Top 6 Challenges I faced as an educator new to an International School

There is an abundance of challenges we face as a teacher new to a school, but those challenges are compounded when you are transitioning to an international school. Perhaps the biggest challenge is being unsure of our needs and which activities or support would best aid our transition. Here are the top 6 challenges I had to navigate:

1 Adjusting to a new location and culture

Every move requires us to adjust to new norms and ways of working within our new community outside of the work environment, which is task on its own. This adjustment is even more tricky when you include working at International school (IS). ISs are complex entities and each has its own unique culture and conveying an IS’s culture to a new employee appears to be a difficult but not insurmountable task. Adjusting to a new location and culture takes loads of effort, energy, and time. Sometimes you don’t feel like investing but it’s worth it in order to successfully navigate your new personal and professional life.

2 Unfamiliarity with the curriculum

International school curriculums vary from school-to-school. The English national curriculum is the most popular curriculum choice in the world, followed by a U.S. orientated curriculum and in third place is the ever-growing International Baccalaureate programme (IB). Never during my time at university or completing my teacher training, did I learn about The English National Curriculum or the IB or the complexities of teaching multiple curriculums. Do universities and workplaces teach this nowadays? I struggled with navigating the requirements and expectations of a curriculum I was unfamiliar with and as a result, perhaps favored the curriculum of my U.S. background. 

3 Dynamic student and staff population

International schools have a changing student and staff population each year and throughout the year. It was, at times, difficult to know who to turn to with questions and as Doug Ota (2014) suggests, new teachers are not the only ones in transition. Eventually, new arrivers become stayers and stayers become leavers. With high turnover, it can be difficult for other staff to invest in your transition. Trying to keep up with the turnover of students and staff was a challenge for me both professionally and personally.

4 Unfamiliarity with staff cultural norms and leadership styles

In addition to adjusting to the location and culture of my new community and teaching environment, I also had to decode the differences amongst the varied approaches to teaching, learning, discipline and feedback, from my diverse group of colleagues, which represented countries, ideologies, and cultures from around the world. I believe there were 25 different nationalities within the teaching staff of the international high school I worked in. Needless to say, a road map would have helped.

5 Parental expectations

With over 80 nationalities within my school, it took some time to work out the expectations of my students’ parents. Parent teacher conferences varied greatly. Some parents were quiet, reverted back to being a child with the authoritative teacher, and quickly left after our 20-minute conference while other parents wanted an agenda before the meeting, visuals during the meeting, and follow-up email with minutes after the meeting.  Over time, I began to notice some tendencies amongst cultures, which helped me prepare a bit for future meetings and emails.

6 Paradoxical: trained to teach but for a different environment

My position as a new teacher in an international school environment felt paradoxical as I was qualified, experienced, and trained to teach, but for a different environment. There were tensions and feelings I was expected to manage with little assistance; this struggle felt unnecessary and left me questioning what are the experiences other teachers in international schools have had during their transition?

What challenges did you face? Comment below.

Ota, D. W. (2014). Safe Passage: How Mobility Affects People & What International Schools Should Do about It. Netherlands: Summertime Publishing.

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