Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Bordering Normal- by Guest Blogger Rebecca Miller

Post written by Rebecca Miller

My first day of orientation as a first year teacher was absolutely terrible. I understood nothing and I felt awful. For one thing, I had only found out that work started the night before. For another, I had passed out from the heat the night before. On top of that, it turned out that all the teacher meetings in my "monolingual" school were conducted in Spanish, a language I had just about managed to navigate the airport with. That included the teacher's manual, a 70-page document "we are going to try to get translated". (Spoiler: They didn't.)

The teaching job I accepted five years ago was in the Dominican Republic, a country I had visited once the spring before. It was a leap of faith, and I knew there would be some adjustment required. Leaving my home country of the United States and moving to a new country meant crossing a border. I knew crossing that border would mean learning a new language and learning to cook new kinds of food. But the biggest differences I needed to adapt to were less obvious.

My new country meant everything had a new normal. I mostly learned what the normal was by finding out that I was doing things weirdly. Normal in my new country meant that you taught all the chapters in the textbook in order, even in English. Normal meant grades were calculated every month. Normal meant you gave a student five extra points on their birthday (I'm still weird on that one.) Normal meant that small children don't have bedtimes, so 10 pm trips to the grocery store could well be whole-family affairs, even when school starts at 7:30 the next day.

Eventually I learned that some of the things my school does are unusual even for this country. We give each classroom a title like "treasure hunters" or "busy bees", though no one exactly knows why. Our sports team doesn't actually have a name; for a recent tournament, someone at the uniform company apparently picked "Lions". How did we live without a school mascot? Who knows? It was just our normal.

Every community has its "normal", and crossing into a new community means adjusting to new norms. But sometimes you're part of the community to begin with, and sometimes you have to learn a new normal, adapt it, and decide whether to accept it. Crossing into a new community brings with it feelings of uncertainty and of not-belonging.

Navigating the borders of our various communities can be tricky, and our identities are both shaped and challenged by the communities we participate in, whether we think of ourselves as belonging to them or merely passing through. I now feel like an integral part of my school, and as I start my fifth year of teaching there, I think I understand what the norms are. I am still an outsider, a foreigner, not a native to the country and culture of my students and colleagues. But as I have adapted to this new community- and the other members of the community have adapted to me- we have created some new norms together. We joke that I am now one of them, but really, the other members of the community made space for me, so that I am now included in what they understand as normal. The borders, in some sense, have shifted and become permeable. I crossed a border to come into their country, but they redrew the lines to make me be at home.

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