Scott and Susanne Herrington: Canada, the Middle East, and Back
After sixteen years at the American School of Dubai and eight at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia, Scott and Susanne Herrington’s family just repatriated home to Canada this year. We caught up with Scott to chat about his family’s life abroad!
Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, Scott! How did you first get into education, and then into international education?
I’m a bit of a jock, so after leaving high school, I got involved in coaching right away. But I also caught the travel bug early! After I finished my initial degree (a Bachelor of Physical Education from the University of Calgary), my rugby team went on an international tour. I went along, planning to deviate and go to Australia for six weeks — it ended up being six months. I came back to Canada and started my second degree in education, but I realized I didn’t want to actually get into teaching too quickly. I was just enjoying travel so much.
I traveled a lot more, and took a year-long backpacking through Asia. I was in Kathmandu in 1990 and loved Nepal, so I thought, since I have this teaching certification, I should find a local school to volunteer at. I went to the Peace Zone International Boarding School, and it turned out they were in need of a teacher. So my first official job was working for the Peace Zone International School for two dollars a day! That experience really sparked my realization that there’s a world of teaching not necessarily confined to Canada.
When I returned to Canada, I ended up teaching sixth-grade in Northwestern Alberta. That was a very important and formative piece of my career, but all the while in the back of my head, I knew there was this international calling. I came to know about ISS and made an application. I went to a recruiting Fair in Philadelphia, spent another year teaching and went recruiting again, this time at a San Francisco fair. I wandered up to the American School of Dubai’s table, met Roger Hove, and he hired me! I went to Dubai single, but before leaving Alberta, I met my wife. She joined me in Dubai about a year later, after she received her permanent certification.
Tell us how you and Susanne met!
That’s kind of a funny story: my principal knew that I was itching to go abroad, so he was trying to do everything he could to keep me. It’s pretty goofy, but I remember when I walked into my third year at the school, he met me at the door and said, “Oh Scott, I hired with you in mind this year!”
Lo and behold, the gal that he hired became my wife! (She also won an award her first year of teaching, so my principal hired her for more than her potential as my future wife!) My principal was at our wedding and I gave him all the credit, of course. But ultimately his plan backfired: I did leave, and I eventually took Susie with me. But our principal was good with it, and we never really looked back.
Where did your international career take you?
I got hired to teach middle school Social Studies and English at the American School of Dubai. After nine years, I shifted gears and took over as the Recreation Director of the school. I did that for seven years, then our family moved on to the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia.
There, my wife and I were founding members of the school faculty. I was hired to be a curriculum coordinator for the IB program, and also served as the Humanities Head and Activities Director for a total of eight years there. Susanne was a Special Education teacher and eventually coordinator for the department. Looking back now, living on the Red Sea where kids are on bikes in the neighbourhood, living close to the school…we were so lucky to have that opportunity. It was a wonderful place to have our kids grow up into young adults.
What was life like when you first moved abroad to Dubai from Canada?
The school had been very thoughtful, and you could tell they knew exactly what they were doing. One of the big memories I have to coming out of public education in Alberta was that relatively speaking, your teaching load was at least 30% or 40% less. I remember thinking early that class sizes were demonstrably lower. These kids were so well behaved and had supportive parents. Not without issues of course, but on the whole, really quite a bit easier than those three years I spent in Canada.
The whole expatriate lifestyle was exciting, as was our role in our world of education. There is such rich and diverse life in international schools, so your school really does become a community. The possibility of international travel was very quick to settle on us. The teachers convention wasn’t down the road — my first one was in Sri Lanka. I went to the Maldives en route! That was amazing.
What were your favorite family spots in Dubai and Saudi?
In Dubai, the beach was a big part of our lives. We would go down to Jumeirah Beach, the one where they eventually built the iconic Burj Al Arab Hotel. We watched it grow from nothing, all the way up to its magnificent finished state. Our boys were involved in Boy Scouts, and we did a lot of camping and outdoor pursuits. One of our favorite places in Dubai was a Lebanese restaurant called “Eat and Drink,” where we would go for shawarmas and cheese breads.
In Saudi, you can camp at 3,000 meters and escape the opressive heat. Saudi is not just sand; it boasts spectacular sights including places that make you feel like you’re in the foothills of the Himalayas with verdant green wadis, beautiful rivers and bodies of water. Saudi Arabia is absolutely an amazing place in terms of the diverse geography, the culture, the history — it’s spectacular, and not a place that’s visited much unless you’re a religious tourist. You go to Nabataean ruins in northern Saudi Arabia, which are on the same ancient trade route as in Petra, Jordan — it’s just a different feel, and it makes it quite a special place.
