Saturday, August 3, 2013

From Tennessee to Kuwait : Journey of an American Expat Educator

In 2008, television news producer Katrina Lewis left her job at the CBS affiliate in Savannah, Georgia, to do something she never thought she would do – teach middle school students. She moved to Memphis, Tennessee to start her new career at Wooddale Middle School as a self contained teacher. Five years later, the 32-year-old West Memphis, Arkansas native continues to shape young minds. Only now, she dons a hijab in the classroom while working as a special needs teacher in Kuwait City, Kuwait.

She spoke with me, via email, about her new life overseas, which she began in September 2012.

Tell me about your teaching background.

I got into teaching via the alternative route. While living in Savannah, Georgia, I applied for a position with Memphis Teaching Fellows. After a round of phone and in-person interviews, I was accepted into the program and moved back home. Memphis Teaching Fellows was an intense, six week long program that mixed hands-on interaction with children and teacher training. Once the program was successfully completed, I was offered and accepted a teaching position in Memphis City Schools and I've been enjoying it ever since.

What made you decide to say “yes” to the job offer in Kuwait?

There were many factors. I had been looking to work outside of America for some time. I gave myself a five-year timeline in which I was going to move to either Canada or Europe. I wasn't satisfied with many things taking place in America, such as the current healthcare and tax situations. For some time, I had been reading and watching how other countries take care of their citizens and provide services for them. I looked at school systems and crime rates. After reviewing the contract with Dasman Model Bilingual School, and weighing my American salary with my Kuwait salary, it just made sense.

Lewis visits the Grand Mosque in Kuwait City. The mosque is
the largest in the country. It can accommodate close to 11,000 people.
(Photo courtesy of Katrina Lewis)

How did your family and friends react when you told them you were taking a job in the Middle East?

I got mixed reactions from everyone when I finally made up my mind about leaving. My more adventurous friends and family were excited for me and the new opportunity. One family member really did not want me to go. I didn't want to disappoint anyone, and at one point during the summer before leaving, I actually changed my mind about going. I continued to pray about the situation and decided to go ahead with my plans to leave and start a new adventure in my life. For me, the hardest part is trying to get everyone to understand that I can't stay in America because they want me to stay. My friends and family are now very supportive of my choice, but they continue to ask me how long I plan on staying overseas. Only time will tell how long I will continue to teach overseas. I am enjoying this season of my life.

What do you like the most about your “new home”?

One thing I like the most about Kuwait is its closeness to other parts of the world. Being in America, traveling anywhere past the Caribbean islands is very costly, so I am taking advantage of being so close to the places I used to see on The Travel Channel or learned about in history class. I enjoy meeting new people and trying new things and being in Kuwait allows me to do that. I thought I was going to have to learn to eat/love traditional Arabic foods, but I was fooled. They have more American restaurants over there and more are going. I can't wait for the new places to open!

What do you like the least?

It would have to be the weather. I knew it was going to be hot but not that HOT! The sand storms are nothing to play with, then add 120 degree heat on top of that. I'm from the South, and it took some time getting use to that type of heat.

Massive sandstorms cover Kuwait several times
each year.
(Photo courtesy of Katrina Lewis)

You taught in Memphis for a few years. What are some similarities or differences you've noticed between Memphis students and Kuwaiti students?

The students are the same. Kids are kids no matter where you go. They are going to do whatever they can get away with and they have the same habits and excuses. My little eight Kuwaiti kids remind me of my 13 American kids. Once I got to know them and love them, I felt like I'd been with them for years.

Tell me about your experience as an African American woman in the Middle East. How have you been received by the community?

My experience has been great. Before leaving, I did some online research about teaching overseas and I didn't see many postings by African American women, so I was prepared to be the only African American teacher at the school. I was surprised to see that at least 10 or so other women of color there. That alone made my experience better just by knowing that I wasn't alone. As far as being in the Middle East, my race hasn't been an issue. Kuwait and other Arabic countries have become global communities with so many races and cultures living and working together.

What do you do to learn more about your new community?

Talk to strangers. I know that's the opposite of what our parents taught us but that's the best way to learn about a new place. Since I don't drive, the best people to get intel from are the taxi drivers. They love to talk to Americans, especially women. I learned about more places and a lot of Arabic words from them and they get a chance to practice English with us. I used my free time to become a tourist and explore my new surroundings. I found myself walking into souks, random shops, and little hidden restaurants then trying to remember where they were later. You have to have an adventurous spirit in order to get the best out of living outside of your comfort zone.

What have you learned about yourself during this experience so far?

I've learned to be more open to new experiences and accept things as they come.

What advice would you give to women who are considering teaching abroad?

I would say do your own research and go with what makes YOU happy. Don't let the fear of the unknown keep you from a wonderful experience. I would also encourage families to consider it to. Our children need to be exposed to our diverse world beyond what's on the Internet and television.

Lewis travels quite a bit. She snapped this photo of the Burj
Khalifa in Dubai - the world's tallest building.
(Photo courtesy of Katrina Lewis)

What’s next for you?

I renewed my contract to teach in Kuwait for a second year. After that, I honestly have no idea. I know that I don't want to return to America just yet. So, I'll go wherever the sand takes me.

Besides friends and family, what do you miss the most about the Mid-South?

Memphis B-B-Q! I miss the friendliness of the South. Even though the people are nice in Kuwait, it's just nothing like southern hospitality.

Follow Katrina Lewis’s journey through her blog “Teaching and Traveling".

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