married in Hong Kong and decided we wanted to travel the world as a couple to support great international schools with our diverse talents.

How did you get into teaching – what inspired you?

I was first hired at Seminole State College to work in their Adult High School for students who needed an accelerated High School Diploma. I would observe students, would connect with teachers on ways to enhance their use of technology and began substituting all the subjects. It was a great place to realize that teaching was fun when all the content was provided and I just had to think of a dynamic and interesting way to deliver it to the students.

I began by teaching classes in keyboarding, computer/business documents, photography, web design and film history. As keyboarding is just as exciting as you remember, we would use the established curriculum to the worry that many students had felt safe enough in the class to tell me it was boring. It was, not the class but the program. To which I discovered my first need of differentiation. We would have topical discussions in chat rooms with the option of either speaking aloud or typing on the projected screen. After some ground rules we proceeded to have a discussion about movies, the students who were quiet were familiar and dynamic in this environment, the people in the class all had a number so no identity, age or social class was connected.

As I had an open seating chart, this triggered conversations with the students based on interest and over time the classroom seating arrangement changed based on individual talents and interest. Everyone was talking, engaged and a lot less bored. Our final assignment was to make an internet business using all the business documents with their groups and communicated between different organizations. They amazed me and forever will be my first class.

How did you make the jump to wanting to teach internationally?

I gained my Masters of Arts in Teaching from Rollins College which sent me on my first field study to China just before the Beijing Olympics and fell in love with the culture. When I graduated I played the game of applying to as many schools, talk to anyone in the world who would listen and from those conversations I met Michael Lees & Charles Gregory. They were starting a International School in Dongguan China and they were needing a Visual Arts teacher. As I had no wife or family, I thought it would be a grand adventure, actually applying all that “what makes a school great” and document its growth from a building of empty rooms to the lively thriving institution that it is today.

In the past 5 years, we now have 2 terabytes of pictures, events, movies, development plans, lessons, units and most importantly documented student growth. This was the first job where I could use all my talents. As a new international teacher I wanted to try everything, attempting to be a model to my students to not be afraid of learning a new field, role or skill. At ISD I have been a teacher of Visual Arts, Science, Yearbook, Drama, Film and constantly working in my Tech Integration role. When people ask what I teach, I share that I teach creativity and critical thinking, the subject matter is just the lens in which we look those ideas.

How did you decide to use a recruiting service organization such as ISS?

My first impressions of ISS was the helpful staff that helped me join the organization. I had heard good things and after seeing the map of all the countries and schools that use them as recruitment or management it immediately gave me comfort to the possibilities of finding a new home.

After the interview they communicated all the things you do not normally find in an orientation, like “these things are expensive, bring it” or “it’s made in China, you probably don’t need to bring it back”. It really made me question what I needed to be happy. I packed everything I thought I would need in two giant duffle bags, bought the ticket and decided to take a ride to China. As I learned, an ISS managed school is different from other schools: they gave us fully furnished apartments, arrival bonus to live off of before our bank accounts were set up, trips to ikea, and lots of team building. As this was the founding teachers, we relied heavily on each other as nothing existed except a building, a name and a dream. Those teachers will forever be like a family who went through the hard, the fun, the amazing and unforgettable.

What was your experience at your first international recruiting conference like?

I recently visited my first recruiting conference in Dubai. From what I saw, it is a gathering of all the schools, all the jobs and all the teachers in the same room and just hoping with enough time everyone can get to know everybody so good connections can be made. This was a chance to meet the principals and directors one on one giving you an immediate direct feel for culture of the school. This is sometimes hard with internet connections, quality of webcams, audio problems and complicated time zone differences.

Every gathering of international teachers for recruiting or professional development is a reunion. Of fellow colleagues, of job-alikes from other schools, people from your home state in the same host country or even better teacher who is just as passionate about learning with their kids. It has been a great place to gather and grow friendships.

What advice would you give to those considering a career overseas?

There will be moments that the rest of your hometown is going to say you are not ready, this is a crazy idea and that life there is impossible. What is great in the 21st century is we have the Internet, you can find pictures, videos, reviews, comments, suggestions and all the information you will need to make an informed decision. Being able to Google it isn’t enough, you can talk to people who have done it before you, there’s been hundreds and thousands of teachers who did it before without guidance. And if you meet them, have them tell you the stories, it is amazing and I really wish my move overseas was a little harder, but it was perfect just for me.

I think you learn a lot of who you are as a person, what you need to stay connected with to be happy. Being overseas allows you to hone your craft of teaching, your classroom management, and especially your understanding of your own internal cultural bias. The more we see the world the less we realize we know and how we expect the students to be global citizens even when we do not model that behavior before? The first step is learning and experiencing the world to grow as an international teacher.

Where are you going to teach next year, and what are you most looking forward to?

We have no idea. I can describe the school however, it will be a school that values their teachers, it is taking established learning structures and adapting innovative ways to best fit their students’ needs. It will be somewhere surrounded with a diverse community of individuals, in a city with food that is deliciously different, a huge range of transportation options from animal to airplane and a place where my wife and I can grow together. It is a pretty amazing place and I look forward to sharing it with you next year.

What has it been like raising children overseas?

There seems to be a balance of International Teachers who start off their overseas careers with children, and then others who start off single, find their life partner and then go through all the child raising experiences with the complexities of being far away from your hometown. Again, just like moving international, others have done it worst and better than anything you can imagine, learn from their experiences because teachers make the best advisors on life as they are patient, understanding and able to communicate in multiple ways. Even on their hardest days off, teachers are great at giving good advice.

As my wife and I have a few more years of traveling countries and learning about each other before settling down. We do consider the idea that deciding on just one place to retire is an abstract concept. It has to be close to everything, everyone and everywhere we love. Logically we will simply need to travel to many places, experience different cultures and find the best place for two unique individuals as ourselves to retire. We hope you the reader can travel and find your favorite places, there’s a right place for everyone given enough time of looking. And besides you are never too far from an Internet connection or airport.

What final advice would you give to anyone like you who may be considering teaching overseas?

Be ready and keep learning. The problem is you will never be totally ready, but that constant vigilance of researching, learning, developing new skills and growing as a person is needed. Every time you have to rely on someone else for something, ask yourself: could you do it yourself? You can learn the language, you can use phones to translate, you can use hand-written notes, and you can use charades when ordering food that will end with a smile and thumbs up.

You need to also know what makes you work. I knew from the beginning that my city would not feel like home until I knew every neighborhood. I could always get to the school and my apartment and then I just walked, drove and explored every neighborhood in between. I cannot get lost in my city, after discovering my favorite places to eat, where to get clothes fixed, to buy gifts for friends and develop real connections with the local people that it became home.

Finally, how was your experience with ISS?

I like how ISS has taken care of me in my first international teaching experience, giving me opportunities to try multiple roles and even giving me venues to share with a wider teaching community. It takes a village to raise a child, and then it takes an organization like ISS to develop a good international teacher. Like all processes, it starts with the website where a first impression to the staff translates your various work history into international teacher-speak for the next school you find. It is also the department heads who think you should share that lesson you thought was fun but in actuality has a wider audience of teachers who would love to adapt into their own classroom. I believe that ISS finds the talents, and connects those talents to a school that needs them. Most importantly, ISS has surrounded me with some of the most experienced teachers that inspired me to be the best teacher possible. As long as those highly regarded and respected educators remain with ISS, I will be doing the same.

If you want to see more of my inspirations follow them on twitter at #issedu and me @cecilwmack, I love sharing their stories.


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