From Agony to Ecstasy

August can usher in a period of dynamic lifestyle changes and major transitions for International Educators. A new country, new culture, new colleagues, new students, an unfamiliar campus and admin, new schedules, new challenges and new expectations top the list of what lies ahead—whew! It may all seem completely overwhelming and agonizing.

Add to all this “newness” the feelings associated with leaving behind friends, family, established jobs and lifestyles and you could experience some unexpected emotional turmoil, even a few serious chinks in your self-confidence and potentially some lonely times outside the school environment.

So, tell us, ISR readers: What advice and tips can you share with International Educators relocating overseas, perhaps for the first time? How do you advise acclimating to a new school environment and local community? How do you keep yourself strong, positive and emotionally healthy as you head to work as a stranger in a strange land? 

For some, going from Agony to Ecstasy may require no more than experienced International Educators sharing experiences and wise words of advice. Thank you, ISR readers, for offering the helping hand a fellow colleague may be looking for!

37 Responses to From Agony to Ecstasy

  1. Where I work (Baku), bringing cotton sheets is a must. Staying away from negative people and the expat gossip mill is also crucial. But I have to add another one: the way things are done in the US does not mean they will be the best way in your new school- I address this particularly to recent grads who have not worked abroad yet. The US politically correct grad school stuff you learned may not translate at all to kids who’s number 1 goal is to either make a lot of money or get the hell out of the country they are in. They will probably not be much interested in, for instance, disability, US gender issues, or racism as we know it. Start where the kids are. Listen. Get them to write about issues in their own country, not yours.

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  2. Mister Cee says:

    I’ll add on one final note, RE: facebook, etc. In China, FB and other blog sites (including this one) are blocked. Oddly, I’ve found a great deal of liberty in this act of censorship. I have TONS of time on my hands that would otherwise be spent checking updates, commenting, and on and on. If you’re not already working in China, consider a bit of self-censorship from time to time.

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  3. Central Asia says:

    Thank you all for the good advice and great background info. I agree with “heart and spirit” of those who have gone before.
    I leave in two days, which will begin my 5th year living/working o/s as an educator.
    Great thoughts on finding positive people.
    What I try to tell new staff is,
    “Keep a good attitude (Positive Mental Attitude- PMA), and stay flexible.” These two items will help you a lot, as you encounter wonderful new cultures, people, food, cities, routines etc.
    I love what another writer wrote, “You are not in Kansas anymore”, that is why you are overseas.
    In addition, I loved what one of the first writers, mentioned about not putting everything immediately on Facebook, Twitter or other such sites. Here in the US everyone seems “Glued to their I-phones and 3G” connections, where I work we are thankful to have internet for a full 24 hours without interruption. It is OK to think about posting something before you post it. In our school, we have over 24 different nationalities of students, staff, and parents. It is important to remember you are guest in you host country.
    Best wishes for a great year!

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  4. Susan says:

    This morning, I remembered the first piece of advise I received when I was leaving for my first teaching gig abroad. It was given to me by a friend who had lived in the Netherlands for three years while her husband was working there and I hope it might hit home with someone who reads this.

    She told me to remember that when working abroad, you will likely hang out and spend time with many people (especially people from your home country) with whom you might never have connected in your life back home. Maybe they’ll have different political views, religious beliefs or values. Because there is a smaller pool of people you will likely meet, you won’t have the opportunity to “pick and choose” as we do in our home countries.

    Since working abroad, this has hit home for me over and over. But I also believe there is an upside to this phenomena. Because I have spent time with people whom likely would not have been friends back home, I think I have possibly become more tolerant and open-minded than I was before moving overseas…and I figure that’s not a bad trade. It really is all good – despite those brief moments when we forget.

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  5. Mister Cee says:

    All excellent advice, esp. about bringing some wall art. Not only does this brighten up your new home, but you’ll get plenty of compliments as a surprising number of new teachers don’t think to bring art.

