By Marissa Hoffmann

As part of ISZL’s commitment to intercultural awareness, long-serving teachers are offered the opportunity to apply to take a sabbatical. Since 2015 twelve teachers have designed and participated in programmes to enrich themselves, communities around the world and ultimately ISZL student life. Here, four ISZL teachers, representing the early years, the middle years and the high school share their motivation and experiences. They reflect on the benefits a sabbatical brings to intercultural awareness and to their own teaching more generally.

An Incredible Teaching Experience

In 2015 when ISZL introduced the sabbatical programme for teachers, it immediately caught Anna Abella Marti's eye. She had become a science teacher straight from being a student herself and never taken a break. Anna wanted to use the year to help others so found a volunteer programme in Ghana. She taught the final year of middle school in a town called Larabanga, preparing students to take the national exams to enter high school. Anna remembers it as the most challenging teaching job she’s ever had.

‘I learned to appreciate the little things in life, how to just be happy because you are with your family and you share your chores and you are able to go to school and learn and play if you have some free time.’

The conditions at the school were difficult despite only having 8 students in her class. Resources were minimal; the students had notebooks, but no books were available. Anna only had a wall painted in black and some chalk. Her students were eager to learn most of the time, however, if they found something difficult they would give up very quickly. Anna had to use her motivating skills to make them realise that we learn from mistakes. 

Something Anna had not anticipated was that the students were all very tired all the time. School only ran in the mornings and her students spent all afternoon helping at home with chores, fetching wood from the forest and carrying it home for cooking. Anna found that if she asked them to study individually, they would fall asleep on their desks.

The bigger challenge, however, was that the class had no door or glass on the windows and the school had 300 students. There were days when Anna was the only teacher that showed up in the school. The kids were used to not having a teacher, so they just played outside all day, but for Anna, it made it impossible to teach. The small ones would sit at her door giggling, the students' little siblings would either sit in the class or call her students out several times an hour.

The director and other teachers urged Anna to use the stick, USE THE STICK! Of course, Anna refused, she would not beat the kids. Anna’s eight students did listen but were surprised Anna did not use the stick. They even tried to use the stick on one another when they considered the other child ‘deserved’ it.

The days passed quickly, the first couple of weeks were very hard and Anna felt exhausted. Living conditions were difficult. She stayed with a family on the school premises with their eleven children. The house was a mud hut with a bed, but at least she had the luxury of electricity for a lightbulb. They shared a bathroom that consisted of a toilet that actually had a seat but no flush; there was no running water in the whole school. The only bathroom belonged to the family, there was nothing for the 300 children to use. To take a shower Anna simply used a bucket in a walled space with no roof but she felt lucky that at least the water was brought to her from the well 300m away. She only had to fetch her own drinking water. The family ate outside together, mostly the same food every day which the landlady prepared cooking on the floor with the wood the children collected.

In the afternoons if Anna was feeling a little down she would walk the kilometre into town and see her students working with huge smiles on their faces and that lifted her mood. Anna felt lucky that they taught her about the joy of life. She had thought she was going to Ghana to teach them, but they taught her so much more. That appreciation is something Anna has brought back with her. When the days are busy and stressful she thinks about those days in Ghana, and tells herself, ‘come on Anna, get your reality check.’

Two Teachers - Two Continents
Between July 2017 and August 2018, Early Years teacher Dawn Mellen and Middle School German teacher Michael Fitzgerald took a sabbatical together. They based themselves in Africa and then in South America, committing to spend fifty percent of their year volunteering. They designed a programme that combined Michael’s passion for animals, wildlife and scuba diving with Dawn’s love of remote mountainous experiences giving her the physical challenge she desired.
In South Africa, they volunteered on a big game reserve called Kariega which aims to balance conservation and tourism. They removed alien plants and contributed to research by collecting data on animal behaviour. In Madagascar, our ISZL teachers worked with local communities to improve lives in sustainable ways. Dawn worked alongside residents to construct toilet blocks and a new classroom. Michael and Dawn also worked with children aged between 1-4 at a severely underfunded childcare facility in Ecuador. Having the extended period of time a sabbatical offers enabled Dawn and Michael to make meaningful contributions based on their skills.
‘I have brought back a much broader awareness of global needs and how the small everyday choices we make in the western world affect others and have an impact on our environment,’ says Dawn.
The sabbatical year also allowed them to make the most of an opportunity to travel outside the constraints of academic vacation periods. Dawn and Michael experienced the Patagonian mountain range, got up close to the glaciers, hiked remote trails and got away from all the madness of everyday life. So far away in fact that whilst they enjoyed the quiet solitude and breathtaking landscapes they only encountered six people in four days on Isla Navarino. That gave them plenty of time to reflect on the benefits of a sabbatical. Dawn says, ‘my sabbatical made me a better teacher. It has broadened my own way of thinking. I have a greater ability to see multiple angles to a problem and try to think from the perspectives of others.’ This translates into Dawn’s daily teaching. She feels she’s able to challenge students in new ways and encourage them to think beyond their own experiences and consider the points of view of others.
‘There were several occasions when at first I couldn't understand why people were doing things such as burning forests or trying to fish in protected waters. After living alongside people in difficult situations and talking to them about their needs and their efforts to survive, my ability to understand their choices broadened. Even though, at times I disagreed with their decisions I could begin to understand their perspectives and the difficulties they face. Witnessing both the struggles and joys of others firsthand makes a big impression,’ says Dawn.

