When I was a kid, three of my closest friends went off the rails. They ended up in prison. In each case, they apprenticed with a bit of shoplifting. Things went downhill from there. I didn’t grow up in a bad neighborhood. But it wasn’t all sugar and lollipops.
That’s why my mom didn’t work when I was young. She stayed home. She wanted to give my brothers, my two sisters and me stability in a world that wasn’t stable.
My mom was careful with money. My dad was a mechanic. They had four kids. That’s why I was surprised when my parents asked if I wanted to take trip around the Mediterranean Sea with a bunch of other 7th grade students. “I’ll take a part-time job to cover the cost,” said my mom. “But you have to save at least $350.” It was 1982. I was a 12-year old with a paper route. The trip cost $2,800. That was five times more than what my cash strapped parents had paid for their family car.
Today, I understand why they wanted me to do it.
For 4 months, I took weekly night lessons with a dozen other kids in a retired teacher’s home. The teacher volunteered. We learned about the countries we would see. We studied their geographies, cultures, architectures and religions. I became our 12-year old expert on Islam.
I left for my month long trip on March 28, 1982. I still remember the date and most of what I saw. We went to England, Greece, Egypt, Israel and Turkey. I spent two extra weeks with relatives in England.
It was, by far, the best educational experience that I ever had.
Thousands of parents take it one step further. They raise their children overseas. Their kids attend international schools. These aren’t French schools servicing French children, or Thai schools servicing Thai students. Instead, they support the families of expatriates working abroad. They’re like the United Nations.
For many kids and parents, these schools are a dream. Almost every child who graduates from an international school eventually goes to college. In the 12 years that I taught at one, I wasn’t aware of a single high school drop out.
Although it may have happened, I wasn’t aware of a single teen pregnancy. Racism was almost non-existent. There was a heightened awareness of different religions, cultures and demographics, both social and financial.
I taught at Singapore American School. It’s the largest American school outside of the United States. There are 4,000 kids from Kindergarten to 12th grade. Most are U.S. passport holders. But the student body represents more than 50 different nationalities. Most of the teachers have children.
In 2014, ICEF Monitor stated that there are more than 7000 international schools worldwide. Devin Pratt and his wife Dianna have worked at six of them. Devin began his career as a Social Studies teacher in Texas. He’s now the Assistant Head (Superintendent) at Frankfurt International School. Dianna works at the same school as an educational technology coordinator. Their two children, Dagan and Dominique, have lived in Cote-d’Ivoire, Africa; Saudi Arabia; Taiwan; India and Singapore.
I sat with Devin on his porch in Frankfurt. Some of the neighbor’s homes peeked through the trees on the sunny hill below. Birds chirped. I couldn’t see or hear a single car. I couldn’t hear another voice.
“For part of my childhood, I grew up in government subsidized apartments in the Dallas, Texas area,” said Devin. “We eventually moved to Plano when my mom remarried. It’s a high socioeconomic area where many of the kids’ parents expected them to go to college. Just having that influence helped me.”
Devin says that there are few negative distractions at international schools. “Almost all of the kids are focused on education and their school based activities. Most don’t consider not going to college. They’re positively pulled by their peers and by supportive communities that value global education and diversity.”
But raising kids overseas isn’t perfect. Derek Swanson is from Colorado Springs, Colorado. He teaches at the American Community School of Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates. Previously, he and his wife taught in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The couple has two sons. The youngest is four years old. The oldest is seven. “Maintaining relationships with grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and other family members is challenging at times,” he says. “But technologies [like skype] help considerably.”
Derek’s children follow a U.S. curriculum. But they learn much more. “Our two boys have learned a fair amount of Vietnamese, Arabic, and Tagalog,” says Derek. “They also have a fair understanding of the conflicts in Vietnam and how that affected the people there.”
Kate Smith (I’ve changed her name to protect her identity) is another American overseas. She teaches 2nd grade at Pechersk International School, in Kiev Ukraine. Kate, her husband, and their thirteen year old daughter have also lived in Turkey and Belgium.
“My daughter has been exposed to many different cultures, languages and different ways of thinking,” says Kate. “She has grown up thinking it’s normal to be able to speak 3 languages. She isn’t as materialistic as her cousins who live in the U.S. and she has learned to value experiences and people over things.”
Kate credits a lack of exposure to U.S. based television. “When she was younger, I asked my daughter what she wanted from Santa. She looked puzzled and didn’t know how to reply because she has what she wants and needs. She hasn’t been exposed to the advertising on American TV.”
But living overseas, for Kate, isn’t without its challenges. “Buying clothes and shoes in foreign countries is always interesting. In our current country, they speak Russian or Ukrainian (and I know neither). I have bought some foods expecting them to be something they are not!”
Gael Thomlinson and her husband, Brad, teach at the British Columbia Canadian International School, in Cairo Egypt. It follows a Canadian curriculum. As with most international schools, the students come from dozens of different countries. Gail teaches music. Brad teaches math. Previously, the couple taught in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates.
Their two nine year olds, Lisa and David (I’ve changed their names to protect their identities) enjoy living overseas. Gael says, “We’ve made great friends from so many different countries. We travel a lot and have visited places like Sri Lanka and Nepal– places I had never dreamed of going. My kids are comfortable amongst many nationalities and they get over language barriers quickly so they can play with new friends.”
Broad cultural acceptance and confidence are common traits among these global kids. Stacy Bradshaw (I have changed her name) is a high school English teacher. She’s a single mother of two children, aged nine and six. For two years, she and her children lived in Taiwan. They recently moved to Korea. This fall, her children will attend Osan American Elementary. It’s a U.S. Department of Defense School.
Stacy and her children have visited 10 different countries in the Pacific Rim region. “My daughter is now a fluent speaker of traditional Mandarin,” says Stacy. “She’s also my translator. My children love the adventures that come from exploring new cultures, which have provided a hands-on, visual learning experience that they continue to reminisce.”
Devin and Dianna Pratt’s daughter, Dominique, is now a Master’s student at Clark Univeristy, in Massachusetts. She earned a scholarship through the Global Scholars Program for international students. She grew up in six different countries. Dominique graduated from high school in Singapore.
“I’m proud of how I grew up,” she says. But Dominque admits that living overseas has created a pull to live in other places. “I don’t feel like I’m a local anywhere. I like the idea of moving on. I feel myself getting antsy about moving somewhere else.”
I asked her about U.S. based teachers. If they have kids, and a sense of adventure, should they consider moving abroad?
“If I were to have kids,” she says, “I would see it as a positive thing.”
Andrew Hallam is a Digital Nomad. He’s the author of the bestseller, Millionaire Teacher and The Global Expatriate's Guide to Investing: From Millionaire Teacher to Millionaire Expat.