Three dreaded words in organisations looking for something to motivate colleagues and build cohesion: "Team Building Event"

As a new director of a school in Moldova, setting up something appropriate was going to be tricky, as the event had to settle international colleagues into the country and attempt to bridge the gap between them and local staff.

Heritage International School, set up in 2017, was the first international school to be established in a part of Europe where networks are few and far between, and connections to develop everything from training to curriculum events take far more effort and thought than I was used to in the UK.

Isolation for international schools, even those in well-established networks, is a constant issue: being connected, sharing good practice and feeling less on your own as an international school.

"We harvested grapes, had lunch and made wine."

The team building event we actually held? Simple, and remarkably effective. We harvested grapes at a colleague’s home, had lunch, made wine and bonded on a sunny September day. This August, even in the midst of Covid-19, we again spent a day in the beautiful countryside, only this time at a colleague’s farm and beehives. All because we utilised the wider community to find an answer that had a strong positive impact.

Answers to developing wider connections, becoming less isolated and creating something that positively benefits education as an international school, are often nearer and less costly than we might think – if we utilise what already exists in our international school communities.

Six simple steps are suggested for all international schools to consider:

1. Parents and carers: All parents want to help their school whatever the setting. In international schools there is a strong pull together for the common good and used effectively this can have a significant impact on connections to improve opportunities and education. For example, at Heritage, we wanted a focus on Stretch & Challenge learning, with an emphasis on giving our students real life experience in a range of careers. We put out a call to parents interested in contributing to our new Founders’ Lecture series and as a result we have had diplomats, NGO heads and business leaders volunteer to speak with students.

This year, the second series has already included the UK ambassador to Moldova, Steve Fisher, speaking to students about Brexit, Europe and the role of an ambassador. We have also had the head of the UN in Moldova, Simon Springett, on the 75th anniversary of the UN.

"Some of the most powerful connections for an international school are with local, national schools."

2. International organisations: The fantastic work of the UN Development Programme (UNDP) in Moldova on Sustainable Development Goals made this an obvious international organisation to contact and explore ways in which our students could link their science and technology lessons to their work here. The UNDP were delighted to provide support, and there are numerous international organisations operating around the world that are happy to support learning in schools. Our Climate Change Action work has really grown, and we represented Moldova in October at the Global Showcase of schools for World Education Week.

3. Local schools: This may not seem obvious, but some of the most powerful connections for an international school are with local, national schools, collaborating on a range of educational projects. In Moldova and Eastern Europe, we are involved in the local English language association of teachers. We work together on global learning through networks including eTwinning and the British Council; we are involved in leadership fora, as well as in sporting and academic events: competitions such as debating and the World Scholar’s Cup, for example. Recently, we hosted a technology and learning conference that brought educators together from all over the country, sharing good practice and all taking something positive away from the day.

4. Charities and social responsibility: For so many international schools it is a moral duty, and integral to their ethos, to support others. These connections also play a vital part in supporting schools’ outward-facing mission. At Heritage, the founders’ mission for the school to develop a strong sense of social responsibility is realised through our links with and support of local charities such as the Areal animal centre in Chisinau, the centre for the prevention of human trafficking, and vulnerable children centres in Moldova.

"Ambassadors love working with schools."

These links are about more than just abstract altruism: they are a key part of how we develop societal values of civic responsibility in these potential future leaders. This autumn, we are working with the Collaborate Red Box charity in Moldova for the school’s PSHE curriculum and, in December, will support the Winter Food campaign for the Areal dog shelters.

5. The wider business community: perhaps obvious, but often under-utilised by many international schools. We are currently working with the National Bank of Moldova as a pilot scheme to develop financial literacy in the country, and this is supporting our wider curriculum. Radio Free Europe is interviewing staff for programmes that support their reporting of the country to show a fuller, reflective and less hackneyed approach towards Eastern Europe.

The European Union is working with us to explore grants to support STEM education that will also support education in Moldova.

"You are never isolated when you immerse yourself in your local community."

6. The diplomatic community: Last but not least, ambassadors love working with schools, and a range of embassies here in Chisinau have given so much time and support to us as an international school. We have had Chevening Scholars inspiring students, Mandarin teaching from the Confucius Institute, French language resources from Alliance Française, America House providing brilliant support, and the ever-wonderful British Council allowing the first ever UK school exchange to Moldova last November.

The key challenge for international school leaders and their communities is to stop thinking that they are an island in their national country and, instead, develop a wider outward-facing strategy of using connections that takes full advantage of being a global school in a local community. The impact will be transformative. We see clearly, in the Covid-19 crisis this year, the power of international schools and their communities collaborating globally in sharing ideas and solutions.

We need hope right now in our schools, and to know that better things lie ahead in 2021; the power of education gives our community and young people that hope. As a school, you are never isolated when you immerse yourself in your local community.