    Contact veteran faculty, ask what they wish they’d brought their first year.

    Find your local English-speaking entertainment weeklies (e.g. Time Out) and READ THEM. You’ll learn of live music, restaurants, cultural events, bars, etc. Any large city should have at least one of these magazines.

    Back up all your music, DVD’s, etc. onto an iPod or other external device. You can’t go out EVERY night, so it’s nice to have some quality lazing material.

    To repeat what’s been said already, “Get to know the positive people” is the best advice I’ve ever gotten in any profession!

    Be willing to take risks. Try new food, places, and food, within reason. Of course, “within reason” can be pretty subjective…

    As for the question of sweating small stuff vs. ignoring it… this is tough. I’ve been faced with some situations that in retrospect, I should have raised more of a stink about. Conversely, I’ve also built a few mountains from molehills and burned a lot of energy in the process. I find the best guidance comes from a trusted colleague, the more veteran, the better. Keep it to just one colleague, preferably. The whole faculty does not need to know of your dilemma, and you don’t want to be singled out as a rabble rouser.

    Happy trails!

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  6. Brian says:

    *MONEY* Something I didn’t see anyone else mention is… Don’t go somewhere new for the purpose of escaping the clutches of debt. It’s a huge gamble. You may come out way ahead, but chances are if you’re already in financial straits going into a situation, you’re not going to allow yourself little luxuries which will help you adapt and you’ll likely be miserable your entire ‘tour of duty’ – also making everyone else around you miserable.

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    • Melissa says:

      Absolutely disagree. I initially moved overseas to pay off my student loans. Not only did I pay them off, I travelled, had a maid and started enjoying my life. I paid off in three years, what would have taken me 18 years at home. I fell in love with the lifestyle and am still happily debt-free and teaching overseas!

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  7. john says:

    Don’t lose sight of the bigger picture, despite the many demands of your new school. Get out and meet as many people as possible. Try and go to social events to meet existing and new staff. Avoid taking work home in the first few weeks. When we went to Brunei, we (eventually) joined various hash chapters – trust me, they were a life-saver – many, many interseting people from all walks of life. Yes, try to get to grips with a new language. Things have probably changed since the 1990’s, but when I started working in Nairobi, the day before school started, the boss took us up to a country club in Limuru and we played a mixed, very friendly game of cricket. Great fun and nothing too serious. Whatever you do and I know it’s difficult, avoid spending your final weekend in school, particularly if you have just recently finished a previous contract. I also agree; avoid negative elements in the staffroom and faculty office. I also tried to avoid colleagues whose life revolved around gossip and simply knowing everybody else’s business. A lot of colleagues’ social lives tend to be centered on the school environment and other colleagues. I would avoid this modus operandi at all costs. The first year is like a marathon, it’s not a sprint, pace yourself. But get involved with the wider environment.

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  8. Nomad says:

    Attitude is everything! I echo what someone else said about avoiding negative faculty members. They are poison, and I have seen more than one newbie and even several international teaching vets get sucked into their black cloud. Sadly, negative people who arrive at a school seem to quickly seek out and/or quickly locate other negative veterans at the school (must be some form of radar). Anyway, this blog discussion thread is a good read for newbies or vets. Good luck!

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  9. Tom says:

    Start learning the language as soon as possible. There are always lots of resources available, and your school, veteran teachers, and sympathetic locals can steer you to study groups or tutors. You will not only have the benefit of better communication with the community and the opportunities that brings, but you will realize how many people are in your same shoes, and that helps to cope.

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  10. Dana says:

    Enjoy your new adventure but don’t worry if you feel overwhelmed. In the beginning, do what you can to meet new people and try to make new friendships. Your friends become your “family” so it’s very important to connect with people that are good for you. Don’t get involved with people that are negative and complaining all the time; that will make your experience very difficult, especially as time goes on. We have also found that it’s important to make friends outside of the school community so you’re not always talking shop. Check with your embassy and see if there are different activities organized that you could participate in. Check out different organizations and get involved there. See what volunteering opportunities are available and get involved.

