Without our contracts at ACS Beirut, we would not be here. Our jobs are giving us this opportunity to live abroad, experience Beirut on a daily basis, and eventually travel this part of the world. While the travel and cultural experiences are a key reason we chose to work overseas, it is work that is now dominating our daily life. While school is school and work is work in many ways, working in an international school is vastly different from our decades in the Vermont school system.
This week the school put out statistics on the makeup of its student body. The elementary school has approximately 360 students in grades 1-5. Kindergarten is part of the Early Years program, which is its own division. Of the elementary population, 26% hold only Lebanese passports, 20% are dual Lebanese/USA nationals, 12.5% are dual Lebanese/other nationalities (representing 11 countries) 12.5% are US nationals and the remaining 29% represent 40 other countries. Clearly, ACS Beirut is a very international school. This is one of the aspects of ACS that makes it such an interesting place to work. It seems most kids have either lived in or traveled to multiple countries in their short lifetimes.
While I do not have similar data on the school faculty, I would estimate that in the elementary school about half the homeroom and specialty teachers are ex-pats, half are Lebanese or from another Middle Eastern country. The Arabic teachers….all elementary students get 80 minutes of Arabic instruction a day… are Lebanese nationals, as are all the Teaching Assistants ( para educators in Vermont). As with the student body, this diversity within the staff adds richness to the daily work experience. I have learned the names of teachers and assistants, and can even pronounce them all properly. I think.
One of my biggest challenges is getting to know the kids, and specifically their names. There is a vast difference between learning the names of students in a new school in the states and learning them in an international school. There are very few “Bill Smith” or “Sally Clark” types here. With the majority of the kids being Lebanese nationals at one level or another, there are many names, particularly last names, which are challenging to learn. Sharon does fine with her 20 4th graders. Getting 360 of these names down is a different story. It is not uncommon for me to ask kids to repeat their name and to get my ear a bit closer as they repeat it. I am comforted when I observe the secretary, who has been at the school for a number of years, asking kids to repeat and spell their names.
As we walked to last night’s school sponsored barbeque for the staff, we commented on the fact that every weekend since arriving the school, or one of the veterans of the school has hosted a social event for faculty. The school does a great job of welcoming its new employees, setting us up with an apartment and the basics, and helping us become part of the school community. No doubt, our social contacts will be with our work colleagues. Socializing tends to be along cultural lines, but this is not a black in white division.
The daily schedule is a bit different than in the states. The school day is long. Kids head to their classrooms at 8:00 and are dismissed at 3:20. The school operates on a six day cycle, which initially is difficult to get used to, but is a great way to schedule specials. Students have a very full schedule, including 80 minutes of Arabic each day, French three times a cycle, and art, music, PE and library each cycle. Like in the states, after daily literacy and math instruction, little time remains for social studies and science.
As assistant principal I have supervisory responsibilities for all the Teacher Assistants and about a third of the teachers. Disciplinary problems, while fewer than in the states, do tend to come to me. I also coordinate the very extensive after school program. This program runs three days a week throughout year. Each quarter kids get to choose one or two activities from the list of 25 or so that are offered. All elementary staff, from principal on down, is required to offer two activities a year. My responsibilities also include coordinating the student council, and last week I took on the coordination of the school’s participation in the upcoming hike4hunger. Para educators at Oak Grove will be tickled to learn that I have 12 duties each cycle. These include recess duties, early gate (7:15 a.m.!!!) and daily end of day pick up gate duty. This last duty is quite a scene. Drivers, nannies and parents, who pick up kids come to the gate, give their child’s name to the guard, who yells it to a duty person (who speaks Arabic). She then shouts it down to the mass of kids. I spend my time herding the kids to one side of the narrow corridor to allow kids and parents to get through. On occasion I will shout a name that I think I can pronounce. Each grade level team (CT for Collaborative Team) meets twice a cycle during their Arabic time to plan and coordinate their team’s instructional program. I meet once a cycle with each CT, as well as with the Learning Team, one of the school’s two leadership teams. This group deals with instructional and other school wide “learning” issues. The work demands long hours, and going in on weekends is not uncommon. We have no car, yard or big house to manage, so we might as well work.
The ACS physical plant is comprised of three separate buildings that are packed tightly together, half a block from the Mediterranean. As you see in the pictures, the grounds are well kept and full of greenery. Most of the elementary school is in one building, five stories tall, with the roof serving as the playground for grades 3-5. All the elementary corridors are open air, while all classroom and workspaces are air-conditioned. Climbing four flights of stairs, then doing recess duty on the roof brings out a good sweat in this Vermonter. I am learning to walk at a much more casual pace than I ever did in the past. That’s a good thing I guess.
The school has recently adopted AERO standards in several subject areas. AERO is a US State Department initiative that stands for American Education Reaches Out, and its goal is to help overseas school develop standards based curriculum. ACS is very committed to standards based, project based experiential learning. Field trips are frequent. The arts program is rich, and is strongly encouraged and supported by the Head of School. There are no unions and few rules that bind the school administration to hiring or firing in a certain way. The principal with whom I work has been here eight years, and in the past few years has developed a strong professional learning community. She is quite structured in her approach and is a very knowledgeable educator.
Each day at ACS Beirut is interesting and challenging. Just what we wanted.