Thursday, December 19, 2013

Kelly in Croatia: An Interview with an International Teacher

I recently sat down with my good friend Kelly to talk about her adventures in international teaching. Check out the published interview on Pink Pangea (give me some social media love!) Below is the unabridged version. Enjoy!

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Kelly Retzlaff is a 1st grade teacher at The International School of Zagreb in Croatia. She is just about to head into winter break after her 3rd semester at the school. We sat down together during a trip to Berlin, she shares her journey from Denver to Zagreb and future plans.

Hi Kelly! So, tell me, how long have you been teaching?
Hi! I have been teaching six years total. I taught 4 years in Denver and I am now half way through my 2nd year in Zagreb.

Tell me about what kind of school you taught at in Denver.
It was a public school in a very urban part of Denver, a lot of ESL students, which are kids that English is their second language. I had about 30 students total each year and that’s a lot of students in one classroom! Parent relationships were difficult because they just didn’t see school as a priority for their children. Over time, the administration at the school became very political because there is a lot wrong with the system; they’re always looking for someone to blame. That blame [for underperformance] was usually placed on the teachers. So that was very difficult to navigate.

So would you say you had a good experience teaching at that school in Denver?
I loved working there, mainly because of the students. I loved those kids! They needed me and they were hard workers. Teaching there taught me a lot. I feel like I’m a better teacher because of how difficult and challenging it was to teach there. In the end though, because of politics and test scores, I was ready to move on. In the states it’s all about the tests and I was done with that.

Tell me why you originally decided to look for teaching opportunities abroad.
In summer 2011, I went on a 3-week trip though Europe. I loved it there, I immediately felt like I was home; I never wanted to leave! When I got back to Denver, I thought, ‘I’m going to live there someday.’ A few months later, things really started going downhill at my school in Denver, so I decided to put in my resignation and go abroad.

Tell me about the process to searching for international teaching opportunities.
To move to an international school there are sites you have to go through. Search Associates and one called ISS. They cost a lot of money so I decided not to do that. I jut cold called and emailed my resume to every single international school in Europe. I applied to nearly 80 schools!

Where you applying to specific open positions or just sending your resume?

I was just sending out my résumé because I didn’t really know the process. I didn’t know what to do. I got a few responses and then finally got an interview with the school in Zagreb.

What was the interview process like?
First the principle emailed me a list questions. I responded to those, and he followed up with a long email basically selling the school to me. It concluded with him asking for a skype interview. I was nervous because I had never done an interview over skype. Do I need to wear pants? They’re only seeing my shirt right? What do I do with my hands? Is my connection ok?

It ended up going great. He was really nice and I got an amazing feeling from him. I was honest and asked him a lot about the city and if it was safe, as I didn’t know a lot about the country. I just got a great vibe!

From there, I interviewed with the school’s director. It was a really good, laidback interview. She told me the principle liked me and she respects his opinion. The interview was more her making sure my questions were answered. She told me they really like me and that I would fit in really well at the school. She then said, ‘I am now verbally offering you the job.’ I practically cut here off, I was shouting, Yes! Yes! Thank you thank you!’ She emailed me the official contract the very next day.

So when did the job start?
I got hired at the end of May 2012; I was a very late hire. I started my job search in October, so it took me 6 months to find a job. Then I started the job August 2012.

Wow, three months, that wasn’t much time. Tell me about the process of moving your whole life abroad.
I was very very excited and very nervous.  I mean I didn’t know what to expect. I have never lived abroad, I haven’t even lived outside Colorado, so it was very scary but knew it was the right thing for me and it felt right. So since I got hired so late, it all happened really quickly. I sold everything, packed my life into 3 suitcases, sold my car, leased my apartment, and then just tried to spend as much time with friends and family as possible.