    We like to explore new places. At least once a month, we make sure to go to a spot that we haven’t been to yet, even if it’s just for a drive to a different area of the city. It opens your eyes to yet another aspect of the culture you’re living in.

    Remember that there will always be frustrations with the new life you’re living. The people may do things differently or things may not run the way you’re used to. Sometimes it can get to be too much but try to step back and tell yourself that it’s not wrong, just different and you need to get used to it.

    Just remember that you came overseas for a new adventure in a new country and culture and keep that in mind at all times. And enjoy!

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  11. Trav45 says:

    Oh, you know, most places (unless you’re really far out) have a HASH. When you’re first there, and trying to meet new people, the HASH can be a great way to do that. It’s not always just ex-pats, either. It’s also a great way to see new parts of the city and get some exercise, either running or walking, in an interesting setting.

    Attending a HASH even is something of an experience in and of itself, I must say! HHH are generally a bunch of characters, and you don’t HAVE to over-imbibe! : )

    Here’s a link to their main website, and contact info for the different groups.

    http://www.gthhh.com/

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  12. Trav45 says:

    LOL–and btw way. Good bedding! Yes to 350 count sheets and good pillows! Both are going with me (as well as my All-Clad pots/pans, I might add!); everything looks better after a good night’s sleep!

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  13. Trav45 says:

    You know, I used to have a Director who warned new faculty to be careful about who they hung out with. At the time I thought, “Geesh, Big Brother is alive and well.” Then, when I took a position in Egypt, I realized he was right. At first I hooked up with a couple of the faculty, but they turned out to be VERY negative, complaining about the school, about Egypt, about Egyptians, and I would always leave feeling depressed. I realized this after a month or so, and stopped hanging out with them!

    Also re: the what’s the ‘small stuff’ debate. Another good piece of advice I received once was to look around and see if whatever is bothering you is happening to every one else, too. If it is, there’s probably not anything you can do about it, so just grin and bear it. Of course if it’s something you really feel is unbearable, that’s another story.

    And everyone is right, absolutely take enough things with you to make your apartment a nest you can retreat into when needed. I’m leaving for my now position in a few days (after 4 years back in the States), and I have probably WAY overpacked comfort items. But oh well. I know I will be happy to have them once I’m there. There are ex-pats who pride themselves on only taking two suitcases, like it’s some sort of moral victory for them. Nuts to that! Do what will help you feel most at home and content and ignore the others!

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    • I totally agree with you about staying away from the negative people,Trav45. And no matter where you go or how good or bad your school or country is, those negative people will always be around. They only EVER see the bad and constantly complain about the ‘small stuff’ until they bring you down, down, DOWN to live with them in their misery!!! DON’T GO THERE, believe me!

      I also have new perspective now that I am working as an international administrator…No school leader wants a group of negative people poisoning their school culture and if you associate with that group too much or jump on their bandwagon, you might not find it so easy to find your next post…because believe me, directors DO pass that kind of information on to other directors!!

      I also agree that you have to ‘build your nest’ once you get to your new country. Bring photos of family to hang on the walls, AND your goosedown pillows and good sheets. I also ALWAYs bring my copper plated stainless steel cookware, as most schools will only provide you with cheap aluminium and my good set of cooking knives. But be sure and decorate your new home, make it cozy and comfortable and a place that you will feel good coming home to. Check out the local art and crafts, you can find some beautiful things to hang on your walls and adorn your house to make it a beautiful place to hang out!

