Fragile Friendships & Fitting in @ a New School

There’s just no way around it. Budding relationships at International Schools are fragile. Just when you think everything’s going smoothly & you’re starting to fit in, you’re not. For example: You chime in at a faculty meeting early in the school year with a suggestion that slightly contradicts a popular faculty member & … Wham! The overly sensitive individual takes offense & suddenly you’re on the outs with their entire group of friends.

The first few months at a new school will set the stage for the years that follow. Tread with care! Back home we have long-time friends, family & a well-established life. Be that as it may, an International School in a foreign land is essentially your ‘mother ship.’ It’s where we work, make friends, socialize, get invites to social events & seek support. It’s worthwhile to make your start at a new International School a good one.

Coming into a new school you don’t know who’s who. You don’t know if the teacher you’ve been chatting with & getting to know while on lunch duty harbors prejudices against local teachers. You don’t know who’s a gossip, a tattle tale, or considers themselves the eyes & ears of admin or influential parents. And conversely, you, too, are not everyone’s cup of tea.

ISR asks: How do YOU go about establishing life at a new-to-you International School? How much do you reveal the real you in order to build relationships, professional & personal, while also protecting yourself from vulnerability to retaliation should things go seriously south?

Something to add? Please scroll down to participate in this ISR Discussion

9 thoughts on “Fragile Friendships & Fitting in @ a New School

  1. It is too incestuous working with people all day and then being expected to socialize with them all hours. Sometimes, colleagues are thrown together by necessity if they are single but much healthier to form friendships outside school and not be part of nasty cliques that then encroach on professionalism and actions within the school environment.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Does anyone have the opposite problem? I don’t need a “crew” or social circle anyplace I work. I have my immediate family with me and other family and friends scattered around the globe. I really don’t have any desire to “connect” very much with those with whom I work and i fact, I prefer a barrier between my work and home life. I find it annoying when Admin. make it mandatory to attend social events with co-workers. Some of us don’t require approval from co-workers and or to be a “popular” member of the faculty. As long as there is basic respect, professionalism, and kindness between my co-workers and I, I feel no need to have beers with colleagues, go on weekend outings with them or be close friends. It’s also much more difficult to engage with the local culture when you are in these school “expat bubbles”. It’s harder to meet locals, speak the language, and really experience the culture on a deeper level.

    I know this is a minority opinion among international school teachers since most are incredibly outgoing who seek deep friendships at every post, and a lot of administrators feel organizing social engagements “build rapport with the staff;” however, I know there are more like me who just prefer to do our own thing.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I understand exactly what you’re saying. After 25+ years in international teaching, we’re not looking to hook up or be accepted into any of the standard cliques that you find in most international schools. Petty secondary-school socialization games are long in the past, as is college repetition of the same. Not that we go out of our way to reject invitations, but we’re more than happy doing our own investigation and finding our own comfort nooks. If colleagues don’t fit the same niches we prefer, we simply don’t invite them and then go our own way.

      At the end of a day or week, the absolutely last thing my wife and I want to do is unite in a happy-hour bar with colleagues to rant about the latest administration gaffe, a snarky department head, or a group of teachers who steadfastly refuse to enter the 21st century. I can think of nothing more wasteful of our time overseas. We both have plenty of hobbies and new areas that we continue to explore, regardless of where we land. I can honestly say that we’re never bored and couldn’t care less if colleagues stop inviting us out.

      Rather than conform to the group think, we’ve found plenty of live music bars and off-the-beaten-path pubs that cater to our taste. Most tend to be frequented almost exclusively by locals, but that’s not a requirement. We’re more than happy to hang with people from other walks of life, and many have invited us with open arms specifically because we don’t belong to a hoard of ex-pats attempting to overwhelm any particular establishment.

      Admittedly, it could be very different for single teachers. I’ve had no experience there so I can’t comment on what it might be like for single teachers to find one’s place.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. That’s understandable if you are there as a couple or a famiy. For a single person coming into a country new to them, the school is the base and you do tend to team up with others, often also single, so as to go places and see the country, socializing in the process. What works for one person may not work for another in differert circumstances.

