English Teacher Alissa Mears has been all around the world, from backpacking across Australia and New Zealand to living in the USSR. This year is Mears’ first in London, marking yet another destination she can call home.
Born in Richmond, Virginia, Mears left for Moscow after completing first grade. In 1989, having lived in Moscow for three years, she returned back to the U.S. “mere months before the implosion of communism.” Coming back to the U.S. as a 10-year-old was tough for Mears. Not only did she have to endure the rough transition from living abroad and returning to the United States, she was also returning at the end of the Cold War. “I remember my brother and I were called ‘commies’ [communists] at certain points, which was of course really awful then,” Mears said.
In high school, Mears was keen on attending a boarding school somewhere in Africa after being influenced by her African Literature teacher, who had taught and travelled the continent. Mears “adored” her teacher due to how open and vulnerable she was with her students, a characteristic that Mears tries to emulate in her teaching today by being more direct with her students and giving her students more choice.
Even though Mears didn’t get to fulfill her ambition of going to school in Africa, her parents helped guide her to investigate other opportunities.
As a result, Mears found herself in Japan. “Mid-way through my junior year, I joined a magnet program at a city school that had a Japanese exchange program,” Mears said. She studied Japanese culture and history for a few weeks at an all-girls private school in the heart of Tokyo. She stayed with a family living in the suburban area of Tokyo, making the daily commute almost two hours.
The lifestyle change of living in Japan also translated to her academics.“It was really different, it was very traditional Japanese—a lot of memorization.”
This glimpse into Japanese education actually gave Mears a further appreciation for American-style education, “While I appreciated the rigor of the school, I think American education is much more open and much more about the individual student,” she said.
Mears hadn’t always wanted to be a teacher going through high school and college. Despite her mother being involved in education, Mears was terrified of speaking in front of large groups of people. “I wrote off teaching and initially sought out professions that would allow me to be my more introverted self and wouldn’t challenge me out of [my shyness],” Mears said.
Even though Mears was not keen on becoming a teacher herself, she “liked the idea of it.” Her father’s background was an inspirational force: “My dad was pretty poor and he basically had to fight his way in the true American ‘up by your boots’ fashion,” Mears said.
As a result, she was very aware of her privilege, and wanted an occupation that involved helping someone else. “At the end of the day, I want to feel like I’ve done something and that I helped someone, or I’ve given myself to a greater cause than me.”
After college and with no science background, Mears worked in a liver clinic at the University of Michigan Hospital to save money to travel to Australia.
Although Mears felt this was “a blip” in her timeline, she joked that, “It was a good and terrifying experience of what cirrhosis looks like, what would happen if you indulge too much in drink[ing].”
Consequently, Mears flew to Sydney later that year, taking a gap year to satisfy her wanderlust and to camp, hike and enjoy the outdoors.
“My brother and I were a little bit [of] thrill-seekers and liked a sense of adventure and liked taking risks,” Mears said.
It was not easy finding a job in Australia, but Mears eventually got the opportunity to teach at an elementary school in the morning and serve as a waitress in a restaurant at night. She then went backpacking in the region. “I backpacked around Australia, and then went to New Zealand for a little bit, backpacked around there, and essentially went into some credit card debt,” Mears said.
“Australia was the first time that I travelled solo, and it was scary, it was really lonely, but that was cool because I had to learn how to sort of live in my own head for the first time, really, ever,” Mears said. This event taught her to be more responsible and independent, while also making her “appreciate other people and appreciate relationships with other people.”
Looking back over her life teaching in various schools and countries, there is one main thing that Mears regrets. “I regret not being as open to failure,” she said. “I think the thought of failure was crippling to me, and I had the tendency to give up before I tried if I sensed that I wouldn’t be successful at it.”