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  14. Sheree' says:

    I recently moved to Europe from the United States and I have to admit that at first I was so busy with learning the new bus routes and looking for things for my apartment and getting out to meet people that i didn’t miss anything about my old life. 3 months later I started to get a little homesick. But I kept telling myself if I wanted things from American I would have and should have stayed there. That helped me a lot. It also helped to decorate my apartment just as they said in other threads. But I am constantly getting out and trying to blend in with the local culture. I don’t hang out with expats at all. All of my freinds are from here. They take me around the country to experience things I have never experienced before. Now I cannot imagine going home. The key to my happiness here has been that I make a huge effort to make and maintain friendships with these people. As a result I have learned the language for free, experienced a lot that tourists don’t experience, and made my life so much better in the meantime.

    I keep up daily with my hometown freinds on facebook. But my new friends make my life so exciting that my hometown friends are jealous.

    I have to admit I am single so this advice would be for single people. But there are married couples can also take the advice.

    Ohh and I also find that keeping fit is also another good way to keep a positive attitude. This has been my first time teaching abroad and my point has been that I have never sat home crying because I miss my family. Some people would love the chance to live abroad and experience just what we are experiencing. I think we should make people jealous itch our lives. WE have great jobs that we love, we get to travel and meet new people. What else could you ask for?

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    • Michelle says:

      I certainly agree with Sheree says about “staying fit”.
      One activity that I always remember as being very helpful for my attitude were the embassy “Hash Runs” in Bucharest. Even tho I am not a true fan of exercise normally, these Hash Run thru the deep winter snow and icicle beauty of local parks were highlights of my international teaching life, before or after. For the first time I made friends with colleagues from the many countries represented on staff, and I no longer felt so isolated while working far off at a temporary campus for primary grades.
      IF you live in a city where your embassy is vibrant and welcoming, DO try to get involved in activities they may offer. It’s true that some embassies are more welcoming than others, but I’ve found that embassy staff, too, enjoy the interaction and opportunities to make new friends. Hash Runs are a blast and a great way to get your body and attitude back into shape!

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  15. Susan says:

    Oops! I meant “pay it forward.” Do you ever think you’ve been away from your home for TOO long?😉

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  16. Susan says:

    Great points, Expat 5x and Anonymous. Remember, with your Kindle, to check and see if you can download in your destination country. For me, I was planning to buy a huge number of books over the summer because I can’t download them in Kuwait. However, I have just learned that for $7/month, it is possible to be networked with a computer stateside and get them in Kuwait now – as well at to watch North American TV shows that aren’t always available in foreign regions. So, another part of this adventure is learning to find ways to get around limitations which then turn into new possibilities – then pass your knowledge onto people who can benefit from what you’ve learned – just as we do in these postings. Pass it forward!

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    • LMKordus says:

      How does one learn more about this 7/month service you mention? Also, how do you find out whether you can download Kindle in certain countries (i.e., UAE)? Thanks!!!

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      • Susan says:

        Actually, I learned about the service just the other night. The husband of a Brazilian private student I’m teaching on the side (another nice perk when you work overseas) works as a consultant to the CEOs of the cell/Internet company Zain in Kuwait. He mentioned that he was going to order a Kindle despite this not being a country where books could be downloaded. I will write and ask him about it tonight and I will post it to this site upon receiving the information.

        Happy Reading!

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      • Susan says:

        Here is the info for the service to access programming to Western sites:

        http://www.strongvpn.com/

        Also, in response to your question about how one finds out in which countries Kindle downloads are accessible – go to amazon.com and you will find everything you want to know regarding this subject. All I’m sure of is that Kuwait is not on the list – likely because books are censored here because of religious beliefs.

        I hope to connect with to the service when I return to Kuwait from vacation. I hope, if you do look into it, that you will post your opinion of it.

        Namaste,

        Susan

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      • Trav45 says:

        It should work if you get a VPN address, too. I’m planning to do that so I can access Hulu, stream Netflix videos, etc.

