Chapter 3: Escape from Planet of the Tests!

Since my previous posts have explained our reasons for going to Mali, West Africa to teach, it’s time to introduce our new school: American International School of Bamako.

AISB front entry of the new campus overlooking the Niger River

Here is the official description from our school handbook: The American International School of Bamako (AISB) is an independent, coeducational, private day school which offers a full U.S. educational program from pre-kindergarten (age 3) through grade 12. The School was established in 1977 to serve the needs of American and international community students seeking an English-Language education. The school year is divided into two semesters.

My students will be from North America, Europe, and Africa, primarily the children of either embassy workers or NGOs like Save the Children. They will all speak English, though there will be some who require ELL services.

A brand spanking new campus opened in April 2011. The new campus includes spacious classrooms for all primary grades, a secondary campus with student lounge areas, athletic facilities, science labs, two computer labs and a wirelessly connected campus, library and performing and visual

Malian Prime Minister at AISB’s opening

arts facilities, all on five hectares all overlooking the Niger River. The ribbon-cutting ceremony was quite the big deal, attended by Malian Prime Minister Madame Cisse, as well as the Malian Minister of Education and the U.S. Ambassador from the American Embassy.

At AISB there are about 200 students in K-12. The faculty includes a full-time school director, Caroline Jacoby (originally from Australia), secondary principal Randy Neen, 25 full-time and 2 part-time teachers, including 17 U.S. citizens and 10 teachers of other various nationalities. All professional staff members have university degrees or teacher certificates and more than half the faculty hold Master’s degrees.

AISB students wearing the school’s African pattern

The school schedule is nearly identical to the schedule in Palm Beach County. The AISB school year is approximately 176 days and comprised of 2 semesters divided into 2 quarters each. School runs from late August until early June. Three long holidays occur during the year, one in October, one in December and one in April. The school day begins at 7:30 a.m. and ends at 2:20 p.m.

Besides he 3-week winter holiday and 2-week spring holiday, there are a few school holidays that we don’t have in Florida, including Sept. 21-22 (Mali Independence Day), October 20-29 (fall break), January 24 (Muslim Holy Day), January 31 (Muslim Hold Day), May 1 (International Workers’ Day), and May 24-25 (Africa Day Holiday).

I knew this school was the place for us when I read the school’s mission statement and belief’s statement. For the first time in years I won’t be part of a school system where the goal is to get kids to pass the big state test at the end of the year! I will be able to actually teach with the needs of the kids in mind. Unlike Florida, my pay won’t be based on student test scores, I won’t be forced to spend days/weeks/months preparing kids for a single test, and I’ll even have some sense of autonomy in my classroom. Teachers with autonomy? What a concept.

AISB Mission Statement

The American International School of Bamako is committed to providing a challenging, enriching, English-language American-based educational program which encompasses holistic student development in a nurturing, student-centered, multi-cultural environment.

AISB Beliefs Statement

– We are a community of learners in which education is a cooperative endeavor involving students, parents, staff and teachers.
We believe in encouraging resourcefulness, creativity and self-expression.
– We will give our students the tools necessary to become life-long learners.
– We believe each person is a unique individual with dignity and worth.
– We believe in providing a supportive and safe learning environment.
– We believe our students should develop an awareness of and a respect for different cultures, locally and globally.

AISB main lobby

I did the hot pink highlighting above because that’s a huge statement, something most U.S. schools can’t say anymore. I can actually focus on giving kids a holistic education steeped in creativity, and depth, and with a global perspective. I wouldn’t be able to do that in the U.S. (or at least not openly).

And while the school is based upon the American Educational System, it has unique “international qualities” due to its setting in the Republic of Mali, in French-speaking Africa, and due to the diverse international backgrounds of the school population. Modifications to the basic American program complement the school’s international setting and population–such as French Language instruction and the inclusion of Malian culture, history and geography in the curriculum. How cool is that?

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Chapter 2: Hello, Mali

If you read my previous post, you know the backstory about our obsession with being abroad (and yes that’s “abroad” not “a broad”). So here’s how we went from dreaming to doing.

January 2011: While presenting at a conference in Orlando, noticed another presenter’s bio said “lived and taught abroad for 17 years.” Interrupted her lunch to get the scoop. Told us that she and her husband (with kids in tow) taught at international schools in 7 different countries, including Kenya. American style schools, tax-free salary, housing and everything else provided, and no high-stakes testing. What?! Told us to Google “International Schools Services,” (ISS) the organization they went through to do this.

February 2011: Paid fees to join ISS. Both of us were approved after filling out 3 zillion application papers. Even though it was the tail end of the recruiting period for the 2011-2012 school year, began emailing international schools across the globe. Lots of jobs in the Middle East, but discovered their laws weren’t exactly supportive of couples like us (e.g. Saudi Arabia: same-sex sexual activity punishable by death, prison, fines, and/or whipping).

