Early into his 10th year of teaching at St. Michael's College School (SMCS), Dr. Peter Zavodny ‘97 is armed with a fresh perspective and new tools as an educator. And they came via a foreign exchange.
"The opportunity emerged for my wife to extend her maternity leave from teaching, and I was granted the sabbatical so that we could both teach together in the same school, in the same department," says Zavodny, who has been teaching high school math at SMCS for nine years.
In August of 2019, Zavodny and his wife, Lidia, packed up their three sons --- all under the age of four, including twins --- and set off on a seven-month adventure.
"Preparations were challenging, as was the flight itself with the twins, but we had help from one of Lidia’s closest friends who flew down with us and spent a few days helping us adjust," he says. "Thankfully, Alex (their four-year-old son) had been preparing for his big Mexican adventure and was keen on using the swimming pool and watching the resident iguanas lounge by it! The twins, surprisingly enough, adapted quite quickly with their new environment, and with our Mexican nanny. The host teachers, also a Canadian couple from Kingston Ontario, were very helpful in getting us settled."
Zavodny entered somewhat familiar territory --- albeit in a foreign country --- teaching math to upper school students.
"The school community in Puerto Vallarta was very welcoming and warm to all of us, especially our son who was able to attend the pre-kindergarten class," he says. "We were drawn to the American School of Puerto Vallarta (ASPV) by its focus on sustainability, its Science Technology, Engineering, Mathematics (S.T.E.M.) programme, and the chance to live and teach in paradise!"
The school population numbered close to 500 students, from pre-kindergarten to Grade 12, says Zavodny, who is now in this 19th year of teaching, and previously taught math and English in South Korea. He has a PhD and two master’s degrees, including one in math.
"My smallest class was my dual credit calculus course through Colorado Christian University, which had 11 students, one of whom was Canadian from Montreal. My largest class was my Grade 10 geometry course, which had 25 students."
The resort-city backdrop and new educational surroundings provided both he and his wife, who taught Grades 7 to 9 and 11 while in Mexico, with a unique opportunity for discovery, reflection and immersive, deep learning.
"Geometric and spatial concepts run deep in pre-Hispanic Mexican culture and taking the geometry students to see Guachimontones (circular pyramids), was incredible," he recalls. "Learning from Mexican colleagues about how they teach/view mathematics was interesting, " he says, adding, "although a different curriculum at some grade levels, with a different emphasis than here, ultimately students in Mexico learn the same way our students do here."
The educational journey continued for Zavodny outside the classroom as well.
"Staff meetings were in English and Spanish. First, in one of the languages, then repeated in the other," he says. "Eventually after some Spanish language lessons, I was able to use the Spanish portion of our staff meetings to try and improve my own understanding of Spanish."
Exposure to a new language reverberated across the entire household, on multiple levels."The biggest reward was being able to communicate with some locals, colleagues, and staff in simple Spanish, but more importantly hearing my oldest son speak fluently with our nanny in Spanish," says Zavodny, who can converse in four languages including Slovak and French.
The other major challenge was acclimatizing to the weather, he says. In Puerto Vallarta that meant three months of high heat and humidity, followed by five months of near-perfect conditions, between November and March. "I did not wear a long-sleeved shirt or jacket all year!"
What impacted him most about the overall experience?
"Stepping back to enjoy the moments we have with our students, learning from them, teaching them and building relationships with the whole community," he says. "ASPV’s efforts in service and sustainability provided me with a refreshing approach to education here in Toronto and I hope to share what I learned with my current students."
The family ended its foreign adventure a little earlier than planned, returning home at the end of March 2020 --- before the global pandemic entered Mexico.
"Our flight was used as an emergency evacuation flight for Canadians in Vallarta," he says. "We packed our essentials and left a few things behind, not sure if we would return. Sadly, we were unable to return or formally say goodbye to our friends, and colleagues."
Days into a new academic year back in his SMCS classroom once again, Zavodny says there are plenty of lessons learned that he hopes to introduce.
"Using the S.T.E.M approach allowed me to see how there are various opportunities for cross-curricular teaching through projects that run across the various “Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics” courses that I hope to encourage at SMCS.”
By the way, when asked what he missed most during his months-long Mexican adventure, Zavodny says, "family, friends, colleagues --- especially my office 107!"