Walk the corridor in their shoes
Back-to-school for teachers generally means getting back into gear, checking your timetable, preparing your classroom and first-day-handouts, organising the first week’s lessons, reminding yourself why you are doing the job and making a fresh start. But what does it mean for students?
Back-to-school for students means a return to a set timetable, homework, restrictions on free time. It also means seeing old friends again. For some, it is a welcome relief after the long stretch of the summer holiday.
In an international setting, back-to-school carries with it whole lot more. Transition and transience are the order of the day. Families move around the world driven by the job market. Children follow along, spending two years here, three years there. Possessions are packed and unpacked. Friends are made and left behind. So what is back-to-school like for an international student?
For those who have just arrived in the new country, settling in at home is the first step but this may be a temporary home – even a hotel – while the parent’s company sorts out the paperwork on the more permanent home. Then there is school: a new school, a new environment, a new set of teachers, a new set of rules, customs and practices; maybe even a new language to learn in. The challenges are huge.
For those who are not new, there is still uncertainty. Many have lost their “bestie” who has relocated halfway across the world. They face the challenge of trying to fit in with those they did not choose as friends the first time round or picking out the newbies to befriend.
Even those who are returning to the relative stability of seeing their old friends and knowing the layout and organisation of the school face new teachers, a new timetable, new subjects and new topics. The fear of failure and inability to cope is a huge factor amongst those returning to the higher grades, facing the challenges of A-levels or the IB Diploma.
What does this mean for teachers? Firstly, we need to remind ourselves of what our students are going through. We need to see the world through their eyes and walk through the first weeks in their shoes. We need to create a safe environment where students feel at ease and build their confidence to tackle the challenges ahead. We need to be sensitive to their potential insecurity and watch out for those who may not be coping so well.
Nor is it, in international schools, just the first week. Back-to-school in many international settings takes several weeks. Teachers are reminded not to fill in registers or create classlists as students continue to arrive two or even three weeks into the year. Family visas take time to process, accommodation is not ready, companies have not paid the deposit for the place. And this is where teachers need to be particularly sensitive. Being ready for the first day is one thing; having the welcome activities to hand and planners and timetables ready for distribution. But what about the student who arrives on day 8? How is she made to feel welcome and valued? How is she settled in?
Most international schools have very good systems in place to address these situations: buddy schemes; counsellors on hand to ease the transition. Nonetheless, it is up to us teachers to be constantly aware of the fragility of those first days for students and to make sure we are mindful of those in our care.
Our next blog will have some practical V&V ideas for helping young people feel welcome.