And then the school had an apartment waiting for you in Zagreb?
The HR director of the school emailed me after I got hired asking me what I was looking for in an apartment. I didn’t know what to say because I didn’t know what the norm was there. So I didn’t give her a ton of direction, I just asked for a 2 bedroom, because I knew I would have visitors, somewhere within walking distance of the school and the main city center because I wasn’t planning on getting a car and something furnished. They found me a place that met my requirements and when I arrived, they picked me up from the airport and brought me straight there.

Is that typical for international schools to do that?
It was unique for them to already have an apartment for me. Most international schools, from what I have learned, will set you up in a hotel when you arrive, and then they’ll take you to look at apartments that match your requirements.

So, now that you’ve been living in Zagreb for a year and half, tell me about it.
Overall I adore Zagreb, I just love it! Number one I like how safe it is. I feel safer here than I ever did in The States. Completely. I can walk around at 3 in the morning by myself and not think twice about it. You hear so many stories about people dropping their wallets or purses and people that find them, find that person and return it. It’s a community here, and I feel like- everyone just takes care of one another. Also, it’s very easy to get around. The trams and buses are great, but it’s a walking city. I walk to work everyday, to the grocery store, to meet friends on the weekends. I love that about it, and I love its location in the world. It’s in a great spot to visit so many other beautiful places in Europe. I didn’t think I would ever visit Eastern Europe until I moved here. Vienna, Prague, Hungry… all so so amazing!

The one negative thing would have to be the language. It’s very very very difficult to learn and many times it’s hard to get by without it, as the majority of the people don’t speak English. That’s been hard, simple things can be difficult.

How was the process of making friends?
I am fortunate that I walked into an expat community. My school is half ex-pats half locals. I had an instant group of friends because we’re all in the same situation. We’re all experiencing the same things; being an expat, moving from home, learning the culture and language. I made instant friends very naturally. Making friends outside of my school community has been next to impossible. There isn’t an ex-pat community outside of the school and so it’s difficult to meet other people.

How has it been dating or meeting men in Zagreb?
It’s very difficult. Far more difficult than what I thought it would be. I had this romantic view that I would move abroad and meet a sexy European and get married and it would be like this beautiful storybook romance. It’s not like that at all! It’s difficult to meet foreigners. There’s the language barrier; most local men don’t speak English at all. Plus, all the rules are different. People date and flirt differently here, something I’m obviously not used to. People meet through friends or family. My family isn’t Croatian and I don’t have a lot of local friends.

So let’s go back to teaching. What is your school like in Zagreb?
I work at the American International School.  The facilities are probably the hardest thing about working there. We rent space from a church. It’s hard because it’s small and not meant for school classrooms.  

What about the types of students?
Our community is 25% Croatians, 75% are mixed. Those students are the sons and daughters of embassy employees or international corporation employees. It’s really neat.  It is a private school, but not for profit. So the American government subsidizes us a little bit, but we’re funded mainly from tuition.

Aside from the demographics of students, how is it different than teaching in Denver?
It’s so different. Everything. For starters the mentality is not teaching for a test. It’s not using test scores to challenge teachers or discipline them. It’s really child focused. It’s child centered learning and helps kids become global citizens and allows them to really embrace their interests. If they have an aptitude in music, let’s explore that. If they’re interested in art, let’s focus on that. And that’s much different than what I’m coming from in a public school. In Denver, the curriculum was very rigid and all teachers had to teach the exact same thing, the exact same way.

So you’re given more freedom in Zagreb?
Yes, way more freedom and more resources. We have smaller class sizes, less than half of what I had in Denver. I also have a full time teaching assistant, which is unheard of in The States. With the smaller class size, I can devote a lot more time to individual learning.

Would you say you enjoy it more than Denver?
Absolutely! Hands down!

Tell me a little bit about your teaching style and what makes you stand out, as I know you’ve consistently been rated quite highly, in Zagreb and in Denver.
I think that I have a natural ability to teach. I can clearly see what my students need and create lessons around their needs. I know I have really good classroom management, I know how to engage students and really help them to become life long learners. I believe in inquiry based learning, so giving kids a hands on project and having them work together to solve it. I think my biggest strength is that I’m willing to learn. I’m a life long learner myself and I really value learning more as a teacher because there is always so much more I can be doing.

