A Desert Dispatch: the Road to Abu Dhabi

Each pin is where one of my students calls “home”

Each pin is where one of my students calls “home”

I was on a very crowded bus in rural Thailand transiting between Surin Beach and Ao Nang. It was July 2018. My wife Hope and I are travelers; we have made summer sojourns to 6 continents and over twenty countries throughout our teaching careers. That day, we were on a long, hot bus ride. We always pick cheap transit and sometimes we regret it. I was sweatily DM-ing my boys Zach Powers and Dave back home about NBA free-agency from the back row of the bus. At a stop along the road, a dozen Thai middle schoolers jumped on board. The young boys were wearing ties and blazers, the girls, dresses and their hijabs. From their uniforms, I assumed they were going to a British School. I turned to my wife and whispered, “Yo, I would teach the s**t out of them.” We both laughed. 

About two weeks later we were in Kuala Lumpur, the bustling Malaysian Capital. On a crowded train heading back from a Buddhist shrine, I turned to Hope again and said, “I want to live here.” Something about it just felt right: safe, English-speaking, good infrastructure, real cultural diversity. Thus began our odyssey into the world of international teaching and our eventual arrival this summer in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.   

I’ve opined before about the liberating feeling I get from being abroad. Being black in America is often… complicated. When you get distance from home it brings these complications into sharp focus. Sometimes it’s jarring: In 2015, we taught in a summer program in China. We were watching CTV (Chinese State TV) with our host family and the evening news led off with the murder of Samuel DuBose, by a University of Cincinnati campus police officer. I was speechless. In 2017, after getting battered by a tropical storm and binge-watching Season 1 of Ozark in Mexico, we watched Charlottesville unfold and saw the nation collectively shrug-off the violent, Klan-fueled white supremacy on display. I was saddened. In 2018, while riding in a taxi to the Killing Fields Museum in Phnom Penh. I received a half-dozen texts from back home about my hometown newspaper; the editorial board published a piece equivocating between white supremacists the everyday community activists, like myself, that oppose them. I was enraged. Obviously, none of these are why we left the US, but being away from home gives you distance and a different perspective. 

Fast forward to August 13th of this year. Hope and I boarded an Etihad flight bound for Abu Dhabi with a one-way ticket and basically a full-reboot of our careers in front of us. We’re are now immigrants (I prefer that term over ex-pats). I’m teaching AP US Government & Politics and Global Studies at the American Community School. My students, 60% of whom are US citizens, are fascinating. The range of skills in the room is comparable to my students, back home but the range of life experience is not. I have several students who identify with complicated hyphenated backgrounds that I’ve never encountered (or even contemplated) back home: Haitian-Sudanese, Palestinian-Jordanian-Canadian, Uzbek-Texan, Italian-Iranian-American, and because of the presence of the oil industry, there’s a surprising number of kids who call Alaska home. 

There are some obvious differences. School starts at eight and I have longer classes because of our A/B schedule. I have a better sense of work-life balance. I am less tired at the end of the day and at the end of the week. I have more manageable class sizes, my largest classes are in the low 20s, and more time for planning helps me take less work home. My students have access to technology. They have access to delicious, nutritious food before school, during breaks, and at lunch. These seem like little things, but they make a world of difference for students. None of it is rocket science, every student in the US could have these things—we choose not to provide them.

The Dhabs at night, photo by Kevin Ponce Villaruz

The Dhabs at night, photo by Kevin Ponce Villaruz

My life feels less hectic now. We live in a high-rise in a dense urban village called Khalidaya. I can see the Corniche, the most famous beach in the Gulf, from our balcony. We’re surrounded by over a dozen restaurants and three grocery stores within a three-block radius. We walk to and from school each day, often passing and chatting with students. It’s an urban planner's dream. 

This is our life for now and for at least the next twenty-two months, this will be our home. 

Post-Script: If you’re a fan of the podcast the first #BowlingsAbroad episode of my Nerd Farmer show will be recorded this week. Keep an eye on your pod-catcher of choice. 

Our Departure and a New Chapter


I was twenty-seven when I started teaching. George W. Bush was the President, I had hair, and the Mariners playoff drought was only five years-long. I've been doing this long enough that when I started I had an overhead projector with a jar full of Vis-a-Vis markers in my classroom.

Teaching is my profession and I love its moments: first days, conferences, graduation, the staff meet-up after Homecoming. When I got into teaching, my goal was to have a positive impact on my community. To help create better, smarter students as well as neighbors. This is the origin the “Nerd Farmer” moniker.

I'm a grump, but I'm an idealist. When I co-founded Teachers United in 2011, one of the criticisms of the organization was that we were a gaggle of newbie, idealistic, pie-in-the sky teachers. I remember one commenter on an early Seattle Times op-ed I penned saying, “let’s see what you think when you’ve been in a classroom for a while.” The implication was that we would lose our idealism and passion for equity and justice. Well, here we are, bub.

