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!

Home for the Holidays

airlinepassenger32913056When I first moved overseas to teach in an International School, I returned home to my family and friends every winter vacation. Homecomings were a much needed reunion. But as the years passed and 3 turned into 6, then 11, I made the homeward holiday-trek less and less, opting instead to travel or just stay put. I love and miss family and friends, but holiday visits began to leave me feeling like an outsider.

While overseas I have missed the birth of my sister’s son, my dad’s battle with cancer, my aunt’s 90th birthday bash. I was in the rain forests of Ecuador when my beloved uncle passed and didn’t get the news until weeks after the funeral. I even missed my closest friend’s wedding. Through years and miles of separation I have slowly slipped into the status of distant friend and relative.

I’ve come to realize my friends and family live in different worlds than do I, both literally and figuratively. I never considered this would be an outcome of my overseas lifestyle. My sister is a corporate climber and my good friends are now mostly focused on the material pleasures their incomes’ can buy. Stories of civil wars or meditating in an ancient Buddhist temple or climbing the pyramids in Mexico don’t register with them. Sadly, the unspoken nuances of our conversation that once united us are no longer there.

By the end of a holiday visit I am anxious to return to my overseas life and it’s a bittersweet departure. Yet this year I’m making the trip “home” again because even though my loved ones and I live in different worlds, just being together at the holidays says it all.

Happy Holidays and safe travels, Michelle @ ISR

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The Fatal Faux Pas

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  by Michelle / ISR Columnist

Universal consensus has it that our world is rapidly becoming smaller and smaller with communication and news now available to everyone, everywhere at every single moment of our lives. But for international teachers, new locales and near continuous worldwide travel sets us up for some truly susceptible and embarrassing moments where it might take days for the blushing to stop. Here’s one such story:

The school year was about to begin at this, my second international school. A few days earlier the board arranged a PR event (with newspaper photographers and reporters) to introduce new students and their families to the community, while also spotlighting the new faculty. All of us new teachers joined the families on stage to present our brightest and most eager smiles for the photographers before the social activities to follow.

As everyone was getting situated on stage I noticed a child who looked to be about a second grade student hidden behind the adults. Gently but firmly I ushered this child toward the front of the group, thinking that surely the parents and this shy child would want to be included in the photo. I looked up, smiled and said to the parents standing nearby, “Your little girl is so lovely. I’m sure you’d want her to be in front, yes?” My comment was met with deadpan stares and silence as the photographer continued his clicking racket without pause. The child moved forward and looked up at me with gorgeous eyes and a slow, easy smile.

Once the photographers were finished we left the stage, back to the front rows of the gathering to listen to the congratulatory speeches as another teacher leaned forward to hiss in my ear, “That is a boy. His family is Sikh. The covering over his hair is part of their religion.” Oh. My. God. At that point I wanted to melt into my seat, hoping desperately for a nearby hole to crawl into.

His long hair, gathered into a topknot and enclosed with a small elasticized bonnet, along with those long, wickedly beautiful eyelashes had completely fooled me. For days I remained embarrassed, thinking my colleagues must be positive I’d just fallen off the cultural turnip-truck. It was a rocky start to a new country, a new school, and new set of colleagues.

Whether it’s awkward social situations, miscommunications in the local language, or a world of other hurts large and small, we’ve all experienced the occasional embarrassing situation. Stay in touch with your colleagues around the world to compare notes on how to keep yourself out of fatal faux pas disasters, here on ISR!

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My Experience at International School Lusaka

 ISR received the following comments from the teacher involved in this incident

(9-25-2014) “I’m happy to report that the matter between myself and ISL “The International School of Lusaka, Zambia” has been settled privately.”

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My Experience at International School Lusaka

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“…..To my utter disbelief, I saw that the government had first rejected my work permit application on June 12, 2012. I was NEVER notified of this, and, in fact, Mr. Bowen lied to me all fall term saying I needed to be patient until it was approved. Then there were notes that my work permit was rejected again in July, and a third time in August. Again, ISL never notified me of this. Instead, they brought my family and myself to Zambia in August with FULL knowledge that I would be unable to work…. beyond belief.”