What are some of the joys and challenges of raising your children abroad?
Being so far from family is one of the biggest challenges of teaching internationally. That was tempered for us by the fact that Dubai is such an appealing place for visitors. Our parents came to visit. Susie’s parents came almost every year! Really, living in northwestern Alberta, Canada might be equally as remote as living in Dubai!
All three of our kids were born at the American Hospital in Dubai and every single time, we went through the various hoops of getting them registered as Canadian citizens. Traveling with young kids and being halfway across the world is a challenge; thankfully, they were all very healthy, but in those early years…I swear on some flights with my middle son, he stood on my lap and walked up and down my face and body for nine hours. But in hindsight, it’s definitely worth it.
When it comes to living and working overseas, teachers are in such a great position because of our awesome holidays. Throughout those years abroad, we maintained a strong connection to Canada. We had a summer home (we call them cabins) in Alberta, and the kids could relate and identify with Canada and with Canadian culture. When we were raising our kids, Susanne was able to be a stay-at-home mom, so to speak. She was fourth grade teacher for the her first three years abroad, and then stopped when we began having a family. I think that’s another feature that we probably wouldn’t have been able to achieve had we stayed in Canada; in all likelihood, we would have had to both work. That was a really positive contributor to our longevity of living and teaching overseas, and just to our positive lifestyle and way we raised our children.
There’s no question living overseas was an extremely valuable experience for our children. They collectively value it, their sense of internationalism is high, and I believe they are in a position to understand better the complexities we face in our modern time. I’m sure they would be equally great kids if they had a grown up in Grande Prairie, Calgary or Vancouver, but I do think living overseas is an experience like no other.
How did you and Susanne decide your family would live abroad for so many years?
We didn’t have a plan; there was no way we would have said, “we’re gonna spend sixteen years in Dubai!” But as I reflect back on the places we lived, we stayed for two reasons. Number one: they were great places to work. Number two, or maybe just another number one: they were great places for our family. They simply were.
We’re on Bowen now, an island a stone’s throw away from Vancouver. I have taken over as head of the Island Pacific School, which was founded about twenty three years ago by a very visionary educational specialist. About a year and a half ago, when they started their head search, my buddy’s wife emailed me the job description. I couldn’t have written a more appealing job description — it was just absolutely in line with the way I approach education and the philosophy that I hold near and dear.
In addition, we have two kids at the University of British Columbia and my parents are kind of elderly, so not being 12 time zones apart from them was pretty appealing. Still, it was a big deal for us to move back to Canada after all that time. Our daughter is missing a lot of things about her life in Saudi. That will be probably the biggest challenge we will face; we can all empathize with the fifteen-year-old who misses her friends
What do you feel like you bring back from your experience abroad?
We have a vantage point with respect to world politics. I’ve walked into a store in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia and had a woman in a full abaya and hijab talk with me like any interaction with a salesclerk — yet to many, a woman with her face and hair covered seems unapproachable. The same thing with a guy who looks like “the jihadi terrorists,” but is actually the most lovable friendly person around. I’ve had those experiences firsthand. We are sadly influenced by stereotypes and mass media that simply do not present the whole picture. Since I’ve come back, I feel the need to find ways to share and communicate the complexities of our world.
I think that if there’s one thing I’ve taken out of 24 years, is that we can’t be thinking down national boundary lines. While I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be thoughtfuI, if we can break out of our selfish mental framework, if we can think more as a human race and less as a national identity, I think we’re going to be a whole lot better off.
One last question! Say you meet a young Canadian teacher thinking about going abroad. What advice would you give?
Do a few years of teaching, earn your stripes in Canada — because if you go overseas too early you’re gonna be spoiled! But absolutely, take advantage of the opportunity to live, teach, work and life experience overseas. It is phenomenal.
I’ve known many Canadian colleagues that have watched us live and work overseas and say, “Oh I couldn’t do it” — but I say, yes you could! Whether you do it for a couple of years, or you spend the better part of your career doing it, it’s an absolutely incredible opportunity and one that you shouldn’t miss. Teaching is just so conducive to that expatriate life. I’ve only been in two fabulous international schools, but I’ve visited many schools with sporting teams and cultural trips. And in every corner of the planet, there’s exciting possibility to grow in your profession and to make a positive influence.
Thank you so much for sharing your time, Scott and Susanne!
You have had an amazing journey overseas, and your ISS family wishes you all the best as you continue your story on Bowen Island!
Ready to launch your own teach abroad story?