Surviving Change as an International Educator

Surviving Change as an International Educator
Joshua Smalley

Tidal waves of change is the modus operandi for international schools. Every year, there’s a significant wave of new colleagues, students, leadership, and assignments. The seascape suddenly shifts into something unfamiliar, turning from serene and gentle to raucous and unpredictable, and then back again. Ultimately, it is this very unfamiliarity that feels so familiar. It is what we’ve come to expect; it is the life we’ve chosen.

Every year is a new splash of excitement.

A new, splashing wave of colleagues comes in every year, taking previous teachers out with the tide. There’s ample research on the turnover in international schools. For better or for worse, teachers move internationally quite often. Maybe it’s the thrill of a new country, new post, or new challenges. The kinds of people attracted to international posts aren’t exactly the “settle down” types, so it seems apropos for there to be such movement. Maybe it’s an attempt to give one’s own children a fully international experience, as teachers with children also move from school to school quite often. Whatever the case, fresh ideas, minds, eyes, hearts, and passion are splashed upon the school with each new year.

A new, splashing wave of students comes in every year. Students, often, are subject to their parents’ work assignments in international settings. These assignments typically last 2 years or something close to this. As a result, the ever-moving tide of students is a common phenomenon in international school settings. The unicorns are those students who make it from elementary to high school in the same country and school; they are rarest of the rare. So, like it or not, the bonds are swift, strong, and often short-lived. It’s the common tale of the Third Culture Kid (there’s research on this if you’re interested in reading more). What the teacher observes in students is initial anxiety followed by an impressive collection of young, quickly-maturing children who make strong connections with each other. They’ve learned this process; for most, this isn’t their first rodeo. They’ve become quite gifted in the art of the swift connection and the ability to release just as immediately when departures resume again at the end of that year.

Waves of new teaching assignments are to be expected as well. I recall teaching for 8 years internationally until I was finally assigned the same courses in back to back years. It’s part of the thrill and tension of teaching internationally. The constant change in personnel, leadership, and student numbers, and teaching assignments demands utmost flexibility from teachers. One year you’re teaching particular courses, and the next year, it’s entirely different courses; or you’re teaching one grade level one year, and then changing to a new grade level the next. It’s intense and it’s never incessant. On the one hand, it keeps teachers fresh and on their toes. On the other hand, it is exhausting and can even encourage a sense of survival mode from year to year.

And so this is the norm in our schools and for international educators. It’s about intense connections and equally intense goodbyes. It’s about moving and shifting and being flexible. It’s about expecting the unexpected. It’s about learning how to enjoy the full range of emotions and living fully, be it elation, joy, satisfaction, anticipation, happiness, hurt, frustration, or loneliness. We get to feel the entire tidal wave every year. It splashes across our faces. It is refreshing, and it stings. It’s salty. Sometimes it has globs of seaweed that stick to the face. It can be particularly strong and at other times soft and soothing. It is always unpredictable. It’s beautiful. It’s the entire spectrum of the human experience, be it an adventure, risk-taking, exploration, frustration, connection, loss, grief, courage, or vulnerability. And the splashing waves come and go every year and carve out, in us, the person we all want to be as international educators. And in a Covid year, it's an extreme version. But we knew what to do as a community. And we came together. And we “weathered the storm”. And we can’t wait for the next splashing wave that’s bound to bring intense positivity and joy to our lives.

Here’s to an amazing 2021.


Joshua Smalley is a High School teacher at ICS whose life's work is to show people the beauty in the world around them and experience it with them.