Randy Ricks teaches at Lester Middle School located on Kadena U.S. Air Force Base in Okinawa, Japan. Tokyo, Bangkok, and Hong Kong are a short plane flight away.
“I love living in a foreign country and experiencing the local culture,” says Ricks, a member of the Federal Education Association (FEA). “The opportunities to travel are great.”
In Brussels, Judi Nicolay teaches English, history, and finance to the children of military service personnel and foreign diplomats at the annex of the U.S Army Garrison. Cities like Hamburg, Germany, Paris, and Vienna, are a drive or train ride away.
“It’s one of the advantages . . . seeing new places,” says Nicolay, who has taught in Brussels for 24 years out of her 30 as a federal employee of the U.S. Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA), the civilian branch of the Department of Defense that serves more than 70,000 students of service members and civilian staff in 11 nations, seven U.S. states, Puerto Rico and Guam.
For 28 years, Stacey Mease taught school in South Korea and Turkey before her current assignment at Robinson Barracks Elementary School in Stuttgart, Germany.
“The military community is really a melting pot,” says Mease, a former military dependent who attended four DoDEA schools growing up. “I enjoy working with people from all over America who have different backgrounds.”
The combination of living overseas for years, while firmly planted in U.S. military culture, helps some FEA members cope with being away from family back home, according to Rhoda Rozier Cody, who teaches at Humphreys Central Elementary School at Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, a rural city in the middle of the South Korean countryside.
“Day to day life is pretty normal, but when we travel it is to places that we may not be able to visit if we were working in the States,” she says. “It is a global experience working overseas.”
DoDEA’s Changing Landscape
Weekend train trips across Europe. Basking in the Middle Eastern sun. Wandering the cobblestone streets of ancient Asian cities. That’s only part of the experience of working overseas for DoDEA. Unfortunately, there are a growing number of negative aspects to the job.
“There are many reasons why I joined DoDEA that are no more,” says a veteran teacher who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Some teachers fear losing their jobs.”
While DoDEA schools have adequate resources, there are many components that make the job challenging.
“DoDEA used to provide very good professional development both during the summer and school year that really met the needs of teachers,” says a teacher, who has worked with DoDEA since the 1990s. “In recent years, professional development has been one-size-fits-all.”
After more than 30 years of teaching within the DoDEA system, as well as growing up in a military family, a second educator expresses dismay about a lack of support from DoDEA officials.
“These last few years, we are having an issue getting respect from our leaders,” the teacher says. “It is a shame, because living overseas, our teachers, administrators, students and parents have always been more like a family.”
According to several accounts by FEA members who were attracted to DoDEA by the chance to work in a variety of countries, opportunities to transfer to a different location within the system have all but vanished.
An Imperfect System Getting Worse
DoDEA salaries and benefits are commensurate with those in school systems based in the U.S. As federal employees working overseas, teachers receive benefits that include health insurance, retirement contributions and allowances for housing and transportation.
Under the tax law passed this year, allowances and assistance for airfare and the shipment of vehicles, clothing, furniture and other household goods are now being considered as income and therefore taxable. DoDEA has not clearly communicated the change to new teachers entering the system, FEA says. Consequently, new teachers and retirees are being blindsided by a high tax debt.
“There is a current effort by the federal government to place an unfair tax burden on employees who receive moving assistance from the government when entering or leaving federal service,” says FEA President Chuck McCarter. “In addition, too many people are not receiving their proper pay or having their pay docked for bogus debts the government claims they owe. FEA continues to press management to resolve these issues.”
Efforts by the Trump administration to weaken bargaining rights, union representation, and employees’ rights to due process government-wide are affecting DoDEA teachers.
“They (DoDEA officials) are also forcing bad contracts on our stateside and overseas bargaining units,” says McCarter. “They all stem from DoDEA management’s complete lack of respect for its school-level employees.”
McCarter says DoDEA senior officials possess a pervasive attitude of: “If you’re not happy, make an adult decision and leave.”
“Management simply does not care what building-level educators—the people who actually work with students on a daily basis—have to say about the learning and working environment in our schools,” says McCarter, who spends weeks at a time meeting with FEA members, who belong to eight DoDEA school districts containing 166 schools in the U.S., Europe, and the Pacific.
When it comes to curriculum, decisions are made by people based at DoDEA headquarters in Alexandria, Va., “who have not been in the classroom in years,” says McCarter.
“Decisions are made with no input from the field and no thought to how they’ll be implemented, how to train the school-level staff to use new resources, or how these new programs and initiatives dreamed up by management will impact classroom learning and the amount of time educators have to work directly with students,” he adds. “There is also a disturbing trend toward the micromanagement of classrooms, ignoring educators’ professional judgment.”
Last spring, DoDEA management lobbied Congress—which, along with the Pentagon and White House, serve as DoDEA’s de facto school board—to create a new law governing DoDEA schools that would have gutted bargaining and due process rights.
“Fortunately, with help from NEA members who wrote to Congress on our behalf, we were able to convince lawmakers that DoDEA’s proposal was a bad idea,” says McCarter.
In a 2017 report of the best places to work in the federal government, the Partnership for Public Service ranked DoDEA in the bottom 5 percent—322 out of 339 agencies. The report is an assessment of how federal workers view their jobs and workplaces, considering leadership, pay, innovation, and other issues.
“As public employees, our members are often afraid to point out problems and shortcomings of DoDEA out of fear of management targeting them for retribution or even dismissal,” says McCarter. “It’s not a healthy environment and certainly not one that would promote improvements in the system.”
The Federal Education Association is NEA’s state affiliate representing more than 8,000 faculty and staff in the DoDEA system. FEA represents two bargaining units: Stateside (including Guam) and Overseas (including Guantanamo Bay, Cuba).
The overseas unit is divided into two areas:
– Europe, where members are located primarily in the United Kingdom, Belgium, The Netherlands, and Germany.
– The Pacific (South Korea, Okinawa, and mainland Japan).
FEA members worldwide include teachers, counselors, school psychologists and speech/language pathologists. Education support professionals (ESP) are part of FEA’s stateside bargaining unit but are represented by other unions overseas. FEA also has an active NEA-Retired membership.
As federal employees, FEA members have strict limitations on their actions and speech in the work place.
“The Association does its best to shelter members, but we simply can’t stop all of the blows when the whole system right now is rigged against federal employees and their unions,” says McCarter.
But there is a bright side to working for DoDEA, he says.
“The faculty and staff in our schools enjoy great respect and support from the military parents and communities we work with,” says McCarter. “And, of course, our members have the utmost respect and appreciation for those military personnel and their families, whom we are honored to serve.”
A Pacific Tale
The U.S. government regularly looks for teachers to work abroad. When Mary Anne Harris was teaching at a Catholic grade school in the early 1990s, she attended an international teachers’ recruitment fair.
“I found the international schools tended to serve the elite members of both American and local nationals near U.S. embassies,” says Harris, in her 26th year with DoDEA, based at Kadena Middle School in Okinawa. “In contrast, DoDEA schools provide educational opportunities for the children of servicemen, like my father.”
Like many FEA members, Harris grew up in a military family. Her father served in the U.S. Air Force.
“I liked the idea of serving those who serve our country,” she says. “DoDEA teachers are a unique group of individuals who left home to seek adventure overseas.”
Harris says her students experience the hardship of frequent residential moves and parent deployments, but still maintain “a resilient moxie that is totally amazing.”
“We are a highly successful school system that provides students with loving, motivational and educational learning opportunities,” she adds.
The same could be said of educators like Harris who in October lived for several days under lockdown and without electricity after Okinawa experienced a massive typhoon.
“We managed,” she says.