So your teaching style evolves every year?
Oh yea! Even from the states to here, I’ve had to adapt my style completely just because of the school and the parents and the students. I think I’m very adaptable. As a teacher in the international community that’s a huge advantage I have, as each school is so different and each family is so different.

Tell me more about the students and parents you currently have.
I have kids from seven different countries in my classroom. That’s seven different cultures and seven different languages. Along with adapting my teaching style for different cultures, I have to adapt the way I interact with parents. I have parents now from seven different countries and they all have different expectations from me as a teacher. I have had to learn to communicate to them, but also stand up for what I believe is right and be confident that my teaching style is benefitting all these students and I’m teaching in a way that is the best for those kids.

Tell me about the differences in the students you teach now verse in Denver and their attitudes towards school, education.
My current students enjoy coming to school because it’s child centered and very nurturing. Not that I wasn’t a nurturing teacher in Denver, but realistically we just didn’t have the time or resources to do that. But now, I can. I can get to know each of my students and make sure they’re getting everything they need. Not just academically but emotionally and socially and physically in terms of what they eat. We focus a lot of nutrition.

I think the kids are lot more excited to come to school because it’s not like “school”. It doesn’t seem like a chore, its not hard and difficult, it’s fun for them. It’s more than just sitting at a desk all day learning how to read, write and do math counting down the hours until 3pm. They get to go to music glass and German class and Croatian class and do these fun, interactive projects

I bet your lessons are a lot more global.
Yes, like coming up this month I have a lesson called Holidays Around the World. Each student gets a passport and we “visit” a new country every day. Like one day we’ll “go” to Mexico and learn about the legend of the poinsettia. We do arts and crafts about it, we read books about it, and then they get their passport stamped from that country. The next day we’ll “visit” another country. It’s neat because the kids can then talk about the traditions from their home countries. It’s neat to have them learn things on an international level.

So I understand that you may not be teaching in Zagreb next year, will you look for other opportunities abroad?
Yes, absolutely, I am staying international. This is my life now. It’s the lifestyle for me. They view education different abroad, and its something I very much agree with. Like I said, it’s child centered and focuses on what’s best for each individual child. And I love being an expat! It’s really difficult at times but so wonderful, it makes you really respect other cultures and other people and makes you so much more open-minded

So tell me about the process of finding an international opportunity this time around.
So this time I ‘m going through a search agency and I’m really glad I am. It’s making the process a lot easier and also I’ll be more marketable, because hiring schools can get all my information in one place. And now I know a lot more people and in this industry it’s a lot about who you know, and I’m now using my resources to find those good opportunities.  I’ll be expanding my horizons a little more this time, beyond just Europe. Coming here has changed my viewpoint of the entire world. There are so many amazing places out there and I could be happy in a lot of them, and I will end up where I’m meant to be.

That’s so great to hear! What advice do you have for others aspiring to be international teachers?
Be open minded to where you go! Don’t limit yourself to a few places you think you want to live- you’re missing out on so much of the world. Go through an agency and go to the job fairs. It’s expensive but it’s worth it. You’ll have a higher chance of finding a job.  And I think it’s really important to have a few years experience in your home country to learn the school system so you can bring that knowledge to your international school. Lastly, don’t be scared! I think many women may be discouraged to do things alone. But we’re just as capable, (whispers) if not more, to do things one our own!

Hashtag Girlpower?
(Smiles) Hashtag girlpower
(We then fist bump)


  1. Love this one! I want to go to Europe now!

  2. Hi Melissa! I stumbled upon your blog searching for expats in Kl and scrolling down all these interesting posts I was overwhelmed seeing a word "Croatia"! I come from this beautiful land and I was really surprised reading what your friend says about croatian people not speaking english?! I wouldn't say that mainly because english is mandatory in elementary and high schools but... Anyway , your blog has been very helpful to a foreigner who just landed and feels so confused. Keep it up! Liebe Grüße,


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