Dear Dr. Spilchuk,
I am writing to inform you of the atrocious treatment my children and I received from the International School of Lusaka, Zambia (hereafter “ISL”), and most specifically by Mr. Phil Bowen, Acting Head of School during the 2012-13 school year. ISL violated my contract and to this day has refused to pay severance as per contract. I would ask that you warn others.  Read More

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and…Baby Makes 3 – Planning a Family Overseas

If you’re planning to start or expand your family while overseas, be aware  that not all schools view pregnancy in a positive light. In fact, some schools  see pregnancy as an irreconcilable disruption to a teacher’s duties and grounds for dismissal. Be extra diligent about doing your homework before deciding on a school–you certainly don’t need any surprises for your family  or career when you announce, “We’re pregnant!”

Doing your home work is about more than just your school’s maternity policy. Also  consider: Should you have your baby in the host country or return home? Will not knowing  the local language be a problem for you and your spouse? What’s the professional level of medical care in your host country? Can you find quality child daycare when you return to  work? These, and other questions are topics you’ll want to thoroughly explore.

To start your decision-making process we recommend that you read the ISR Article,  Planning a Family Overseas. Written by a veteran international educator who brought  two boys into the world while teaching overseas, this article offers sound advice and discusses many of the pros and cons of having a child overseas.

For answers to questions pertaining to your own personal situation, we invite you to visit our Overseas Pregnancy Blog (scroll down) where you can ask specific questions about the maternity leave policy at various schools, the level of medical care available in locations around the world,  and any other questions on your mind. If you have started or expanded your family while overseas and wish to share the experience and possibly answer queries from your international colleagues, the ISR Oversees Pregnancy Blog is the place to visit (scroll down).

Happiness Revealed

Today, on my way to school, I find myself caught in grid-lock traffic. I silently curse the local drivers and their lack of driving skill. Immersed in my own little world within the confines of my car, I am utterly detached from the wonders around me: The mahout teasing his elephant onward, the smiling woman veiled in colorful layers of fabric, hundreds of buzzy motor bikes transporting an endless cast of exotic characters, the imposing mountains in the distance, the low hanging clouds with rain on the horizon…..and where am I? I am someplace else in my mind, completely preoccupied with the minutiae of concerns that await me in the classroom, lesson plans for the benefit of students who may, or may not, wish to be educated.

The international teaching experience is life changing, exhilarating, and can even be termed a peak experience. So, how is it possible to become blind to the newness and wonder of all that surrounds us in our host countries? Sights, sounds, smells and people we once marveled at can slowly fade into the background, replaced by workplace stress and commitments which eventually become our all encompassing reality. We’ve all experienced episodes of disconnect. For some it’s a fleeting experience, for others it’s semi-permanent or worse, a type of spiritual death.

Gratitude, a film by Louis Schwartzberg on TED, is guaranteed to reinstall the sense of wonder so easily lost in our busy lives, refocusing us on the reality that counts. We encourage you to take a few minutes to enjoy this film, and welcome your impressions and realizations after you’ve seen Gratitude.

Going Home to Stay

With the school year coming to a conclusion, some of us are anticipating moving home for more than just the summer recess. This transition can be both exciting and most certainly, daunting. There’s so much to consider and so many tasks to accomplish. It’s just like staring over! Fortunately, advice and comradery is not far away.

Claudia: “For me, coming home was a brand new adventure, and it’s amazing how even though family tell you how much they want you back, they have all moved on with their own busy routines that don’t include you. Even my parents! My husband and I found out about gatherings and outings we used to be included in well after the fact and we felt like outcasts. It was a weird time.”

Russ: “None of my friends really wanted to hear about my trip, or see pictures and they REALLY got tired when I kept bringing up stories and situations about how another culture solves the problem so easily. This is especially true of other teachers who don’t want to hear how great my students were, or how much easier things were.”

Edmond: “We’ve been out long enough. We have money in the bank, seen a good chunk of the world and are thinking of trying life Stateside again. It just feels like time to go home. We find we miss the football games, seasonal celebrations and the myriad of family gatherings. If we do go home and find it’s not as wonderful as we are imagining we can always go back out again. This might be easier said than done.”

ISR invites you to participate in our GOING HOME Blog to share experiences and concerns, ask questions and offer advice on this very important topic.

To Yard Sale or Not?