This is my thirteenth year in the classroom. I’m proud of my work as a teacher. I think I've made an impact on my students and the city. For the last several years people have constantly (and annoyingly) asked me “what’s next for you?” The implication was that I should run for office (hard nah), become a principal (nope, nein, never), or do policy advocacy full-time (not for me). I pride myself on not having to please voters, foundations, or funders. If I don't need your vote or grant money, I don't have to soft-pedal my truth to you. I’ve always loved teaching. I’ve never wanted to lead a school or push paperwork. I just want to teach and feel like I'm being successful and fully supported in doing it.

By my reckoning, I have taught well over fifteen-hundred students in Tacoma. I’ve started my teacher tree: Alex, Ty-isha, Janelle, and Corey with AJ and several others on the way. That's the work.  The next generation is better than us. I see it everyday. I look forward to living in the world they and my students want to build. I think about this world often.

But it’s time for a change for me, a new chapter. I've shared my deep frustrations about the state of the teaching profession in the US elsewhere. I've worked at Lincoln for a decade. I love the school, the staff, and especially my students. But I realized at some point this year, that in order to stay in the classroom, I needed to do something different. One of the most consequential books I've ever read is called “Quitting America” by Randall Robinson. It's his story of leaving the US and relocating to Saint Kitts and Nevis. Frankly, given the state-of-affairs in the US, I'm not sure I want to break-up, but I do think I want to see other people for a while.

This summer Hope and I will move abroad. In August, we’ll be joining the staff of the American Community School, an international school in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. I'll continue teaching AP American Government and ninth grade social studies. For years, we've taught students to be global citizens, now I'm going to be one. That's kinda dope. We’ve already researched and adopted a new soccer team, Al Wahda FC.

My new colleagues at ACS

My new colleagues at ACS

Don't worry though, you’ll still hear from me. My Twitter Fingers ain't going nowhere, Nerd Farmer will continue (once we get settled), and I'll likely be writing more. You may see me again when President-Elect Inslee is putting together his Cabinet in 2021 (mostly kidding) or if the Seattle Sounders open a residency academy (deadly serious).

But for now, for me, it's time for a new challenge.


A Tacoma Teacher Strike Reflection

People's Park.jpg

The strike is over and school starts Monday. When I got the email letting me know we’d reached a tentative agreement, I was so giddy I screamed to my wife “TA, TA, WE GOT A TAAAAAAAAA.” Words can’t describe how glad I am this is over. But, before I move on to my usual fall routines: learning names, custom handshakes, teaching about the Federalists vs the Anti-Federalists, and Friday Night Lights--I think it’s important to stop and take stock of what happened in our community.

Tacoma, thank you. Teachers owe the parents and community a massive debt. You had our backs! You brought provisions, you organized a 2,000+ member Facebook group, you told us to fight and keep our heads high. Every honk, every donut, every text was appreciated, and I thank you. You’ve always supported our schools through levy votes, voting for bonds, and random fundraisers (I mean seriously, wrapping paper?). But the support you showed during the strike went above and beyond and brought tears to my eyes, repeatedly.

We also need to thank the labor community. Doctors, nurses, firefighters, ILWU longshoreman, and pipefitters all came out and walked the lines. Teachers, if we don't return this solidarity when they need us--especially to the paras, school bus drivers, and food service workers who serve our students--shame on us.

To Tacoma’s students, we all owe you an apology. Adult issues kept you out of the classroom where you belong. That’s an injustice and there’s no way to spin that. There shouldn’t have been a strike. I found the last two weeks mind-numbingly frustrating because it was preventable. If the McCleary Settlement was done with transparency, rather than dead-of-night-last-second deal making, we wouldn’t be here. If a fair contract had been offered from the beginning of negotiations, we wouldn’t be here. If young teachers in our city felt valued and knew they wouldn’t have to pick-up side-hustles to stay in their apartments, we wouldn’t be here.

Lastly for the school board, we elect school board members not spokespeople. Canceling school board meetings, ghosting from social media, and responding to community members with auto-form replies is not the way for school board members to lead. The community didn’t vote for the district public information office, we elected you. If you don’t want to face an angry public when things are bad, perhaps elected office isn’t your calling.

This will be my thirteenth year of teaching. I have worked in Tacoma my entire teaching career. But, my mentor in the profession departed during this strike. I am still not over that. Despite reaching a contract agreement, I have lingering concerns about our ability to retain many of the great teachers we have. I want for Tacoma Schools to be the world-class system our students deserve, but nothing that happened over the last two weeks brought us closer to that.

I’ve heard from a lot of parents and community members. People are angry and we have to win their trust back. I often say in my talks that “teaching is relational.” Classrooms are places where if trust is absent, learning will be as well. For the sake of my students, I hope Tacoma Schools can spend this year rebuilding that trust.

I’m off to go lesson plan.