Alum Eli Cagen: Teaching in Kuwait, Korea, and Bermuda

Follow Eli Cagen on his journey teaching in various places throughout the world.

As a teacher that is drawn to new places and experiences, Eli Cagan (B.A. ‘10, M.M.E. ‘17) has taught in South Korea, Kuwait, and currently, Saltus Grammar School in Bermuda. After jumping directly into teaching after undergrad, he realized his passions, and both of his degrees from CSU helped him on his journey.

Teaching in South Korea

I moved to South Korea after I completed my bachelor’s degree in music, at CSU. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do after college and just kind of fell into this opportunity. I went to teach English in a public high school in a very small town in the countryside, right in the middle of the country. I was there for two years and absolutely loved it. I would have stayed longer but it was here that I realized I really loved teaching, but that I was teaching the wrong subject (ESL). This is what inspired me to return to CSU to get my teaching license (and a masters in music at the same time) so that I could then move abroad again to teach music, rather than English as a foreign language. I was in Korea for two years, from 2011-2013.

Teaching in Kuwait

After completing my masters plus teaching license at CSU, I went to an international school job fair and was offered a few positions in different countries, but the one that was the best fit for me was a position at the American International School in Kuwait, teaching the last year of elementary music and middle school band. I had no intention of moving to the Middle East, it was one of the few regions of the world where I thought I definitely would not go, but again, the position was a good opportunity. It was at an IB school, and IB is huge in the world of international schools (that’s how/why it was started), but there is a catch 22 with these schools – they almost always require you to already have experience teaching in the IB. So for many people, myself included, you have to go to a “less desirable” country in order to get this experience, this foot in the door.

It ended up being a great experience for me because the people that were running the music program at this very large school are two master teachers, both band teachers. They are a husband-and-wife teaching couple both from Minnesota. He did the high school classes, she did most of the middle school classes, so I worked mostly with her, but also a bit with him, helping out with the jazz bands. It was kind of like student teaching 2.0 for me, as I had these very experienced mentors working alongside me everyday, offering me lots of advice and wisdom. And they built the program at that school from nothing – band was a pretty foreign concept to the students/locals when they arrived. And now it is a very large and thriving program, hundreds of kids in middle and high school playing in bands.

While the day-to-day life in Kuwait was pretty boring/stagnant (nothing really there, it’s flat and hot and dusty), living in that part of the world offered a really rich opportunity for travel. Four hours on a plane in any direction and you’re on a different continent. So outside of work, travel was the best part about living there. I lived and worked in Kuwait from 2017-2019, then moved here to Bermuda in August of 2019.

Teaching in Bermuda

I was teaching in Kuwait before I moved to Bermuda and knew I wanted a change from the Middle East. I started looking at job postings and applied for a job as a “Woodwind Specialist.” The job title alone was very compelling and the idea of being closer to the States was also very appealing after living so far away. The more I looked into it and as I started having interviews with the school, it seemed like it would be a very good fit. The school was looking to build a band and orchestra program into the curriculum, as all of their ensembles were extra-curricular. Having the opportunity to build a program from scratch was also a very compelling reason to move here and take this job. We are now in the second year of a brand new middle school band program, and the feedback from students, parents, and school administrators has been overwhelmingly positive!

Teaching Challenges

The biggest challenges for me personally have to do with the actual instruments. There is nowhere on the island for students to rent band instruments and nowhere to buy them. This means that we as a school are having to import all of the instruments for the program and then are renting them out to the students. This has been quite challenging, dealing with all of the logistics of finding instrument suppliers and getting the instruments shipped here. If there are issues with the instruments, there is only one person here who is able to repair them, and while he is great, he is not at the level of knowledge/skill that you often are used to in the States.

Difference in pedagogy

The biggest difference so far is just the approach to music education in general. Bermuda is a British Overseas Territory, so music education is more similar to what a lot of people in the UK may experience. This is more often than not “general music” where students are in a classroom like any other learning about music, be it through history, theory, etc. This is opposed to what I grew up doing and learning about, which is more a performance, ensemble based approach. Again, it is exciting because this is what we are now building at my school, and the students are loving it!

The biggest surprise about living in Bermuda

It is very expensive here, just in general. Almost everything is imported, so the first few times even just going to the grocery store was a bit of a shock. The concept of “island time” is definitely real here. There are times when things just move a little bit slower, so it is important to just be patient and flexible. However, living here is quite similar to living in the USA in a lot of ways, as a lot of Bermudians spend time in the States and there are a decent number of Americans here, mostly because we are quite close to the States. It is much more similar to the States than the other places I have lived/worked in (Kuwait and South Korea).

Advantages of teaching in Bermuda

Living in Bermuda! It’s beautiful here, and there is lots to do if you enjoy the outdoors - swimming, scuba diving, freediving, spearfishing, rock climbing, golf, boating, etc. I’m very busy with activities outside of work.

Eli Cagen headshot
Eli Cagen, right, poses with his jazz band from Saltus Grammar School in Bermuda.