North Carolina kept calling Annie Burke. When she was in her early 20s, she spent four summers teaching at a summer camp in the state, and she developed a soft spot for the landscape, culture and people.
So when an opportunity to teach primary school children in North Carolina came along through the Participate teacher exchange programme, she grabbed it. By this stage of her career, Tipperary-born Burke had already taught in Ireland, London and the United Arab Emirates.
“In 2012, I moved back home to Ireland after teaching in Dubai and was lucky enough to begin teaching in a Clonburrus, a primary school in Clondalkin,” she says.
“When I’d been there nearly four years, and a permanent staff member, I had to chance to take this career break. Participate really piqued my interest because living and working in the US had long been on my bucket list.”
Through the exchange programme, Burke was granted a three-year work visa to teach in Magnet Elementary in Cary, North Carolina, with a package that includes initial flights to the US, training and orientation for the first few weeks, and a pay package based on experience.
Irish teachers can expect a minimum salary of $38,000 (approximately €32,820). Visas can be extended by an additional two years if teacher, school and school district are willing.
Burke is one of over 10,000 teachers who have taken on this exchange programme which, in the past few months, has been focusing on attracting Irish teachers to work in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia.
Jeff Seaby, Participate’s international recruitment director, says about half of the participants to date have come from Spanish-speaking countries, while the other half have been from English-speaking countries including Canada, New Zealand and the UK. Although there are only 13 teachers from the Republic of Ireland currently working on the programme, Participate wants to grow their numbers. Teachers range in age from 23 to 64.
“We’ve had 43 teachers from the Republic of Ireland over the years,” says Seaby. “They get really noticed in US schools because they do such a great job and are so well trained. Schools are specifically asking for them. It can be a challenge to teach in a new country but we partner the international teachers with a US teacher from their own school, and we provide support and learning tools to familiarise themselves with the curriculum.
“We also make sure that they are matched with the right school: if, for instance, they’re used to a small rural school, it could be overwhelming to send them to a large urban school; if they’re used to a diverse urban school, we’ll try to find a school that’s a good fit. By the end of the first year, we find that the international teachers often know the curriculum better than their US colleagues.”
Mark Kerr is another Irish teacher who signed up to Participate. “In the summers of 2013 and 2014 I worked at a summer camp in Indiana and loved getting the opportunity to live and work in the US. I was looking to see how I could use my degree to work longer-term in the US and jumped at the chance when I got an offer in Wake County, home to the cities of Raleigh and Cary, where I worked. The only costs I incurred were the flights to London for the interview, visa interviews and appointments at the embassy, and having my university documents notarized, but Participate handled the lion’s share of the paperwork.”
The experience is not without its challenges, however. Belfast-based teacher Amy Beckett, who signed up to the programme after five years teaching in Nothern Ireland, loved her experience in North Carolina and learned a lot but, like Kerr and Burke, says that the first few weeks were tough.
“You start a brand new job immediately and those first few weeks were a blur: busy, stressful and non-stop. But I wouldn’t change them for the world, as the independence and skills I gained outweigh the stress.”
In the beginning, teachers are dealing with a lot, says Kerr. “There’s a new curriculum, new computer programmes, new colleagues, new words like ‘soccer’ ‘pants’ and ‘trash’, driving an automatic car on the right, a new city and nobody understanding what you’re saying. And the bread isn’t great. Expectations are high but it does get easier as you slowly get your life in order and find that perfect work-life balance.”
There’s a significant social element to the Participate programme, with organisers networking and connecting the teachers to each other and hosting regular social and professional development events. Besides the life experience, teachers are also getting an opportunity to develop their pedagogical skills.
“North Carolina is a beautiful state,” says Beckett. “Durham is centrally located and there’s an equal distance to the mountains and the beach. The culture is similar to Ireland and people in the ‘South’ are equally as friendly and warm as my home. I’ve loved travelling to different states and getting time to learn new things about the USA.
“The weather is excellent most of the time with nice hot summers and mild, cool winters. Learning a curriculum is a challenge but my colleagues have been extremely supportive and helped me to navigate teaching in an American school. The experience has helped me grow immensely as an educator and I’ve gained a lot of confidence in teaching.”
Kerr’s highlight is the people he has met and the friends he made, as well as seeing Nashville, Miami and his new home of Raleigh.
“I’ve learned that I need to be open to trying new things professionally. The education system here is different in lots of ways and that was initially a difficult adjustment to make. A lot of the learning is very standards-based, and most of it builds into end-of-grade assessments in spring. This is a different model to what I am used to. I’ve learned the ability to work with others, and the strict pacing required for lessons and standards has made my personal planning and self-management more efficient.”
Burke also praises the learning opportunities she has been afforded while working at her International Baccalaureate Magnet Elementary School.
“I was chosen by the school to go to an IB training on concept-based learning in Memphis, Tennessee. It has completely changed my thinking about how we can develop cross-curricular links for children. It really hit a sweet spot, as I love anything to do with making the curriculum make sense for children.
“We also got to try the try the amazing restaurants and bars, visit the Civil Rights Museum and Sun Studios. I’d absolutely recommend this programme to anyone looking to be challenged, particularly if you’re an open-minded teacher with an interest in global education.”
- See Participate.com for information