Michelle Kunnen Reflects On Teaching at NIS and Beyond

Former Nagoya International School teacher Michelle Kunnen has had many different roles in education from classroom teacher to administration. While she has not worked in Nagoya since 2001, she returns regularly and remains much loved for the positive impact she had on her students, the faculty and the community who shared their time with her here.

A native Kiwi from Timaru, New Zealand, Michelle has worked in education for over 25 years, in locations around the world including Syria, the UK, and Japan. Now, Michelle serves as an educational consultant in New York City. Recently we discussed her time in Nagoya and her views about educating children in international and bi-cultural environments.

Tell us about your time at the Nagoya International School
My time at NIS was filled with adventure and was a chance to gain real insight into life in Japan. The customs, food and art all expanded my worldview, and I have many wonderful memories.

In 1992 I was one of the few non-Americans or Japanese on staff, and as a Kiwi with a strong accent I had to learn a “new” language to be understood! My return in 2001 was different as there was a greater variety of nationalities among the staff, and the school had developed both educationally and physically. Today it is a wonderful campus, very up to date in its programs and facilities.

When working at NIS you became part of a large family community – the students, their parents and the staff all bond in a unique way. Even today I have contact with many of them and enjoy visiting to reminisce.

What was your teaching experience like there?
When I started in April of 1992 I began the reorientation of the preschool program to one based on more of a North American model. Introducing experimental learning was quite demanding but it was gratifying to see students develop and actively participate in their learning. I left NIS in 1994 with mixed emotions. It was my ‘family’ and I had seen the beginnings of exciting change and innovation.

Between 1999 and 2001 I returned to teach grade classes; the highlight was watching the students become independent learners and thinkers, taking responsibility for their own learning and achieving so much academically in the process. It is a luxury to teach in an international school, as students there are very motivated to learn and parents are very supportive.

You also taught in Syria. What was that like?
My time at Damascus Community School was with the preschool and my students came from many different countries. English was then the common classroom language, allowing me to focus on developing the students’ skills.

DCS was another ‘family’ community and the school was located near the center of the city – shopping in the souk was fun! I really enjoyed my experiences and have returned for subsequent visits.

How have these teaching positions changed the way you approach education?
When training as a teacher in New Zealand, I learned skills that enabled me to teach students of different ages and abilities. My methodology has not really changed significantly over the years. I believe that one teaching style does not work for every child and that we should focus on the needs of the individual student and his or her different learning style. I don’t believe in the “one program fits all” approach. I was known for breaking rules and being “out there”.

What is your advice to the parents of children who are living and learning in an international or bi-racial situation?
I’m one of them! My father is from the Netherlands and mother is a New Zealander so growing up in a bi-cultural family I was exposed to many of the same challenges.

Because every circumstance is different my advice would vary in each situation. It is different for an “expat” family compared to those who make their adopted country their “permanent” home. Families living internationally in an expat community have very different needs to those in bi-cultural or bi-racial situations.

Expat families are exposing their children to different cultures and languages. This can be a positive time for the children as they are mostly in very safe and ‘family’ type communities and their school community is interested in them and their wellbeing. These children need a place they can relate to as a home base. I would advise parents and children to learn at least the basic language of the country in which they are residing.
Children in a bi-cultural or bi-racial family need to speak the language and understand the cultural expectations of the country they are living in. It is also important, when possible, that children are able to communicate in the languages of both parents.

The question is – “how do you manage to do this?” I advise that whoever communicates with the child speaks only in their native language to the child, exposing them to the correct form of the language. It does not matter what language is spoken in other situations. Exposing children to different languages can only support their learning

Are you in favor of bilingual education? Do you believe in teaching students science and math in their native language?

This is an interesting question and again not one solution fits every case. A bilingual education is often difficult to implement successfully.

In the USA a major emphasis is placed on test results, and the tests are all conducted in English. I have been consulting a middle school in New York with a high percentage of Hispanic students, many of whom are not fluent in their native language and have no external support, so all subjects need to be taught in English.

For students proficient in their native language I support bilingual education where appropriate.

What about teaching children in international schools in English rather than their native language?
In international schools it would be impossible to teach students in their native language as there are so many different native languages in the school population. English is an international language and it is therefore advantageous to become fluent in it.

How do you see your career evolving? Where do you want to take it?
For the past nine years, I have been consulting in a variety of schools in New York, working closely with administration teams focusing on the different needs of their schools. This has been a very demanding but rewarding position. Every day I am in a different school performing a range of professional development with individuals or groups of teachers. I present workshops and help to develop attainable curriculums in order to meet national standards.

In the short term, I hope to continue in facilitating positive changes within the schools in which I work. In the long term, I hope to play a role in changing the education system itself for the benefit of all students and those who teach them.

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