When Twin Lakes Elementary Principal Anne Plenkovich was just beginning her career in education about 20 years ago, she had no idea it would take her from the Tahoma, Highline, Kent and Federal Way school districts more than 7, 460 miles to the United Arab Emirates.
Plenkovich, who is in her fifth year as an administrator, her first as principal at her own school, returned stateside at the end of summer after working five years in Abu Dhabi, the UAE capital, and Dubai, the country’s largest city.
She said the experience was nothing more than life changing and one that has transformed her outlook in and out of the educational setting.
Plenkovich was working as an instructional coach at Saghalie Middle School, completing her administrative internship, when another principal suggested working overseas to her. She said something about the idea appealed to her. After talking it over with her husband, they agreed she should take advantage of the opportunity if it became available.
After she was approached by a recruiter with the prospect of going to the UAE and launching her administrative career there, Plenkovich said she and her husband decided to they should move their children and experience life in a new country with an entirely different culture.
“Something about it just stuck to our ribs,” she said. “Just doing something that would be professionally and personally transformative for our family.”
After accepting a job as the curriculum coordinator at a palace school in Abu Dhabi, Plenkovich said she and her family sold their house and a good number of their possessions and began their adventure abroad.
Plenkovich said there was not a lot of time between making the decision and moving, and when they got to the UAE it was a big culture shock.
“We weren’t prepared at all,” she said. “There wasn’t a lot of time to immerse ourselves in what it was going to feel like.”
On the work front, Plenkovich said she quickly realized, even though an American-style education and curriculum was valued in Abu Dhabi, she had to adjust her style of working with people — both parents and co-workers — to one that they responded to. Because it was a palace school, everything was done on the terms of the royal family — from the curriculum to the schedule of the day, including breaks for prayer.
Plenkovich said, in America, it seems that people who are in positions of leadership commonly feel like they have to come into a situation prepared with all solutions and answers. As an American woman and a visitor in Abu Dhabi, she realized that approach would not serve her best; she could not come in and try to lead and take charge in a culture and with people with whom she was not familiar.
“I think it was just culturally trying to connect with families,” Plenkovich said of her biggest adjustment.
That, however, also changed her approach in working with them.
“I became more of a listener and a learner,” Plenkovich said. “That’s been really transformative.”
She said the most helpful thing to her was asking parents what their hopes and dreams for their children were.
“I got some amazing insight from that,” she said.
As well, Plenkovich said, whether working with colleagues or parents, if she was honest and transparent and open to listening, she received the best response.
In turn, she quickly realized the UAE culture and people are very generous and welcoming.
Plenkovich said, while it was initially her family’s initial intention to return stateside after her contract in Abu Dhabi came up after two years, when that time approached, they realized they weren’t quite ready.
“We were just kind of enjoying the international experience,” she said.
To extend their stay, the family moved 87 miles to Dubai, the UAE’s largest, most populous city, where Plenkovich had accepted a job as the assistant principal at an American international school. She said the culture in Dubai, and her job, was vastly different than that in Abu Dhabi. The UAE government is turning Dubai into an industrial city, and the city has a much more “Western” atmosphere while hosting a broad range of people from all over the world. The school she was working at reflected the city, and the students at the school came from many different countries and 80 ethnicities, and their backgrounds and cultural practices varied dramatically. Still, the setting was much more familiar to Plenkovich.
“That being said, my take away is it really taught me not to make assumptions,” Plenkovich said, adding she realized she had to be conscientious and familiarize herself with their differences in values and practices or else she risked inadvertently offending the students or their parents because of ignorance. “You really don’t make assumptions about cultures.”
After three years in Dubai, Plenkovich said her family reached a crossroads — go or stay.
Plenkovich said, while her family appreciated the experience in UAE, it was always their plan to return to the United States. While she and her family agreed they weren’t ready after her contract in Abu Dhabi came up, Plenkovich said the five-year mark made her realize it was time to come home, and she was passionate about returning to Federal Way.
“It was becoming really easy to stay,” Plenkovich said. “I felt like staying any longer would make coming back and reconnecting that much more difficult.”
Besides, she was passionate about returning to Federal Way, and when she learned there was a principalship at Twin Lakes open, she was even more excited because Federal Way Public Schools is invested in their children.
Halfway into the school year, Plenkovich said she is glad she and her family traded in the sand and the sun for the rain and the green of the Pacific Northwest, but she is grateful she had the opportunity she did.
“I think everyone should step out of their comfort zone and live internationally at some point,” Plenkovich said. “For us, as a family, it brought to the forefront the things that mattered to us.”
Professionally, Plenkovich said the lessons she learned working in the UAE — listening to parents and developing a solution based on what she learned — has only made her a better educator and administrator at Twin Lakes.
“It’s about customer service every day,” she said.