March 2011: Skype interviews with international school in Kenya! Looked promising until our research revealed 14 year prison sentences for gay people. Didn’t work out after all, we breathed sigh of relief. Made big chart of scary countries to avoid.

Niger River, Mali

April 2011: Decided to get serious–if we were really moving abroad we needed to unload our worldly possessions. Put our house up for sale in the worst real estate market ever. Sold full price within a month to former editor of Architectural Digest magazine (as a guest house, mind you). Sold decades worth of our “stuff” at an estate sale. Learned you can actually survive without 10 boxes of Xmas decorations, massive collections of Fiesta ware/turtle figurines/1950s furniture/metal lunch boxes/etc, and 37 kinds of cookware. Sad to see others buy our stuff just to add to their stuff, but happy to take their cash! Even scanned scrapbooks/photo albums to make digital versions, and chucked the physical versions. Our load is lightened and we’re ready to rumble.

June 2011: Moved to a 700 sf furnished apartment in happening part of town, walking distance to everything. Came with our clothes and art. With weekends free of lawn care, Home Depot trip$, and home maintenance torture we concentrate on snagging international teaching gigs. With dwindling opportunities for the 2011-2012 school year, decided to focus on 2012-2013 possibilities. That recruiting season would start in the fall.

September – December 2011: Planned to attend a recruiting fair but in meantime emailed dozens of international schools we were interested in, all located in countries where we wouldn’t be flogged, fined, or hanged because we were a male couple of 25 years. Many amazing possibilities (exotic locales with warm climates a plus, of course). Had Skype interviews with international schools in China, India, South Africa, Korea, western Africa (Mali). Nothing solid yet.

American Embassy, Mali

January 2012: Received another email from Head of School at the American International School of Bamako (AISB), in Bamako, Mali saying they were still interested. Had another Skype interview at 5 AM our time (thank goodness the video wasn’t working), said they’d let us know in a day. The next day we got an email that started with this:

Dear Jeff and Jamey,
It was a pleasure talking with you both yesterday. We feel that you would both be excellent additions to the AISB faculty and community and as such I would like to offer you positions at AISB for the 2012 -2013 school year. The contracts will be for two years. Jamey would be teaching MS/HS science which would encompass; Grade 8 science, Grade 9 conceptual physics, Grade 10 Chemistry, Grade 11 Biology and AP Biology (probably) or possibly AP Environmental Science. Jeff would be an elementary classroom teacher teaching grade 4.

A two-year contract that includes housing, medical, moving expenses, and even an R&R trip to Paris!

Before we accepted we consulted with a director we befriended during our international search, a super helpful person who knew a lot about most of the international schools. A colleague of this director sent this statement about AISB:

I have worked with the Directors and several Boards at the American International School of Bamako during the past three years (in governance workshops and in their last head searching).  It is a great little school — the community is small and friendly, as is the staff; teachers and administration are professional; the new school director, Carolyn (who is Australian) is excellent; parents consist of many expatriates from many different countries (mainly from North American, Europe, and Africa), working mostly in development and diplomatic organizations; Malians are very friendly, outgoing, with a strong visual and performing arts culture.  Bamako, Mali is also hot all of the time, dusty winds part of the year, poor people and undeveloped infrastructure. To me, positive attitudes at the school and among Malians, all of which are in abundance, more than compensates. I’d go there in a heartbeat.

Excellent director, nice people, AND a strong visual and performing arts culture?! It’s like Glee Africa!

The Great Mosque of Djenne, Mali

Then we checked with the travel website Lonely Planet. Here’s what they said:

If you only visit one country in West Africa, make it Mali. This is a country as rich in historical significance as it is blessed by an extraordinary array of sights, not to mention being home to many of West Africa’s major cultural groups.

Mali’s natural wonders range from the deserts of the north to the fertile greenery of the south, with the Niger River weaving a path through the heart of the country. The lucrative trade routes of the Sahara once made the region the world’s richest, and the Niger, one of the grand old rivers of Africa, still provides Mali’s lifeblood. To journey along it (preferably on a slow boat) is one great journey.

Not far from the riverbank, the extraordinary Falaise de Bandiagara rises from the plains. It shelters one of West Africa’s most intriguing peoples, the Dogon, whose villages and complex cultural rituals still cling to the rocky cliffs. A visit here is utterly unforgettable.

Some of Africa’s greatest empires also rose from the Niger’s hinterland and bequeathed to Mali some of its most dramatic attractions: the legendary city of Timbuktu – whose name has never lost its remote allure – and the gloriously improbable mosque at Djenné are merely two among many. Even in places where the landscape seems too barren to support life, you find Mali’s famous elephants sharing the Sahelian soil with Tuareg and Fulani nomads.

There’s almost as much to hear in Mali as there is to see, with a musical soundtrack provided by some of Africa’s most celebrated stars. Whether you dive in to Bamako’s wonderful live music scene or time your arrival to coincide with the country’s two world-famous music festivals, Mali’s diverse rhythms will soon have you on your feet. 

SOLD! We signed the contracts and began to plan our exit strategy.