The International Path of Joel Tallman from Baltimore to Sturgis

I’d like to say I felt a calling to become a teacher, that I knew from an early age exactly what I wanted to do with my life, perhaps that I was inspired by an influential teacher I had when I was in school.  But in fact, I never liked school very much—at least, from sometime around second grade through all the grades until I graduated from high school.  Those years ran together in a long, boring, undistinguished blur.  I was an anonymous, unhappy student in one of those big, bland high schools with 500 other mainly anonymous students in my graduating class.  And my teachers certainly never seemed to be living lives I envied—quite the contrary—except perhaps for their summer vacations.  Add in the fact that the very worst of the worst times in school were the ones where I was forced to speak in front of the class, and it seems extraordinary that I now do that every day for a living.

Mr. Tallman at his first desk in his first classroom, Baltimore, 1987

I graduated from high school with no clear idea of what I wanted to do as a career, but if you had asked me, I would have told you that the one job I would not consider was high school teacher.  However, as they sometimes do, my college years changed me.  I loved my years at university, and I felt like I grew about ten years every year I was there.  A long four years and a complicated mish-mash of influences and two changes of major later, I found myself looking for a job as an English teacher, determined to inspire a bunch of young people and their minds as the cool young teacher I had never had in high school.

A year later, I was still looking.  But one of those months-ago interviews I had done or resumes I had mailed off got a response, and in December of 1984, I was hired for my first teaching job, in the Baltimore City Public Schools.  Thus began a long career of going to places I’d never been, to teach in schools I’d never heard of, with people I’d never met.

I learned a lot, teaching in Baltimore.  As most teachers will tell you, an undergraduate education in all the learning theories in the world does not really prepare a person to teach in a real classroom.  And I, from little old Midland, Michigan, was entering a big-city school classroom in the middle of the school year, in the worst possible situation: replacing a beloved teacher whom teachers and students alike thought could do no wrong.  His name was Mr. Bernie Wenker.  As in, “But Mr. Wenker never did it like that…” or “But Mr. Wenker gave me higher grades…” or “Mr. Wenker had this other system…”  And the work was hard.  Giant classes (forty students in a class! forty-five students in a class!), giant discipline problems, kids who seemed much tougher and much more no-nonsense than I was.  To be honest, I almost quit the job after my first day of teaching.  I sat in my car in the parking lot and seriously considered it.  I felt like I’d failed my first day, and I didn’t feel strong enough or qualified enough to do this demanding job, and frankly I think the only reason I didn’t march into the principal’s office and quit was that the fear of doing that just slightly outweighed the fear of coming in the next day and teaching some more.

But, that first day turned out to be the hardest.  Every day after that—for the next thirty or so years—I got a teensy weensy bit better as a teacher.  I came to love my students in Baltimore—lively, smart students full of so much more personality and spark than I ever remembered having when I was in school—and over time, over a long time, I came to think it was a pretty good job.  There was even that day, some time around April or May of that first year of teaching, when one of the students said to me, “You know, that guy who was here before you, Mr.–  Mr.–  What was his name again?”  I had even started to replace the memory of beloved Mr. Wenker.

In Istanbul, Turkey, 1997

However.  Flash forward about ten years, and I was starting to drag, personally and professionally.  I could have stayed in the same place, doing the same job, for the rest of my career, with the health insurance and the retirement benefits, gradually becoming more ossified and drained of creativity and passion—in other words, I could easily become exactly like nearly every teacher I had had in high school, the ones who had bored me to death and scared me away from the profession in the first place.  Had those dinosaurs once been young, idealistic teachers like me?  I needed a change before I turned into that.

Just when I was wondering what form that change might take, one of my friends—a chemistry teacher who didn’t know she was changing the trajectory of my life—came into my classroom one day during lunch and said, “You seem like the kind of person who’d be interested in this,” and handed me a brochure.  It said across the front, TEACHING OVERSEAS, and it advertised a job fair, in Boston, for teachers who wanted to teach in international schools.  I had never heard of international teaching, but in that moment, with that brochure in my hand, I was sold.  A few months later, my paperwork and recommendations submitted, I was standing in a giant hotel ballroom in Boston, surrounded by principals and teachers from around the world, awed by the possibility of teaching in China or Africa or South America or Europe.

Six months after that, I walked off an airplane with three suitcases, into the warm air of a place I’d never heard of called Izmir, in a country I knew little about, Turkey.  Izmir looked on the map like a little dot on the shore of the Aegean Sea.  I had quit my job with the Baltimore City Public Schools, and was nervous about traveling to the other side of the world to a place I’d never been, where I didn’t speak the language, where the culture and food and religion promised to be so different from what I was used to.  It was to become a familiar feeling for a big stretch of my life.  It sounds scary, and there’s some of that, but it’s one of my favorite feelings, too.  It always promises something interesting ahead.