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  17. Anonymous says:

    I always have with me my favourite tea and coffee,photos of family and a few sentimental items, functional ornamental, my shortwave radio and now…my kindle ereader – I agree with making your apartment homely, and be sociable, but I also like my own space and getting to know people in a rather slower authentic way, so I have plenty to do at home, reading, listening to radio documentaries and dramas, cooking, walking/exercising, distance studying….and going out and joining in when I want. I think it is good not to be too reliant on the social thing to keep you sane because before you have made some real friends, that can make the missing of the ones you love at home worse. Taking up a new interest is a great way to meet people outside of work and socialising with locals from work is a great way to get into seeing the differences in culture in a positive way.

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  18. expat 5 times and counting says:

    1) 350 thread count sheets, a favorite pillow and some French vanilla coffee go with me and not in the shipment. Because as long as I get a good night’s sleep and a cup of coffee in the morning, I’m good to go. (and some french-milled soap and new airport duty free perfume)
    Well, those are *my* little luxuries–pick what yours are and take them with you to have right away. Makes a house (or a strange apartment in a foreign land) a home.

    2) Lose this statement: “This is how we did it in ___(insert city). No one CARES how you did it in ___(insert city). The sooner you realize that, the happier you will be.

    3) Some lesson ideas/materials for the first couple of days of school also go with me. No matter *how* well equipped they *say* the school is, I’ve never regretted any of the books I’ve brought with me. I also have posters, labels, etc. stored on my laptop and ready to hit the “print” button as soon as I get there. (maybe I’m just anal that way!) Be ready to hit the ground running.

    4) Have fun! If you are as lucky as I have been, you will meet some amazing, life-long friends. Take time to be social so you don’t miss out on meeting these wonderful folks. Good luck!

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  19. Jude says:

    I agree with Susan – get out and find people with similar interests and sport is an area to start. These are not necessarily those who work with you in your school as, from experience this year, a considerable number of the latter fall into two camps: those who have been in the place so long they think everyone else ‘knows’ where stuff is and what to do, or those whose idea of fun is to spread rumour and gossip irrespective of veracity. And you are absolutely right, Dee. The weekends are for doing other things. Explore!

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  20. Michelle says:

    One good way to reconnect with your past life AND your new, exciting adventure is to chronicle all w/ keeping a journal/scrapbook:
    Save ticket stubs from new movie theaters & museums you visit; stash that cocktail napkin where you met a new friend & doodled your momentary inspiration; snap a photo of a great outdoor project you did with your new class–as some examples.
    Writing out your thoughts and keeping a journal/scrapbook is one way to work through occasional loneliness and an even better way to remember forever the joys of each day of your new adventure.
    Write, write, write and remember it all in journal.

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  21. jerihurd says:

    I agree with the things on the walls advice. It makes the apartment soo much less empty feeling!

    Also, as mentioned above: Don’t sweat the small stuff. You are in a different country, and just expect that everything is going to take three times as long as you’re used to! People will tell you they’ll fix something on Tuesday, and show up on Friday. So it goes. It happens to everyone. So just relax and go with the flow.

    I remember a friend going to choose some material at a store that said it opened at 10. We were there at 11:30 and it still wasn’t open. She fussed and fumed,paced around, then burst out “This would never happen in America.” Well, you’re not in America, any more, Toto. And that’s half the fun!

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  22. keepitsunny says:

    The best tip I have is to bring a few flat things in your suitcase to put up on the walls before your shipment arrives. I find putting things up on the walls to be even more effective than having trinkets around… makes it feel like home really quickly.

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  23. spare says:

    I would have to say don’t sweat the small things and pick your battles carefully. I’ve worked overseas for over 10 years and the number one thing I see happen to new comers is they make a big deal out of things that they shouldn’t focus all their attention on. For instance, if the school said you get paid on the 1st of the month, but really it is the 5th of the month. You are still getting paid, right? Or the school said you would have a three bedroom apartment, but they give you a two bedroom apartment. How do you know the two bedroom isn’t bigger than the three bedroom? I’ve had 3 cubbyholes called a 3 bedroom apartment before. Those types of things aren’t going to make or break your experience. In my opinion the battles to fight are those in the classroom and at school. Know when to speak up and know when to let things slide. Oh, you have to buy your own pens…don’t fight it. If on the other hand you aren’t given ANY classroom materials, that deserves a fight. You see my point, I hope.

