Expanding Horizons

The Sullivan-Marshall family to take two years to see something new

Sometimes when opportunity knocks, you answer the door as a family.
So when a lifelong dream of working abroad started to take shape for Shari Sullivan-Marshall, it was clear that her husband, Dan, and sons Sully, 13, and Liam, 11, were going on an adventure. Now they’re packing for Panama.

“It’s always been on my radar to do this, even before I came here,” Sullivan-Marshall says. “I was going to go into the Peace Corps, but I got hired at Crested Butte Community School,” where she teaches first grade. She began at CBCS in 1992 and ever since she’s been too busy to leave.
But then she heard about a job fair for people interested in positions in schools across Central and South America, which was the region where she was most interested in working. It was something they had talked about as a family for a couple of years and the timing was right, so she left for Atlanta, résumé in hand. The chance she’d been waiting for was an interview away.
“The job fair was a pretty intense situation,” she says. “There are all these teachers there and more than 50 schools with booths set up and you just get in line. Sometimes you’ll get an interview after waiting in line and they would just send you on your way right then and there.”
Sometimes she would get to meet a director and answer a few questions. Other schools had found Sullivan-Marshall’s information online and sent her a request to stop by when she got to the fair. It was chaotic, she says, but also under control.
Among the schools that found her information online was the International School of Panama, which was interested in her qualifications as a curriculum coordinator. By the end of the week, she was offered a job as the elementary curriculum coordinator for the school’s 500-or-so kindergarten through fifth graders.
“I’ve known about this school for a long time. So when they contacted me about this job I was ecstatic,” Sullivan-Marshall says. “There was another job in Brazil that I was interested in. I just had this little wiggle of worry being that much farther away. But the minute I got that note from Panama, it just felt right. Then there’s the position—there’s nothing that can match this position.”
Not only will she be trying to fill in holes in the curriculum at the school where teachers move on after a couple of years and students might stay for more time, she will also continue to be active in classrooms, observing teachers, offering advice on best practices and even modeling lessons if needed.
The location is perfect. The school is highly respected. And after more than 20 years as first, second, third and fourth grade teacher, Sullivan-Marshall was ready to use the master’s degree she’d earned in curriculum and instruction and see the school from an administrator’s seat.
The only catch was the two-year commitment she had to make. The school was offering to move the family down to Panama and help them find housing. But they needed the time commitment from Sullivan-Marshall. And while getting a year’s leave of absence from the school district isn’t unheard of, to get the green light for Panama, Sullivan-Marshall needed the school board’s blessing to take two years. All she could do was ask.
Luckily, Sullivan-Marshall had superintendent Doug Tredway on her side. During his tenure as a teacher in the district, he’s had an opportunity to do formative work in schools in both Australia and Scotland.
“It’s such a special opportunity and an exciting opportunity for her and for us that she would go and be able to learn that curriculum director role. We don’t even have one of those in our district, but we wish we did,” Tredway told the board in endorsing the leave of absence. “She has years of experience with us and I am very excited to support that two-year opportunity. She should come back with language skills and curriculum skills and classroom skills. But more than anything it will help us enrich our own classrooms. It’s a big deal and quite an honor.”

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The board voted unanimously in favor of Sullivan-Marshall’s request. She says it’s that kind of steadfast support and the atmosphere of advancement that’s part of the district culture that helped propel her to the opportunity she’s getting in Panama.
“The administration is so supportive of us as teachers. They provide opportunities for us to grow in so many different ways. It’s a very learning district,” Sullivan-Marshall says. “Even meeting some people at this job fair I was like, ‘Wow, we are so lucky.’ Even when they would share some of the differences between an international school and school in the states, I would think ‘They’re just like us.’”
Because the Gunnison Watershed School District goes to such lengths to involve the teachers in the day-to-day planning, Sullivan-Marshall was able to show what she could do and didn’t need to convince anyone of what she could do.
“Everything they asked [in the interview], I was ready for. They asked ‘What kind of curriculum have you developed?’ and I said, ‘Let me show you. Here’s what we’ve done in committee,’” Sullivan-Marshall says. “So it wasn’t just speaking theoretically. I could show them because we’re given so much opportunity in this district to do those kinds of things. So I could speak from experience, which was exciting.”
Tredway says that’s part of making a remote rural school district into one of the best districts in the state. But in order to continue that professional growth, Tredway believes teachers need to get out of the valley and see what other schools are doing.
“It will give her fresh perspective. If you’re looking at a 25- to 30-year career you have to seek out opportunities to keep yourself fresh, enthusiastic and engaged,” he says. “I’m glad Shari found this opportunity.”
For Sullivan-Marshall, the incredible professional opportunities are also paired with a chance to corral the family and rein life in for a while. She’s been busy teaching and tutoring, coaching track and cross country and volunteering on a handful of committees.
“There will definitely be a focus on the family, with their activities. The boys will be busy after school and Dano with whatever he’s working on,” Sullivan-Marshall says. “It’s going to be really exciting. I’ll be curious to see what works with time and everything. But we don’t want to get too busy because we want to explore Panama too.”
It’s also going to be a big change, from the language to the culture to the food. They’ll be moving from a rural valley in the arid high mountains to a capital city in a coastal rainforest. And the four seasons they’ve always known will fade into one season that includes a period when it’s rainier than normal. The school is twice the size of Crested Butte Community School and some 40 nationalities are represented in the student body.
But the most familiar part of the experience might just be the school itself, where there’s an educational philosophy similar to the one at CBCS and a lot of hands-on educational opportunities. For being a highly respected, innovative, private international school, it sounds a lot like the public school back home.
“We’re in such a fantastic district. The people we will work with are some of the best teachers in the nation. But as far as professional development, we create our own opportunities. I feel like we’re always learning to grow, but this kind of growth, as far as the language and the whole experience, is kind of unparalleled,” Sullivan-Marshall says. “It’s pretty exciting.”

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