I’ve lived in enough places around the world that I am often asked which one has been my favorite.  Of course my answer is, it’s hard to choose, every place is special in its own way, etc.  But secretly I have a soft spot for Izmir and for Turkey, and the school where I taught, the American Collegiate Institute, because it was my first place to live and experience overseas.  I enjoyed every minute of my time there.  I loved my students.  I loved the country.  I loved learning about new things all the time.  I’d still be there, frankly, if I didn’t know that I really wanted to travel to a new place and have that scary feeling all over again.

Hiking in Switzerland, 2001

My next job was in Geneva, Switzerland, in many ways as different from Izmir as a city can be.  This was my first exposure to a true international school—one of the first international schools in the world and one of the first places the IB was ever taught.  Just looking down the class roll was like taking a trip around the world.  My students were from Poland, from Ethiopia, from Japan, from Kazakhstan, from Peru, from everywhere.  The International School of Geneva claims it has the most international student body of any school in the world, and it seems quite possible.

From Geneva, I went to teach in Beirut, Lebanon.  Beirut is a beautiful city with a brutal history, and it was having one of its renaissances when I was there.

In the historic city of Byblos (one of the oldest in the world), Lebanon, 2003

It sometimes seems like two steps forward, two steps back for Lebanon, and the idea of taking a taxi over to Damascus, Syria for a long weekend seems unbelievable now, but time always changes things, and I expect eventually the pendulum in that part of the world will swing the other way.

I had spent about ten years in a certain part of the globe, so next I aimed for a new continent, and ended up in Maracaibo, in the northern part of Venezuela, in South America.  Venezuela is also in the news a lot as I write this, and not for good reasons, but at the time, Maracaibo somehow had the characteristics of both a sleepy little town and a large city.  It was the first time I’d taught at such a small school—a class of eight or ten students was not uncommon—so teachers taught many different levels and subjects.  This is where I became an IB teacher, something I had wanted to do since I’d first heard of it from other international school teachers.

Angel Falls, Venezuela, 2007

From South America, I moved to northern Thailand.  Thailand also has a unique place in my heart; it’s a beautiful country, great for traveling, wonderful food and culture—but also, it was the first time I’d taught at a boarding school.  There’s something special about students and teachers all living together on the same campus, and it creates a very personal and informal vibe at times.  Or at least, that was true at my school, in the middle of the countryside and rice paddies and hills north of Chiang Mai.

As much as I loved it, after a few years in Thailand, I was ready to find a new place to live.  Two things happened then.  One, I signed up for another international teaching job fair, in London.  Two, my father became ill back in the United States, and I started to realize my sixteen years overseas had kind of blinded me to my parents’ declining health.  I thought it might be time to return to the United States, but the pull of the adventure of living overseas was still strong.

Northern Thailand, 2010

Every time I’d looked for a new job overseas, or gone to the international teaching job fair in Boston, I’d seen mentions of this little school on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, something called Sturgis.  I had never paid any attention to it, because I’d never wanted to move back to the States.  But fortunately, Sturgis likes to hire teachers who’ve been overseas, and they are hooked into the international school hiring loop, and just as I was thinking of my next step, we found each other.  I investigated, and it seemed like it could be a cool thing, this little school in a former furniture store on Main Street in a town called Hyannis, which, if I had ever heard of it before, probably made me think of the Kennedy family.  I did a Skype interview with Mr. Heiser, and then thought about it for a while, and then I did a Skype interview with Mr. Marble, and then thought about it a little more.  It wasn’t the same kind of excitement I’d felt getting on the plane to Izmir sixteen years earlier, but I had a good feeling about the school.  It seemed like something special—at the very least something quite different from the giant, boring school I’d gone to when I was a kid.  Sturgis was opening a new campus, what would become Sturgis West, and I was going to be part of setting up a (partly) brand new school, which was exciting.  I cancelled my reservation at the job fair in London, cancelled my flight, cancelled my hotel reservation, crossed my fingers, and headed to Massachusetts.

As it happens, I didn’t end up working at West.  I came to East, and now I live in Hyannis, a confirmed resident of Cape Cod.  As I write this, I’m finishing my sixth year as an IB English teacher at Sturgis, so things must have worked out.  That pull to go back overseas is still strong, and I may answer it one day.  But for now, I’m happy to walk into the Pearl Street entrance of that little former furniture store every morning.

%d bloggers like this: