De-Stressing @ Your New School

Lazy time. Man in hat in a hammock on a summer day

For most of us, coming in as a new teacher at an international school means we have a lot of adapting to do. Culture, language, food, climate, students, the parents of students, a new house/apartment, city and currency of monetary exchange are just a handful of what makes up the “foreign” environment that awaits us.

With so much energy focused on the actual move, how can you truly comprehend what you’re committing to? Here’s a short list of some changes to expect and suggestions from teachers who have been there/done that, and have some unique strategies for adapting to their new environment. (1st published 8/’11)

What’s New When We Change Schools?
Culture, language, food, climate, students, parents of students, your house/ apartment, the city, currency of exchange, your classroom, internet availability, administration, colleagues and committee work, school procedures, transportation, shopping, entertainment, medical care, bill paying, banking, and well… just about everything. Even your name may seem to change and sound new in terms of the local accent.

So, what de-stressing strategies work when all your familiar reference points are gone? Over the years I’ve stuck with 3 strategies that help me get a good start at a new school.

My Top 3 de-Stressing Strategies:
1. I get to know the school secretaries, the head of tech and the head of maintenance. I want them as allies. I even make some effort to get to “know them” before coming and try to bring some small gifts to sweeten the deal upon our first meeting. At one school, the tech guy desperately wanted US backpacks for his children. By bringing them along as a gift, I insured his gracious help with my many requests in the first weeks of school. I was nearly always put at the top of the list. Beyond just a colleague, he became a friend.

2. Make your apartment/house your home and refuge. I bring familiar things that make me feel at home. My music, a few pictures, books, a board game, special soap, and any other easily portable knickknack that makes me warm and fuzzy. I also bring a good supply of my favorite comfort foods. There’s nothing like a few favorite things from a known environment to help make the transition into the unknown a lot smoother. At the end of the school day you’ll want a welcoming home refuge from the crush of newness.

3. I’m careful not to be overzealous in volunteering for more committees and duties than I am comfortable with. At a new school, with my attentions being bounced around like a ping pong ball between school and personal needs, the last thing I want is more to focus my attention on. The temptation is to jump right in and make huge contributions to staff and school, but in the end if I take care of “number one” first I’m a lot more effective when it comes to contributing to the team.

Now it’s your turn. Many of us are starting off the new academic year at international schools that are new to us. What techniques work for you? Sharing our personal strategies is a great way to support each other and help make the upcoming academic year a success, in and out of school!

35 Responses to De-Stressing @ Your New School

  1. #2 is a biggie!! I was miserable for a whole year in China because the government refused to give me all the stuff I shipped from my previous country. The psychological comforts were dearly missed.


  2. Judy says:

    When my husband and I moved to China, we made it a practice to take long walks every day to get to know our new home. By walking all over the place, the city became a familiar place, we discovered little restaurants and shops, got to know locals with a friendly wave and “Hello”, etc. Our walks became our way to relax. When we returned from our Christmas holiday, we honestly felt like we were coming home.


  3. Skinny Wellfed says:

    if the parents of your students wanted to expose them to the local culture they would be sending their children to a local public school. They are instead sending them to the international school filled with international teachers who hopefully don’t embrace their locale so tightly that they become like a native. Yes you respect local customs, but you do not have to, nor should you, try to act like and become something you are not.


  4. expatdaze says:

    Sure are many great tid-bits of advice in this thread. Having kids or not does not make a difference in how the adjustment plan is laid out and plays out. The key is to have a plan.

    One of the key things for us, been overseas for 17 years with 2 kids, is to establish ritual and routine as soon as possible. One can always adjust as one stays longer (or not) and branches out into the community but having a clear routine/ritual will help with culture shock (CS); as we all know, veteran or not, CS is real. Schools are a micro-culture in of themselves, often an expat bubble, and, that’s okay for a while. Nonetheless, getting into routines/rituals may help to establish a more secure feeling, especially if the school/community is not a good environment – so to speak.

    I disagree with the 10 Little Things approach because if you need constant reminders of home while overseas, then maybe living as an expat is not for you. I am not suggesting “home” is not important but what a way to delay moving on – constant gifts that recall life in one’s home city/town – that would freak me out!


  5. Anonymous says:

    I teach in the Middle East and can personally relate to the de-Stessing strategies mentioned above, especially no 1. Although I am not new to teaching abroad and have been at my institution for three years I have to say that de-Stessing tip no 1 definitely works.

    The new semester has started and there is no internet, resources, paper etc. I informed my line manager that I was not able to connect to the internet. She kindly took me to the IT department and they tried very hard to get me connected to the internet – they even phoned the male IT coordinator who is not on the campus – I work at an all female university. My point is that they would have helped anyone who needed assistance, but I know they went the extra mile because I was courteous, friendly and patient – for me it comes naturally. I am a friendly and sociable person and like to make new friends. Unfortunately some teachers think that because the IT technicians have limited English and probably don’t make much money, talk down to them and generally be rude to them because they see them as just lowly workers. Also the situation benefits me and the IT technicians. I speak a bit of Arabic and want to become fluent in it, so I find that if they don’t quite understand my English I will use the Arabic I know. Also I find many of them want to improve their English, so are happy to speak English, so I guess it’s a win win situation.

    The university also officially does not provide paper for printers, but again I went to the photocopy centre that many teachers don’t know about (that’s another story) and asked nicely if they could give me some paper. They asked me how much I needed and I said as much as they could give me. They told me that I could take one ream of paper. The point is that they were not obligated to provide me with paper, but they did.

    I do like the suggestion the the author gave of giving gifts to such staff. I’d never thought of that, but will probably do that.


  6. Karen says:

    I have two colourful teatowels, both have a map of New Zealand on ; one is surrounded by native birds the other native flora. I put them on the wall that I look at most. They are easy to pack and freshen up with a wash & iron.


  7. P O'Neill says:

    Wonderful idea about the 10 little things. It is those LITTLE things that so often make a real difference when having a ‘challenging’ day, week, month….. Brilliant


  8. Anonymous says:

    When my husband and I first moved overseas, we made a plan to each buy about 10 little things that would remind the other person of home, and then every month, we would “open” them. It would really help lift our spirits as we struggled to find the familiar in a very different place. Another tip–if you have this option, have friends and family members send you little things in the mail. My mother-in-law once Fed-Exed us the cheese packets from Kraft Mac and Cheese–about 10 of them! It was about half-way through the year and really gave us a boost.


  9. shipt says:

    it is not easy, but new schools can be obviously better, or far more messed, up than the last one.
    unless David up above speaks the local language, there are bound to be some stressors! i agree completely with and need to take some of the advice above regarding learning language and politics… i have brought some small gifts from somewhere else, not just to get favors… a lot of the locals work extremely hard for much less pay than we receive and will never have the opportunity to go where we’ve been. so a little something is nice.


  10. Sarah says:

    I agree with all of the tips given here. I can’t stress enough how much the support staff can help you out, if you treat them well. It doesn’t have to be gifts, just simply greeting them and showing respect can go a long way.
    I also agree with making your local area more familiar. Finding out where places are can make your world more manageable. One thing I always do is look for the “dollar” stores, where you can find a lot of cheap, but usually good quality items for decorating and setting up your home.
    I also check out expat forums for my country to see where they can suggest finding amenities and having access to facilities or deals that only locals would know.
    One note regarding PDs to be aware of is that some schools will only offer a PD budget if you are within the contract year and returning. If it is your final year, they may not be so accommodating to spend money on you, if you have no intention of staying on. Check your school policy and what other colleagues say.


  11. Mr C says:

    A little off track, but regarding PD, intl schools unfortunately don’t always deliver, despite promises they may have made. With that in mind, should you find yourself in such a place, associate yourself with the most professionally-minded, positive people you can find. Learn everything you can. Reach out to less experienced educators, teach them what you know. Some say this isn’t ‘real’ PD but one learns far more in practice than in a uni classroom.


    • Nomad says:

      Excellent advice from Mr. C. One of the few things I am disappointed with at my current school is the poor PD budget. This is good advice.


  12. P O'Neill says:

    Oh, so true. What with the Internet these days, there’s absolutely no reason not to have read up and be aware of the country and culture where you are arriving. As lilttle as 3 years ago, I arrived in Abu Dhabi to find people in the same org who had no idea of the culture of the UAE, who didn’t seem to care, yet had so many negative remarks to make about the country and the Emeratis. I was quite shocked, as these people were over 40! Get to know as much as possible. It makes things so much easier and more understandable. There will be enough stress in settling in as it is. Preparation beforehand helps to make that stress so much less.


  13. P O'Neill says:

    Yes, I wish I could subscribe, but that isn’t possible right now. But, this has to be one of the best websites I’ve come across. Glad to hear you arrived to a great school with administration that cares. Where DO you work, Angie?


  14. Michelle says:

    One of the trickiest situations for me in a new school is making sure my two kids settle in as well–their joy of the adventure is what makes the whole family happy.
    Making a strong effort to connect w/ staff already at the school who can suggest “worthy” friends for my two to get to know early on (before we come) has really eased the transition for my daughter, especially. She gets to “know” her new friends online, and can come prepared for making friends, activities to look forward to, and school work expectations. Our son looks forward to meeting his coach and teFmmates, as well as new sports that he never considered before.
    Before going to one school we even got to meet up with a new online friend (daughter’s) and meet the parents who helped our whole family with conversations and guidance throughout the summer and even in the first weeks of school. They are friends of ours even now, years later.
    A school counselor or teacher in your child’s grade level may be able to offer up suggestions of friends to connect w/ one’s children, and in the process may become a wonderful friend and colleague for you, too!
    Start making connections early and get to know your school, the students, the country, and your colleagues as early as possible.


  15. Anonymous says:

    Anonymous… YES! there does need to be PD! How can we continue to learn as professinal educators if our schools won’t support PD…not all of us can afford to go back home during summer to take classes!


  16. Mr C says:

    Finally, culture shock. It’s a very real kind of neurosis experienced by all expats no matter how experienced they may be. Knowing the symptoms won’t prevent it but it can make your adjustment less nerve wracking.


  17. Mr C says:

    One other thing… Make new friends before you arrive. Couchsurfing and Facebook are both good sources. Its important to play nicely with the folks at work, just make sure they’re not your only friends.


  18. Mr C says:

    All good advice so far. I find that bringing wall art fro home — unframed of course — makes the transition easier. Be carEful not to overpack, although if this is your first overseas gig, you inevitably will. Digital digital digital!

    Research on the Internet no matter how thorough will never adequately prepare you. if possible get to your host country well before your official business with school begins. Get to know the place. Locate your barber shop, expat grocer, and good local grub.

    Manage expectations. Don’t expect too much of your host country or new school, you won’t set yourself up for Disappointment. At the same rate, be open to anything. If you’re not up for new, unusual things, then what are you doing overseas?

    Manage your expectations.


  19. Anonymous says:

    New school??? New Country??? Don’t complain if there is no PD. Does there have to be?? There is plenty of PD online if one really wants some PD. Go back to the states during summer and take classes.
    Lack of resources got ya down???? Try teaching in California. A smart thing would be to bring what ya think ya might need, then like most teachers in California… the rest.
    This is not the US school system. There are for-profit schools out there looking to make money. They will and do cut corners. That’s life overseas. Learn to go with the flow or get washed away with the tide.


  20. Robyn says:

    SKYPE- I know the first few weeks are always a little confusing and awkward. And they always seem much longer than they are. I am excited to be in a new place, but don’t yet have any friends whom I can bounce ideas off and express any worries or concerns. I jump on skype with people I know, often who I’ve met in a previous post, just to remind myself that I will make friends and settle, but it just takes time.

    Photos too- I love being able to explore new places and so having photos of places I’ve explored previously helps remind me of why I’m here.