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  3. I have found that the local staff is by far more interesting, generally more accepting, and a wealth of information. I avoided the international staff.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. I experienced a very similar situation in Thailand. A group of teachers had left their school in Bangkok to open a new school in another part of Thailand. The group had worked together for years. Some had an exceptionally inflated sense of who they were and their teaching abilities. I happened to cross one of them by questioning one of their chief members thoughts on a certain event the school was sponsoring. After that this group would have nothing to do with me. They complained to the director about every little thing I did. He was weak and acted as if he were their puppet. At first I tried to remedy the situation. Realizing that was not going to work with their fragile egos I spent the next two years ignoring them. It seems some teachers have their entire identity, their entire ego wrapped up in being a teacher. If you so much as slightly rattle their cage they just go go to pieces, feel offended, play the wounded swan, etc. Life is to short to try to make them happy. I’ve been at 7 schools and this was the only school I ever experienced such nonsense.

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  5. At my first international posting, I was ostracized by the “new hire” group almost immediately. It was very hurtful, exclusive and painful. I still have no idea why! It’s best to keep a low profile when you first arrive and observe others; then decide who is worthy of your friendship, not the other way around.

    Liked by 4 people

  6. Some schools are perfect places to foster new friendships, others take time and patience. It’s tough to anticipate what that will look like until you’re on the ground.

    I find the most significant factor to be location. Schools considered “hardship posts” often see high turnover. Lots of new arrivals in August, all of them feeling excited yet vulnerable and intimidated by their new host home. Everyone is driven to make social connections quickly, as they’re all in the same boat.

    On a more personal note, I thrive in somewhat less “polished” countries because they attract my kind of people. Do you identify more with Anthony Bourdain, or the writers at Conde Nast? If you’re a rough and tumble traveler, who eats adventurously and dabbles in danger, you’ll probably do fine in a country with limited infrastructure and 24 hour noise, plus you’d live and work with a bunch of fellow maniacs.

    If you need regular spa treatments and Michelin restaurants, there are plenty of places for you too! But there’s a catch. You see, there are LOTS of Conde Nast types. That’s why you’ll see long lines at the booths for schools in Paris, Seoul, and Dubai, but shorter lines for Beirut, Yangon, and Luanda. High-demand schools see low turnover, and those teachers who’ve been in the same place for years and years, they’ve made their connections. They have their circles. They don’t need new friends. They might even be snooty about it.

    Yes, these are broad strokes, but in 15 years of overseas teaching, I’ve observed an inverse correlation where high demand host country = low potential for substantial, lasting social connections, at least early on.

    There are other factors, like the motivation of school leadership to sponsor meaningful orientation activities and mixers. And their ability to encourage a work environment of collaboration and acceptance rather than suspicion and toxicity. And the prevalence of MeetUp groups in the area. And the host culture’s receptiveness to newly arrived foreigners.

    And then there’s you. In a new school, it’s hard to gauge how visible you want to be, and what that visibility reveals about you. Raising your hand in that first faculty meeting might indicate you’re a thoughtful contributor… or a busybody. Sharing travel stories at that first mixer, you could come off as a fellow adventurer… or a braggart. It’s impossible to know until you try though. Just don’t be That One Teacher who gets rip roaring drunk at the very first faculty mixer. Sure, everyone will know you at that point, but for all the wrong reasons.

    Also, be patient. Socially engage, but try not to get frustrated when your engagements fail to immediately yield Best Friends.

    My kind request for teachers who have been on the ground for a year or more: be welcoming. Take risks on the new folks. Invite them to your game nights, your hikes, your football gatherings, your Friday night piss-ups. Identify those who don’t seem to find their people in the first few weeks and be their people. We all know how isolating it can feel in those early months, so help out!

    Liked by 6 people

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