When most people think Hawaii, they think tropical paradise. The image that comes to their mind features stunning beaches, clear ocean, and beautiful skies.
That’s not the case for Verena Mellein, whose first thoughts of the Aloha State are of a classroom full of energetic and passionate 11th graders who are increasingly eager to learn about the world.
The Dresden, Germany native is currently in Honolulu teaching humanities at the Pacific Buddhist Academy as part of the Cultural Vistas’ Teach USA program, which affords experienced international educators opportunities to teach in accredited primary and secondary educational institutions in the United States for up to three years.
Discovering a Passion for Teaching
Verena first came to the United States at the age of 16 as part of Step In, a high school student exchange that allowed her to live and attend high school for a year in Bloomsdale, Missouri. In many ways, this early experience proved formative.
“When I first returned from the United States, I saw my classmates struggle in English class and decided to offer them extra help in the afternoons. I really enjoyed teaching them and that’s when I first thought of teaching as a career”.
Verena’s first exchange experience made a lasting impact on her and she later returned to the United States for college and stayed on for graduate school too. After studying fine arts and studio arts at Florida State University, she stayed to pursue a Master’s in Art Teacher Education, eventually graduating with a Summa Cum Laude distinction.
She moved back to Germany to reconnect with her family, but found herself torn between her passion for art and her fondness for teaching. She ended up combining the two, which led her to to teaching grade 5 to 12 students both English and Art in Germany.
Despite thoroughly enjoying teaching, Verena felt the need to seek out further challenges. Unfortunately, the schools where she taught in Germany were limited in their access to technology and, in some cases, an unwillingness to welcome new teaching approaches.
With the migration crisis and a high number of refugees arriving in Germany every year, she believed schools and educators needed to rethink and adopt new approaches to teaching to be more inclusive and welcoming.
“My school had little contact with the outside world. Students had never really been anywhere, and I felt like I needed to build a connection with the world for them so they would be able to be more open minded, especially with all the refugees coming in”.
Verena knew she needed to expand her own horizons if she was going to be able to make a bigger difference at home. This is when she began her search to gain international teaching experience.
Seeking New Horizons with Teach USA
While looking for interesting teaching opportunities abroad, Verena got in touch Pacific Buddhist Academy in Honolulu, Hawaii.
The Academy, which specializes in teaching grades 9-12, is the first Shin Buddhist school outside Japan and the first accredited Buddhist high school in the United States.
From them, she learned about the Teacher Exchange Program, a category of the U.S. Department of State’s Exchange Visitor Program and Teach USA, which allows visiting teachers to gain exposure to American teaching methods and host schools to bring a fresh perspective and valuable viewpoints into their classrooms.
She knew it was going to be an interesting and unique experience. She had been to different parts of United States before, but never to Hawaii and the opportunity to teach in Honolulu was exciting.
“This is so different from the mainlands; there is no comparison. From the cultural diversity to the influences, this has given me a whole different perspective”.
With the hope to learn and grow, she applied, got selected and moved to Honolulu in July 2019 to begin a journey that can extend anywhere from 1 to 3 school years. As you can imagine, the experience of moving from her home all the way to Honolulu was not without challenges.
“Even though I speak English well, there is still a language barrier. At the beginning of the school year, half our student body was Japanese exchange students who didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Japanese so teaching them was a huge challenge. That’s where my art skills came handy and became a language that we both understood.”
Prior to this experience, Verena had no exposure to Buddhism and being in a Buddhist school was both challenging ,but also enlightening.
A Win-Win for Teachers and Students Alike
Being in a different culture and practicing innovative teaching methods was just what Verena needed at this point in her career. This teaching opportunity has opened enthralling avenues for her class in Hawaii too.
Much like her students in Germany, the ones in Hawaii also had limited exposure to the greater world beyond its community.
“Students in Hawaii had no contact with European culture and to be able to share some of that, broaden their minds by enlightening them about the language, food and the education system has been my greatest achievement in the program”.
Lack of exposure results in singular interests in students. “I noticed in my world literature class, students were interested in Asian literature but had never heard of the Odyssey or other significant foreign literature”.
Her presence in their classrooms has encouraged students to seek out different aspects of history, literature and art.
“Instead of just reading and drawing anime and manga, I see them exploring other cultures. I see them asking questions about life and culture in Germany.”
Connecting German and Hawaiian Classrooms
This spark of interest in another part of the world has not only expanded their view, but also has begun their journey towards becoming more multicultural and accepting.
While teaching World War 2 in her History class, Verena noticed her students were unable to understand how Germany has moved on and developed ever since. So she thought of connecting her students in Hawaii to those in Germany to provide a different perspective.
“I just thought it would be nice for them to get a fresh perspective and know that Germany has come a long way from the World War. We created Skype sessions where Hawaiian students asked questions about the impact of the war on life today in Germany and my former students at Hermann-Lietz Schule in Spierkeroog, Germany answered”.
Verena thought this conversation is important for students to learn that there is more to Germany and German culture than they might read in their history books. Although challenging to arrange because of the time difference, it was successful in giving her students in both countries insight into life and culture on the other side of the world.
She planned it as a one-off event, but the response has been so good that more sessions are on the docket. She has already seen several students remain in touch and continue to interact and learn about each other’s cultures.
As a result of her outstanding efforts in bringing new perspectives to the classroom, Verena has been accepted to the 2020 White House History Teacher Institute. She is one of the 60 teachers in America who will attend the five-day summer program in Washington, D.C hosted by the White House Association.
Through this program, she will learn more about U.S. history and larger movements and participate in discussions with historians, visit local sites, participate in inquiry-based learning activities, listen to special speakers, get exclusive access to resources, and network with fellow educators from across the country. She hopes her students – in both countries – will benefit from her experience in the years ahead.
Building Bridges for Learning
Verena sees great value in building bridges for learning and connecting students across the world.
“When students communicate with each other across oceans, they find out about opportunities they wouldn’t have otherwise, and this is beneficial for them as they think of colleges. For some of these students, this experience has helped them decide that they want to go out in the world and explore further and that’s beautiful”.
While this has been beneficial for her students on both ends, Verena herself has learned immensely from the freedom to innovate in teaching. “Schools in the U.S. offer more freedom to teach and I’m definitely learning how that can be beneficial to take it back with me to Germany”.
Her experience in the past six months, has been one for the books!
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