“Dear ISR, I’m getting ready to move overseas for the first time. I’ve got an apartment full of furniture, bicycles, kids’ toys, clothes, kitchen stuff and well, the usual things people tend to collect. I’m trying to figure out what I should do with all this stuff! Our school offers a moderate shipping allowance but not enough to ship the big pieces.

I’m definitely in a quandary at this point: If I sell everything I’ll for sure have a wad of cash. If I keep it all, I’ll have to pay storage for at least 2 years and that’s about $1800. I’d really like to know what international teachers already overseas have done with their belongs and if they later wished they had done something different. Thanks for your help with this question, any advice is appreciated.”

International Teacher Initiation

“I suppose I’ve now been initiated into the world of international teaching. I have been completely blindsided and deceived by my admin who informed me I will not be getting another contract. This, despite two glowing performance appraisals over the past two years at this school.

In the end, although I was praised for having a high level of competence and skill in the job, they pointed out a fuzzily-defined personality trait of mine as being the reason for non-renewal.

My question is this: What do I say to prospective employers when asked my reasons for “resigning” (as I was given the option to do) after the initial two-year contract

Also, should I make a case to my recruiting agency over this? Any help would be much appreciated!”

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!

The Future of International Schools Review. You Decide.

Thank you, ISR members!

Through your support, International Schools Review has grown into a global network of International Educators Keeping Each Other Informed. Entirely member supported, ISR provides educators a place to share the inside word on their international school experience.

Now we’re looking to you to help make ISR even better and are soliciting your ideas, comments and suggestions. From new site features, to ideas about new topics for the  school evaluation rubric, we appreciate your participation.

Thanks for your support! Have a wonderful summer! Add your Ideas below

A Perfect International School?

Many reviews on the ISR web site paint schools as Shangri-la for international teachers, while other reviews reflect the hue of a living hell. What makes an international school great? Is it a supportive administration, attentive students, a feeling of being valued as a staff member, enthusiastic parents, great facilities and  materials, colorful location, low cost of living, or is it an essential synergistic combination? If you could create an international school from scratch, or overhaul your current school, what qualities and characteristics would make it an outstanding school?

End of Contract Surprises

Transplanted from the ISR Forum

I was just told I don’t get return airfare of my home of record. Last year, some teachers got it, others didn’t. There is a very unclear, selective policy happening here! Honestly though, I’m not surprised. BLECH!!! Anybody else getting some last minute surprises???

I was promised there’d be a job for me by my principal who said he cleared it with the superintendent. On Monday I found out the other principal had promised it to someone else who is reportedly writing lesson plans already. I love those mornings when you wake up and find yourself in the center of a mine field…

My school hit me with these surprising details for foreign teachers who will be departing: The salaries for June-July-August months will be paid on regular salary days. So I’m leaving with the school still owing me two salary payments. If they chose to default, what then!? Nice, huh?

Giving Back to Your Host Community

I’m new to international teaching and will be moving to Africa this fall. I’ve always been involved in giving back to my community and most recently have worked as a volunteer for Habitat for Humanity, library literacy programs, and sponsored runs for charity/ environmental issues.

One of my motivations for moving overseas is to contribute to the world community, but being new to the international scene, I’m not really sure how to start. The director’s already told me about some school and community projects–they sound fine, but I know there’s so many more creative and innovative ways to get involved assisting my broader host community. Any advise/ideas would be much appreciated!

Home for the Summer – How will Friends and Family Respond to Tales of Overseas Adventures?

Last time I was home, my friends and family hardly showed any interest in conversations about climbing ancient pyramids, exploring temples in Cambodia or eating from push-carts in the streets of Bangkok. I’ve been overseas for a few years now and my daily life is far different from the folks back home. I don’t want to alienate the people closest to me and so  I’m thinking to make this homecoming a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” scenario. Any experiences  or advice to share?

What To Take and What to Leave Behind?

Of course, the answer depends on where you’re going. But for the perfect  “must take” list, some International Educators recommend bringing ear plugs for noisy sleeping environments, enough reading material for a year, US postage stamps so people traveling to the States can mail things for you, extra passport photos and a good map. With many of us getting ready to make an international move, and some for the very first time, what could be more timely than this Blog to discuss things to bring and things to leave behind?

