Teacher and traveler: Makela has found home in Worthington after instructing students in far-flung locales
WORTHINGTON — Erin Makela has gotten an education pretty much wherever she’s traveled.
Considering the traveling she has done, her life experience has served her well — particularly since she’s in the education field. The multicultural nature of Worthington is something to which Makela is somewhat accustomed, as she taught abroad for three years before arriving in southwest Minnesota.
Makela, who grew up in the Minnesota community of Royalton, had hoped to enjoy a teaching career in her home state, but didn’t necessarily achieve that goal in the way she planned. Now in her fourth year as a seventh-grade English teacher at Worthington Middle School, Makela had to go to locales far different than the North Star State to initially secure teaching work.
While attending Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, Makela earned a bachelor’s degree in education with a minor in English and a middle school teaching endorsement.
“I studied abroad in college and did a year in Nottingham, England, and discovered I really liked traveling,” she explained. “It was a lot of fun. Both of my parents teach, and knowing that as a teacher you don’t have a ton of money to be spending traveling all the time, I thought a good way to both travel and be helpful in the world would to be to teach overseas.”
Makela attended an international teaching fair at the University of Northern Iowa during she which she had the opportunity to meet with school administrators from around the world.
“You go in for a weekend and you kind of play speed-dating interviews, which is super overwhelming,” she recalled, laughing. “I had done my student teaching in the fall, so I had the whole spring of 2010 that I was applying for teaching jobs and I was looking in the state of Minnesota. That was the also year when everyone was cutting and laying off, so there were like 430 applicants for every job I applied to, which was really discouraging.
“A friend that studied abroad with me and graduated with me went down with me to the UNI job fair,” Makela continued. “Neither of us had any experience and we were fresh out of college, and there were a limited number of countries that would take someone with little or no experience. I interviewed with a bunch of different schools, and later in the spring was offered a job as a middle school English teacher in Kosovo.”
Makela was working at a summer camp when she was offered the Kosovo job, and had very little Internet access at the time.
“I called my parents and said, ‘I was offered a job in Kosovo!’ For some reason, they weren’t as excited as I was,” Makela said. Her parents, though, would do some research on her behalf — Kosovo, in 2010, was not besieged by war, as it had been years before — and it wasn’t long before Makela accepted the job.
She freely admits she “had no clue” what she was getting into when setting off on her professional adventure.
“The school was an American school,” she explained. “Most international schools follow either the American system or the British system. This was an American school in maybe the loosest sense of the term — the students were kids who were supposed to already know and be speaking English, and the reality was they were not ... not all of them, anyway.”
The previous teacher had left books behind, but not any sort of cohesive curriculum, necessitating what Makela deemed “a lot of flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants education.” Makela also taught each of the grade levels at the school (“I was the middle school English teacher”), though the enrollment numbers were smaller than Worthington and other schools around southwest Minnesota.
The primary language in Kosovo is Albanian, Makela said, with German and Italian the next most common. Makela, though, found many English-speaking people to spend time with — her colleagues.
“We were kind of in apartments spread throughout the center of Prishtina, which is the capital,” she said. “The school found apartments for the international teachers and paid for utilities and rent. … It was a smaller school, but all four core teachers in the middle school were American or Canadian, and about half the teachers at the high school were also American or Canadian.
“We were on one-year contracts, which I really appreciated considering I really had no idea what I was getting into at first. I liked the group of international teachers that I hung out with; we traveled together, ate together, and kept each other company and sane. It’s always good to have that group of people.”South America
As Makela approached the end of her second year in Kosovo, she realized she needed something different. She opted to go to Venezuela, “because, why not?” she said with a chuckle.
Makela had searched online on job sites that post vacancies at international schools and was attracted to both how she perceived the school she would work at as well as the warmer climate.
“It was another small school,” she described. “I was in the small town of Anaco, and most of the students had families connected to the oil business in some way, shape or form. They were definitely the ‘haves’ in the country.
“The director was great and very helpful, I was again with another great group of people and I loved my students … they were nice, they were polite and they were excited. ... This time, we were living on campus, which I liked a lot because I stood out a lot more in Venezuela as a super pale and blonde person; I don’t fit the South American profile. It was nice — we were right next door to each other, so it was easy to get together and do things.”
As it turned out, Makela only stayed in Venezuela for one school year. She would have remained longer had the country not begun to experience significant unrest.
“I was actually planning on staying and that was the year when Chavez (then-President Hugo) died,” she said. “The country basically started to fall apart. Just going grocery shopping became difficult. For example, chicken disappeared in about January. Toilet paper was no longer in stores by March, and coffee and sugar and all those things considered basically necessities were gone because the president was the only one who could sign off on bills being paid, (Chavez, who had been ill, died in March 2013.) Businesses started to pull out of the country as a result. … Watching a country fall apart first-hand is not something I recommend.
“The new president they elected was super anti-American and it was our fault that Chavez had died of cancer,” Makela went on. “We could tell when we went out that public feeling had changed a little bit. At the grocery stores, they have people who wait to bag your groceries. They’re not hired by the store, but basically are working for tips. It got to the point where they would bag everyone's groceries but ours. With little things like that, you could tell the feeling in the country was definitely changing.”Worthington (and hobbies)
Makela knew she wanted to return to Minnesota and figured that “now that I had three years of experience, I definitely thought I had a much better chance to get a job in the U.S.”
Makela knew of Worthington from a student who studied abroad with her in England, and heard even more about the community — and its diversity — upon speaking to District 518 officials about the teaching opportunity at the middle school.
“It (diversity) was definitely part of the appeal,” she said. “I would be in Minnesota, but perhaps a Minnesota that had a little more global perspective. The high school that I went to ... it was in a very small town, everyone was white and there was no diversity.
“I was excited about that, and I was also excited that I would be teaching only one grade level, and it would be English. Only one thing to prepare for — how nice!”
While residing in Worthington, Makela has continued to keep herself busy outside of her WMS classroom. She is in the midst of writing a young-adult novel — she has written several novels, she said — and is in the process of trying to find an agent for a middle-grade fantasy novel. The book she’s working on now, she said, is “young-adult historical fiction, set in the Revolutionary War. It’s looking at the privateering, more of the naval side of the war.”
Makela hopes to find an agent for the Revolutionary War novel next summer. It would be convenient, she admitted, if one agent could help her market both of her recent writing projects.
Additionally, Makela started a master’s degree program upon moving to Worthington and earned an MFA in writing for children and young adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts in the summer of 2015. She also continues to help in a variety of ways at First Lutheran Church in Worthington, where she is co-coordinator of Sunday School, participates in choir and bell choir and assists with the Kids for Christ program.
“Church was something I missed when I was overseas.” she said. “It was always important when were growing up. … I also worked at a Bible camp for four summers while in college, and then to go to Kosovo, where it's a Muslim country but not a very religious country, was a huge change.”
Makela, though, has grown accustomed to big changes in her life. Now, she’s found a home in Worthington — and that change, she says, has definitely been good.