AES science teacher taking skills abroad

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 17, 2010

Deb Hughes helps an AES student with a rocket experiment. | File photo

Deb Hughes is about to embark on a two-year adventure.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m standing on a precipice,” she said.

Or, described another way, like the feeling just before jumping out of an airplane.

“Even though intellectually, you know you’re safe, you know there’s a back-up, there’s still that moment of fear,” she said.

It should come as no surprise to anyone acquainted with the energetic elementary science teacher that she speaks of jumping out of a plane from her experience as a military paratrooper.

But these days, the “jump” for which she is preparing is far different. She’s signed a two-year commitment to teach English, math and science to third grade boys in the United Arab Emirates.

She’ll be in Abu Dhabi, one of the seven states that comprise the UAE.

“The emir there is concerned that students aren’t prepared to enter the world’s best universities because they don’t speak English,” she said.

The country has embarked on a 12-year education reform effort that includes teaching English in public schools and requiring current teachers to learn the English language. As a result, some teachers are leaving, and the country is recruiting English-speaking teachers from around the world.

A friend she met while taking classes at the University of Montana inspired her to consider teaching abroad.

“She’s in her late 30s, and teaching in Venezuela,” Hughes said.

Hughes had commented on all of the places the younger teacher had traveled and attributed the flexibility to her age.

“She started giving me grief about ‘why don’t you do it.’ ”

It was the same friend who let her know about the company recruiting teachers for the UAE. Hughes looked into it, and completed a very detailed application. After two telephone interviews, she was invited to Atlanta for a third interview. She was told she’d get a contract that day, but said she was reluctant to even mention it until she had it in her hand.

“It was everything they said it would be, plus,” she said.

Having now met some of those teachers who’ll be joining her in Abu Dhabi, she’s excited about the next two years.

“It’s bittersweet,” she said of the decision. “I’m not a person who was ready to leave because of dissatisfaction.”

Rather, she describes herself “as the tall kid in the classroom” at Andalusia Elementary and said learning and exploring with her students there was like being in a candy store.”

And she raves about the kindness and support of the greater Andalusia community in the past four years.

“They have been genuinely accepting,” she said. “From parents who said ‘what can I do,’ to the city park employees, the recyclers, they’ve all been great.”

It was with grant funding and that community support that she developed outdoor learning centers at AES. And before she leaves, she plans to work with the community again to complete a pavilion.

“On July 10th, we’re having a raise the roof party,” she said, adding that she hopes it will be used not only by the elementary science teacher who replaces her, but by all teachers at AES.

Then in August, she’ll pack two suitcases and head to the UAE, where her husband will later join her. The teachers are allowed a suitcase of clothing and a suitcase of teaching materials. They’ll be given money with which to purchase furnishings after they arrive.

For two weeks, she and other teachers will participate in cultural training before going out to the public school in which she’ll be one of five or six English-speaking teachers.

“The biggest question I get asked is if I’ll have to wear a burqa,” she said.

She doesn’t, but she has learned that the English-speaking teachers who were most successful last year wore an abaya, a black over-garment covering most parts of the body. Long skirts and loose-fitting tops also are acceptable.

She and others will use an Australian curriculum that has been adapted for this education initiative. Still, she’ll take a number of things she’s used for teaching with her. Getting her “education suitcase” through customs should be interesting.

“It will probably be loaded and unloaded at least 20 times before I go,” she said. “It’s already open in the house.”

She plans to pack turtle shells, snake skins and a digital microscope, as well as software, perhaps some books. But mostly, she wants things her students can manipulate in the classroom. Her own research has proven to her that her students retain more than 95 percent of what they learn kinesthetically, or hands-on.

Both she and her husband, Howie, look forward to the travel opportunities they’ll have while living abroad, and both agree they’ll return to Alabama.

“Who knows,” she said. “I may be back here looking for a teaching job.”