Today we are continuing our series on careers. Last month Victoria shared how redefining what she wanted out of a job reshaped her happiness at work, with a Parisian jaunt along the way. This month, in a similar vein Laura is talking about her move to Brussels where she teaches. I know working abroad is something so many people want to do so I thought this might be inspiring for many of you, not to feel stuck in your current circumstances. Thanks Laura!
How did you come to be a Teacher and what has your career path been so far.
I decided I wanted to teach when I was in my second year at Uni. There wasn’t a ‘Thou-shalt-TEACH!’ revelation from the heavens or anything like that; I simply reasoned I loved my subject (English Literature) too much to commit it to a dusty box in my parents’ loft after three years. Plus, take into account the bonus points of never ever clockwatching ever again combined with spectacular holidays and it pretty much clinched the deal. I trained and taught in Leeds for eight years – in a tough comprehensive and then a fancy new Academy – and learned the tricks of the trade. After three years and a promotion, I turned up at the fancy new Academy in my shiny shiny shoes and fancy pinafore dress delighted to be second in department – only to be greeted by my line manager with the words every 24-year-old deputy dreads: ‘I’m pregnant. You’ll be Head of Department at Christmas. Sorry.’ The next four years – she was promoted as soon as she came back to school and never returned to the HoD role – were a baptism of fire: consistently exhausting, very often terrifying and occasionally mind-numbing, but, by God, it transformed me.
What made you decide to look for a new opportunity and how did you end up in Brussels?
My husband Adam and I got itchy feet after we got married. Actually, we’d had itchy feet for a while beforehand, but having a monstrosity of an Anglo-Irish Wedding Extravaganza softens the ache of the daily grind and fills even the most gnat-like of attention spans – at least, for a while. So then there was the cliched post-wedding high and, following that, the cliched post-wedding lull and the utterly terrifying sense that life was passing us by. And we had plenty of idealistic notions about what we were going to do to change the world, oh yes we did. We were looking into VSO (Voluntary Services Overseas) – in fact, we came within a whisker of booking a flight to Papau New Guinea – and when that didn’t work out, we worked out our immigration points totals for New Zealand and started Googling the most fuel efficient make of camper van.
Do we sound manic? We probably were. And so we were in the throes of ‘What-the-HELL-are-we-going-to-DO?’ when a job came up in my husband’s company. In their Brussels office. And we went back to the VSO checklist of things we wanted from the experience – a new culture, a more international outlook, a fecking adventure – and realised it ticked pretty much all of the boxes. And so he went for the job. And got it. And so I applied for a job as Head of English at a British school in Brussels which just-so-happened to have come up. And I got it. After months and months of inertia and indecision our whole life had changed in just short of two weeks.
How is your job there different to your old job?
How is my job here different? Oh God, where do I start? Funnily enough, I had my performance management review meeting the other day and I was able to say, in total honesty, that I’m happier professionally than I’ve ever been. That’s quite a statement, eh? So why? Well, school is a lovely, friendly place – virtually all of the staff are British or North American along with a number of North Europeans, and new staff are made just as welcome as new students. It’s also a TOTAL bubble, in the nicest possible way. By that, I mean we’re protected from the immediate impact of governmental policy shifts and so can avoid the knee-jerk reactions that UK schools are regularly forced to make. I’m freed up from a lot of time-wasting tasks to the point where I can actually do some meaningful extra-curricular – I’m currently organising a TEDx event with some students and making plans for an overhaul of the Secondary school library. This kind of stuff makes my heart sing. I teach the international GCSE qualification, which is a welcome change from the stuff that was getting a bit yawnsome at my old school, and I’m also teaching the International Baccalaureate as well as A levels, which is just the most beautiful post-16 qualification I’ve ever laid eyes on.
Seriously – you have to study 14 texts for Literature and some of them have to have originally been written in a language other than English and you must complete a certain number of Creativity, Action and Service hours in order to pass which could involve anything from a self-defence class to working at an old people’s home and….oh, it’s amazing. It’s been a proper intellectual challenge and completely reawakened my love of reading. Seriously, I sit on the tram in the mornings for twenty five blissful minutes and read. And twice a week I run in the beautiful park – lakes! forest! gorgeous sunsets! – behind our school building. At home, I didn’t have the time – I always had an excuse. Here, it’s… easier somehow.
What does the future hold for you, career-wise?
Do I want to live here forever? Strangely, I think the answer is probably no, and then I have to think about why that might be. It seems an odd answer initially, given that I’m happier professionally and more comfortable socially than ever before. Brussels is such a warm and vibrant place. It’s full of ex-pats and people are fairly transient and, as a result, everyone’s super-friendly and all ‘hey, what’s your number? We should go out somewhere!’ without it being weird. I can even cope with the aspects that are frequently cited as being the most annoying things about living in Brussels – the complete absence of regard for any kind of health and safety, for example, and the insanely bureaucratic civil administration system (applying for an ID card is a process that involves PhD level research skills and the patience of a minor saint) I find it a little bit quirky and endearing. It’s like a French city, I guess, but with very little pretension and more graffiti. So why resist the urge to commit forever? It’s a city, I suppose, would be one answer, whereas I ultimately see myself in the country or by the sea. It’s also a young person’s place, which is great while we’re relatively young, but might not suit so much as we get older. I don’t know; we’ll see.
Have you got any advice for anyone considering working or moving abroad?
I do worry about what I’ll do if and when I do come ‘home’, having lived in this lovely bubble when teaching in the UK sound a bit grim in the papers at the minute; all cuts and criticism from people who haven’t stood in a classroom for a long time – or ever. I suppose we’ll have to see what happens. If this whole experience has taught us anything so far, it’s how quickly it’s possible to change and adapt. Going to the post office and having to talk French used to bring me out in hives. Getting on the wrong metro train was breakdown-worthy. Now that the fear’s died down, though, it’s all good. Would I recommend a similar change? Totally.
Great post Laura. I often thought of working abroad but life kind of got in the way. I don’t regret it now but I’m so impressed at the way you made this happen.