Laura Thorne remembers an assignment at university where she was asked to write a plan of where she’d be in five years. A teacher-in-training at the time, she had a clear idea: she’d be teaching in the United States.
As happens with so many people after leaving university, Laura’s plans changed. Instead, she taught in a small village school in Devon for ten years, doing very well and steadily advancing her career. And that’s when she decided to make the first big change and work in Spain.
After two years in Spain’s Costa Del Sol region, she thought “it’s now or never” on those plans to go to the USA. So she applied to Participate Learning, was impressed by how simple the program made the process, and became an Ambassador Teacher. That meant she again moved to a new country, this time to teach elementary school in the United States.
Today, she has not only adapted to life in the USA, but Thorne has become a leader in her U.S. school in Burlington, North Carolina.
As the crowning achievement, she was named one of the top seven honorees for Participate Learning’s Teachers of the Year Award.
Open to more than 2,000 international and U.S. teachers affiliated with Participate Learning, the award recognizes teachers who demonstrate an outstanding commitment to their students, school communities, and the organization’s shared mission of uniting our world through global and language learning. In short, Thorne proved that she is among the best of the best.
“There are a lot of pedagogical differences, and it can seem overwhelming to learn a new approach, but the moment you stand in front of a class, you realize that teaching is teaching,” Thorne said. “At the same time, I know this experience has made me a better teacher.”
Moving to the USA
For Thorne, her latest adventure started with an online application, mainly to learn more about Participate Learning.
She liked what she learned. Founded in 1987, Participate Learning works to unite the world through global education. By partnering with more than 450 schools in the states of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia, Participate Learning empowers cultural exchange teachers to experience the United States and prepare students for the global marketplace. Since its founding, Participate Learning has helped more than 17,000 teachers from 77 countries teach in the United States.
Having experienced in Spain how difficult the legal aspect of working abroad can be, Thorne was most impressed by how Participate Learning managed the admissions, hiring, and visa processes.
“The whole website, the way they guide you through the process, you’re never doing it on your own,” she said. “When I went to Spain—and that was in the EU—I had to work out my housing, how to pay taxes, but these are not something I needed to worry about with Participate Learning.”
After being accepted to the program, she was hired by Andrews Elementary School in Burlington, located nearly in the middle of North Carolina. In addition to helping teachers apply for a J-1 visa, Participate Learning provided a thorough orientation program both before leaving home as well as upon arrival in the United States.
“The Participate Learning staff are incredible, and have someone to help in every area, along with a huge network of other Ambassador Teachers here waiting to help,” Thorne said.
Even with her substantial teaching experience and the support network, the change to the United States brought plenty of challenges, both cultural and professional.
In the classroom, the biggest difference in educational focus was the U.S. approach to teaching reading.
“With such a strong focus on reading standards, I’ve found my professional understanding of the components of reading education has massively increased,” she said. “The [Multi-Tiered Systems of Support] system also gives a clear blueprint for working with students with additional needs.”
The experience has given her many chances to expand her skills, particularly with technology. She helped create online learning tools for language arts for students to use during remote learning throughout COVID. This year she is working with district administration to develop data tracking tools to use across the district.
Enjoying the adventure
While it may sound a bit surprising, she definitely experienced culture shock. From the elementary school children she teaches, who have a diverse set of backgrounds, to her daily interactions with Americans in her new community, she experienced a very different culture than at home.
“You can be as ready for it as possible, but culture shock is still going to hit you,” she said. “It’s tempting to think that it will be easy to assimilate when you speak the language and share so many aspects of culture, but there are still huge differences in cultural norms and the way things are done.”
She also has been struck by how outgoing Americans can be compared to British people, which has both pros and cons.
“That tremendous openness can be overwhelming,” she said. “I found it helpful to ask a couple of friendly colleagues to be my go-tos for ‘American questions.’ They are my resource for how the motor vehicles department works, how to address a letter so that the post office accepts it, and why you put sweet potatoes in a dessert, though I’m still working on that one.”
The J-1 visa provided to each teacher through Participate Learning enables teachers to stay for up to five years. Now in her fifth year teaching in North Carolina, Thorne has taken advantage of her time to travel far and wide in the United States. That starts with the big names, as she’s been to New York City, Los Angeles, and Boston. She’s looking forward to going to Las Vegas. But it’s the less well-known spots that have been every bit as interesting.
“I definitely recommend a trip to Dollywood,” she said of the Tennessee theme park operated by Dolly Parton, the legendary U.S. entertainer. “I’ve also celebrated Thanksgiving, July 4th, and the Super Bowl. I’ve been to baseball and basketball games, and I’ve seen the world’s largest chest of drawers and fire hydrant.”
She’s been able to do all this not only because she’s had four-plus years in the U.S., but because working in her school district has meant no change in lifestyle for her from an affordability standpoint.
“The pay here is the same as the UK; the standard of living is the same,” she said. “I haven’t had to change my lifestyle or worry about where income was coming from.”
Advice from a teacher about teaching in the U.S.
So what would she tell a fellow teacher about her experience? First, that it’s hard to make such a big change in your life, but the benefits can be amazing. For her, the opportunities provided by Participate Learning have been significant, and the biggest challenge is actually making the most of every opportunity she has.
“It’s a big decision, but there’s support every step of the way, at least with Participate Learning,” she said. “The amount of paperwork, legalities, and new frameworks to learn can seem overwhelming, but the staff is incredible, and there’s a huge network of other Ambassador Teachers out here waiting to help.”
To learn more about teaching in the United States, click here.