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    • Jude says:

      Unfortunately ‘Spare’, “letting it slide” is a disease in some places, and especially in the school I have worked in for the past year. Letting it slide was what administration relied on to fail to pay people at all(‘you’ll get paid next month’), withhold pay during vacations when this is illegal under labour laws, lose important documents, change the terms of contracts etc etc. In my experience, the schools that don’t care about the little things, don’t care about the bigger things like quality.

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    • Susan says:

      It can be hard, when you first arrive in a new country, just figuring the differences between what the small things and the large things are. Try and ask yourself, “What’s the worst that can happen from this?” Usually, the answer is that the world won’t end and you’ll be fine. Also, whenever you want to begin comparing things to how things are back at home, remember that “back at home,” you weren’t paid for holidays, you didn’t get a free place to live, and you likely didn’t have nearly as many opportunities to travel and see the world. Most of all, try not to develop a negative attitude and when something does go wrong, try and find the gift it it. For example, I had to spend a week in a Kuwaiti hospital at the end of this last school year. Needless to say, it was a lot different than being in a US hospital. As in many countries in Asia and the Middle East, most personal supplies and care had to be provided by the patient’s family. And, like many teachers abroad, I wasn’t with a family. The upside of all of this is that I was “adopted” by a Kuwaiti family who brought me everything that I needed and we became great friends. Now, tell me, was that a great upside or what? Moral: There might be some lemons but they make superb lemonade and you’ll end up all the better for those lemons!

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      • Jude says:

        Back home we were paid for the holidays and paid on time every month with pay slips, not excuses. Salary scales were national ones and open and transparent. Not sure where you lived!

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  24. Linda says:

    Ditto, ditto to responses 1 and 2. At the end of each day take a minute to reflect on what new, interesting, or unusual thing you have learned that day in your new home. (It might be something that you’ve learned about yourself, but you never realized when you just ‘blended in with the background’. Now that you are in a new and different setting, you’ll be amazed at what you can learn about yourself.)Remember, you are not just a teacher – but a life-long learner as well. Enjoy the new adventure, learning, friends, community, and experiences. Carpe diem.

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  25. Susan says:

    Make your apartment/flat your haven to return to when you do go home. After a long day at school working with kids who come from a multitude of cultures other than your own and living in a place that might be completely a polar opposite of your culture, coming back to your place enables you the opportunity to get centered and remember who you are. Bring your favorite pillow with you and small things that bring comfort to your soul while you’re dealing with the stress of living in a new place.

    Also, make sure to not just hang out with other expats. Make friends with employees who are locals and learn the shortcuts to getting things done in your environment. Try to appreciate the differences of your new home rather than judge them.

    When you have free time, get out and look around your neighborhood. Make friends with the local vendors and let them know you’re there. Become a part of the community – just like you would if you were in your native homeland.

    Remember, where ever you go, there you are!

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  26. Dee says:

    Do everything you can!! Many schools have PTA dinners or staff outings, maybe even just a group going for drinks–GO!! Don’t go home and call your family or play on Facebook, get out there and meet your new colleagues. This serves to distract you from the fact you just left your whole world but more importantly it helps you get to know new people and explore your new home. Plan a trip for your first break, go to new restaurants each time you go out, and more importantly have fun.

    You will be overwhelmed but try not to bring work home. It will be hard but home should be for relaxing and having fun, so leave work where it belongs. Don’t spend entire weekends at school working or you will burn out fast and begin to hate your job.

    Relax and enjoy your new home. Remember that you may be overwhelmed at first but within a month or 2 it will all be business as usual.

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