    The most important point for me is just remembering it takes time to settle and that in a few short months from now, I’ll be loving it and feeling completely at home.


    • Laura says:

      Awesome post. I completely agree.
      I can’t live without Skype and as an Art teacher I always find a frame shop quick and drag along pictures, paintings and post cards!


  21. Moira says:

    relax and smile–. always show an interest – be natural- don’t rush things!!!


  22. Sarah Maurer says:

    When I was switching schools, I used to get language CDs and try to do a crash course over the summer. It’s so much less jarring to switch countries when you can buy bread, take a taxi and say hi to the (local) neighbors.


  23. Anonymous says:

    From the moment I know where I’m headed, I start reading up on the country that will, for at least a couple of years, be my new home. Not just superficial travel info. (though that can help offset stress by upping the enthusiasm level), but history, culture, current social issues, etc., etc. I’m always amazed by so-called international teachers who simply show up in a new place without having taken the time to learn something about it. (Just going about with a big smile and an air of tremendous good will not only won’t compensate for ignorance, but in many parts of the world, will classify you as overbearing, naive, and/or sexually available.) That’s a form of disrespect in itself – conveys the idea that the host country just isn’t important enough to merit the effort of understanding it – and local staff members can pick up on that vibe. If that isn’t enough to start you off on the wrong foot, the professional and social gaffes you’ll soon make will certainly make things uncomfortable. Some trial-and-error is of course inevitable, and all part of the fun and enrichment, but arming myself with some understanding of the local world view certainly helps me feel more calm!


  24. Angie says:

    I so agree with David Smith above! Same thing, the welcome and comfort and what you find as The Reality at a new school makes all the quakies go away. To find that the administration that recruited you and got you to commit at the fair, are for real on the other end, is the only paving I needed to adjust in all of two seconds. Of course those favorite items help some but with the cutting down or out of shipments these days in so many schools, get used to leaving them behind unless you can take them digitally ie. music, books, family photo album. Not everyone will have the same experience of going from a nasty work situation to an efficient, well-run organization where teachers are valued for who they are, what they know, and how they deal with students, colleagues, parents, and admin. makes all the difference in the world. Keep up with ISR to make sure you get one of these schools before you sign the dotted line! Helped me out a lot. Thanks ISR!


  25. P O'Neill says:

    Excellent points, esp about diving in and offering to help in everything. You need to take some time to adjust, no matter how experienced a world traveller you are.


    • Anonymous says:

      For me having a pet is a lifesaver! I had my dog with me in Egypt, but had to leave him with my son in America when I came to Taiwan, So I got another “baby” here and I love coming home to her!


  26. David Smith says:

    There is NOTHING stressful about going to a good school. If you are stressed, the school is problematic. I went from a mess of a School to an amazing school without a summer vacation. Literally, I taught one week, then a week later I was at the new school. I am so unstressed at this new school I feel I have died and gone to heaven. It’s all about the quality of the school and the administration. Nuff said!


    • Anonymous says:

      Did you travel alone or with your family?


    • TW says:

      I don’t agree David. Each new country brings its own stresses, no matter how good your workplace is. Nevertheless, I am glad you found a better place than your last one. 🙂


    • Anonymous says:

      I think David is still in the “honeymoon” phase of the new place where everything is wonderful. No place is perfect–I suppose it is relative to how bad of a situation you were in before.


  27. 2xaround says:

    Well put! It’s so important to bring items with you that make you feel centered when you’re in your apartment and classroom. Now that I have a Kindle I am able to bring my entire library with me. I have some books that I would classify as “comfort” books and having them all with me is sort of like my security blanket.


    • Laura says:

      I also have a kobo, the Canadian version of a kindle! Amazing how everything is so much easier just having my library at my fingertips! English books are really expensive in Asia. Smart comment!


  28. Anonymous says:

    Great post! Reading this made me realize that I’ve done each of these things when moving to a new school in my home country. With just a few tweaks it applies to international schools as well. I can hardly wait for the year to get going so that I can start applying and begin my own journey in an international school!


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