Induction in international schools starts well before the first teacher meetings or tours of campus. Expatriate educators receive various types of support from the school, including help with coordinating required documentation, suggestions on what to pack, and connections with other expatriates working at the school.
Upon arrival, expatriates are typically met at the airport and assisted with acquiring housing and necessary household supplies. Hours and sometimes days are dedicated to explaining the culture of the host country to these new arrivals. This orientation focus slowly blends into the logistics of school, but usually offers what expatriates view as local fare. It often includes excursions to local restaurants, language or cultural workshops and explanations of how some of the local workers at school might interact differently than the expatriate might anticipate.
The focus of this induction is to help the foreigner make sense of the new place. We want these new arrivals to be successful, and international schools know that part of supporting this success is to support basic needs and assist with transitions. Yet more and more international schools are including host country professionals at all levels of the school. How do these new arrivals from the host country transition to their new location? How do local educators come to make sense of and understand the practices of the international school?
I recently interviewed seven international school leaders as part of a research project. All of these leaders had arrived at the same international school in the previous four years and could speak in detail about their transitions.
“All of the international school leaders agreed that the international school community “seems like a country on its own.”
There was a mix of expatriate and local leaders. None of the local leaders had worked at an international school previously, while all expatriate leaders had previous experience at other international schools. The purpose of these interviews was to better understand how international school leaders transition and reach different levels of cultural awareness in their new school.
The interviews indicated some basic similarities in experience, as well as some stark differences in perspectives, and clearly communicated the need to be more aware of the needs of all new arrivals at the school.
Quotes in this article come from these school leaders. All of the international school leaders agreed that the international school community “seems like a country on its own – when you get out of the walls of [the school] you are in a different world”.
The leaders identified how the school sense of place differed from that of the host country as well as from the cultures of the home countries of the other leaders. All of the leaders seemed to clearly understand that the school culture was a unique blend of the various community members: “So I think once you walk through the walls of [the school] there is a different culture that we try to uphold”.
Entering the same walls and having to make sense of this same unique sense of place, induction programmes rarely exist for new arrivals with local roots: “[It] was a local position, and so…I wasn’t given… anything whatsoever about life – or transitioning information at all… you pretty much had to do it on your own”.
“It is no wonder that these same local leaders describe a very different sense of place than is described by their expatriate colleagues.”
These local leaders are expected to work with expatriates from all over the world, in a system of education that is often foreign to the local leader. Often the local leaders are asked to take on responsibilities for supporting the transition of expatriates new to the school: “You’ve got a new person coming in who has training about the person who is already here, but the person who is here does not get training as to how to handle the person who is coming in.”
It is no wonder that these same local leaders describe a very different sense of place than is described by their expatriate colleagues. While expatriate leaders commented on the international school community as “very friendly”, “a very positive environment”, and “a community that is very tight”, this same community described by local leaders became “very demanding” and a place with “a greater level of entitlement”.
These two different perspectives of the place came, in part, from their induction into this new culture and the support offered through their transitions. International school leaders spend time at administrative meetings reflecting on how the new expatriates are settling in: “So we always ask ourselves ‘What can we do once they [expats] arrive to help them?’’
“International school leaders must remember is that the sense of place within the walls of an international school is a cultural transition for everyone entering the school.”
Rarely do administrators spend equal amounts of time identifying the transition needs of local arrivals. While we can speculate about what this gap in induction means about how schools receive local staff, the result is that local leaders and staff do not have the transition support they need in order to understand their new place.
The induction programmes offered by international schools for expatriate new arrivals can easily be adapted to meet the needs of local arrivals:
- Survey current local staff about successes, challenges, and needs
- Identify on-staff mentors for new local staff
- Invite local staff onto campus early to observe classes, talk with colleagues and ask questions
The important point for international school leaders to remember is that the sense of place within the walls of an international school is a cultural transition for everyone entering the school. Each new arrival, expatriate or local, needs appropriate support in their journey of transition.