Preparing for a Sabbatical Year

Andrew Gray joined ISZL High School as a Visual Arts Teacher in 2003 and this August he will travel to Nepal thanks to the sabbatical programme. In 2016 Andrew presented his proposal to the sabbatical committee to construct an art centre at the ‘Home of New Hopes' in Kathmandu. ‘Nawa Asha Griha' (NAG), is the primary charity ISZL supports.

Motivation for his sabbatical year came from accompanying ISZL students on the NAG Personal Development Week. Andrew was impressed by NAG’s educational system, successes and leadership. Former NAG students have graduated as doctors and nurses as well as business people, politicians, teachers and engineers. However, Andrew noticed very few students go on to become designers, crafts specialists, sculptors, artists, photographers or filmmakers. Creativity is highly valued at NAG, especially by the founder Nicole Wick, so Andrew plans to establish a structured art curriculum, run by trained art teachers in a designated art centre.

A NAG Art Centre would aid the development, not only of those students who thrive through visual art practice but all 400 children living and studying at NAG. NAG students are the most disadvantaged: those without any living family members, those living on the streets of Kathmandu, those from the most impoverished families, and those children at immediate risk. The NAG Art Centre project is another step on the long road ISZL has travelled with NAG over the last 26 years.

‘I cannot express how fortunate I feel to have the opportunity for this sabbatical. The intention is for this project to be sustainable and continue to grow,’ says Andrew.

In collaboration with ISZL, Nicole and the NAG board, Andrew drew up designs to transform a 200m² rooftop terrace into a designated visual art studio. He’s also designing a K-12 visual art curriculum, specifically tailored to the needs of Nepali children and the scope of the teachers he intends to train.

In preparation for his sabbatical, Andrew set out to raise CHF30,000. Thanks to three main fundraising drives; the annual NAG charity run from the High School, the production of an illustrated coffee table book, and the sale of his personal artwork, he has almost reached that target. Andrew reports that when the students have a specific goal, their motivational levels increase and the response to fund the NAG Art Centre has been fantastic.

To mark the 25th anniversary of NAG, founder Nicole decided it was time to release a manuscript she had been writing for 25 years. It details the realities of establishing and running a home and school for disadvantaged children in Nepal. The book is illustrated by ISZL alumni studying at prominent art universities in Florida and the Netherlands; Maarten Lemmens, Nicky Azzopardi and Luke McCowan. Andrew and his colleague Ian Davidson along with ISZL artist-in-residence Clare Allan also produced illustrations. Since August 2018, 300 books have been printed and most have sold. Only a few books remain so please contact for further details.

If that is not impressive enough, a staggering two-thirds of the proposed funding came as something of a pleasant surprise to Andrew. In the studio space granted to create artwork to sell for NAG by ISZL Director Barry Dequanne, Andrew spent the summer of 2018 working on a 3x2m canvas. Six months later, the painting was complete. It depicts the 18-time world champion ‘Go' player, Lee Sedol, being defeated by the artificial intelligence algorithm ‘AlphaGo'. Andrew tweeted images directly to AlphaGo creator DeepMind CEO, Dr Hassabis. Incredibly he agreed to pay CHF20,000 directly into the official NAG account and Dr Hassabis and his wife intend to visit NAG and see the art centre they helped fund.

Andrew reflects upon the value of service learning at ISZL and how similar that learning is for teachers taking a sabbatical. ‘Through the PDW programmes, students teach themselves about compassion and how enriching the act of caring and giving can be. Indeed, the same is true for all of us. Time for me to roll up my sleeves. Be assured I will bring these enriching experiences back to ISZL,’ says Andrew.

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