Ellen Johnston: Austria, Taiwan, Nigeria, Guinea, and on to Turkey

Ellen Johnston is no stranger to international education. She’s been preparing for a life teaching overseas since her undergraduate years, has now taught in Austria, Taiwan, Nigeria, Guinea, and this coming school year, will be headed to Turkey as an EAL Coordinator! In addition to the amazing places she’s worked, we loved hearing about Ellen’s attitude towards her itinerant career, which beautifully pushes against “the rituals of distrust.”

Hear her story, thoughts, and reflections below.

Hello Ellen! Introduce yourself and describe why you wanted to teach overseas. Was there a compelling call or interesting story behind it?
I began my overseas teaching fair early on by enrolling in the University of Northern Iowa, where I studied Social Studies and later received my MA in TESOL and Reading Endorsement. I conducted my student teaching in Vienna, Austria and after graduate school, I worked in Taiwan, Nigeria, and Guinea. I prepared for a life overseas by studying abroad and teaching abroad through summer programs.

My student teacher experience at Vienna International School cinched the experience for me. I showed myself I could live away from familiar, in a country where I didn’t fully grasp the language and was able to build a community by developing social networks outside of the school community. Student teaching abroad also helped me to see that I could better market myself and better support students by having a background in Teaching English if I was going to be a content teacher in an international setting and serve a multilingual population.

Congratulations on your new position as an EAL Coordinator in Turkey! What excites you most about your new role and/or school?
I am excited to work with an experienced administrator who has worked in my roll in Student Support Services and Counseling. I’m eager to carry on the work of the previous staff who I’m in contact with and can continue to provide English Language support to students and professional development for international and local teachers.

What research did you do before accepting your job?
I connected with other experienced teachers through message boards online via Facebook and the International School Review Forum. I read up on current events in countries I was interested in working in, but I also I spoke to people in my current country about the life and education system in the next country I wanted to teach in.

Left: Ellen meeting with employees from the local education agency in Abuja, Nigeria. Middle: Visiting a high school English class in Abuja Right: Taken after joining a group of teachers to discuss professional development opportunities at the American Corner in Abuja

What encouraged you to sign up with a service like ISS, and how has your experience been?​
I wanted to have all my job materials in one place, on a single database, rather than uploading my resume and references to multiple sites. It still seems like many schools require their individual application process, but I hope schools will eventually migrate to a standard application process with some room for differentiation in the future.

What advice would you give to educators looking to recruit overseas for the first time?
A rule I acknowledge the “rituals of distrust” I hold about a particular region, country, or group of people when searching for the next school. This idea comes from a short story, Birdsong, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “That is how we relate to one another here, through rituals of distrust….We know the rules, and we follow them, and we never make room for things we might not have imagined. We close the door too soon.”

By going against the ritual, I hope to make room for unexpected places less traveled. I trust that there is more to the news story than what is reported in the news. I trust the admin who recruits to follow through on the guarantees discussed in the contract, I trust the community of parents and teachers who welcome me as a new faculty member, and I trust the students and parents want to engage in a dynamic community. Learning to go against the ritual has rewarded me with life changing opportunities in places that wouldn’t have been at the top of my list of desirable countries. So far my ritual to go where I feel the best fit has worked for me.


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