Nervous About Your First Time?

Transplanted from the ISR forum
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The contract’s signed. You’ve resigned your State-side teaching position. There’s still loads to do in preparation for leaving, when suddenly….reality hits. “What am I doing?”  Leaving family and friends for a far distant land can be a scary proposition. Is it normal to feel apprehensive and even overwhelmed? Do these feelings occur in seasoned overseas educators? ISR invites you to share your first time experience with colleagues preparing for their first time.

Can You Negotiate a Higher Salary?

Transplanted from the ISR forum
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Forum poster – Is a salary offer a take-it or leave-it proposition?  I want to come back to the school with a number at least 5k higher.  Will schools shut the door if you just ask for it? Other benefits seem fine.
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Reply – if you’re looking to wheel and deal with a for-profit school for a higher salary or extra benefits, don’t be surprised if, after you’ve signed on the dotted line, they nickle and dime you to death and perhaps aren’t so willing to approve your request for a PD trip or new materials for your classroom.  So maybe your negotiation skills would be better served to meet the educational needs of your students rather than your pocketbook.  Just a thought.
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Forum poster – If you think that I am going sacrifice my own fiscal well-being so that the school can save money, you are naive.  I am not a missionary and I am not interested in working to enrich the owners of a school.  I am a professional, who can help students learn with experience and expertise. I will participate in a fair exchange: my knowledge and work  for money.  I’m going to get paid every single dime I am in a position to earn…
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What’s your opinion and feelings on this topic?

Medical Tourism for International Educators

No matter how finely tuned your body might be, how young, toned, athletic and healthy you are, your body is still a machine that moves you through your work day and around the world on your teaching and travel adventures. There is likely some medical or cosmetic procedure out there that you want or need to be your best self, professionally and personally. Who wouldn’t like their teeth to be a little whiter, their chins fewer in number, or the pain in their shoulder or knee to permanently go away?

As an international educator, aren’t you fortunate! Living the life of a teacher abroad puts you in the perfect spot to take advantage of the latest trends in medical and cosmetic/plastic services and quality after-care. Over 40 countries are marketing their medical services and attracting international patients to Medical Tourism (a.k.a. Medical Travel or Health Tourism). The foremost and major benefits of Medical Tourism may be the huge reduction in cost of treatments, reasonable and brief waiting periods for appointments, and quality service followed by superlative convalesce assistance and care. The Health Tourism marketplace includes spa and wellness treatments for those who seek alternative treatments such as acupuncture and aroma therapy, biofeedback and hypnosis, massage therapy, music therapy, and ayurvedic care.

Medical Tourism includes medical and dental procedures of every possibility. Consider the availability of such procedures as: cosmetic and plastic surgery, joint replacements/resurfacing/repair, spine fusion, liver/kidney/bone marrow transplants, LASIK or cataract eye surgery, heart procedures (bypass, valve replacement, angiography, stenting), cancer treatments, weight loss surgery, hernia repair, laparoscopic gallbladder removal, diabetes treatment, vasectomy reversal, invitro fertilization, stem cell therapy, and dental care such as veneers, restoration, implants, crowns, and root canals.

A comparison of costs shows that medical and cosmetic care abroad is healthy for your wallet as well. For example, compare the cost of a knee replacement in the U.S. at up to $50,000 to the $10,000 you are estimated to spend in India. Or, angioplasty, at up to $57,000 in the U.S. compared to $9,000 in Thailand. How about comparing a face-lift in the U.S., up to $15,000, to the $8,000 it would cost in Mexico. Similar cost effective treatments, in everything from teeth whitening to liposuction, can be found in a country near to where you are teaching. Popular packages of care such as dental care in Ecuador or Guatemala, total hip or knee replacement in Costa Rica, or gastric bypass in Mexico can be found online. Wellness care is so affordable so as to be possible on a yearly basis, out-of-pocket.

Medical facilitators can be found to assist with language/culture barriers, transfer of medical information, and can provide the convenience of one-stop shopping for the person who requires their services.

There is, of course, thorough homework to be done if you are considering Medical Tourism for yourself or for a loved one. However, you’re right at the forefront of availability while being a teacher abroad. Aren’t you fortunate!

Take care and stay well!