Moving to a new country and a new school all at once can seem like a daunting prospect. Either one of these feels like a major life decision, but taking on two at the same time feels even bolder. Throw in a new house as well, and it could feel overwhelming. However, school induction done really well serves as an excellent introduction to your host country, and makes settling into your new community even easier. Because that is what great international schools around the world are; they are the centre of their community.
As International Director at Wellington College International, supporting all eight of our international schools and seeing them thrive with their new colleagues each September is really important to us. We are especially conscious of this with our newest school undertaking their inaugural induction in Pune, India. The Deputy Head of Wellington College in Berkshire, UK is visiting Pune for Induction, before moving on to Bangkok to do the same for our school there. But authentic induction to all things Wellington is only one part of a good induction process.
I am now based at Wellington in the UK, and whilst I remember my induction to Beijing vividly, and went on to help organise it as I took on leadership roles, I thought I would ask 5 friends who worked in international schools around the world their top tips for settling in to your new school. As it is the summer holidays, I thought perhaps a couple of them would get back to me with a few thoughts. However, it seems that the community runs really deep on this topic, and every single one of them came back to me with loads of ideas, thoughts and suggestions. Some personal, some professional, all thoughtful. Perhaps I should have had more faith! I had anticipated cherry picking a few from each to create an overall list that might be useful for anyone at this stage of their adventure, or considering it in the future.
Rather than this, I thought it was all so personal and illuminating, that here is all their advice in full, with a bit about their journeys around the world. We haven’t quite got to 80 tips, but let’s see how far this takes us!
Richard Bridges, international teacher for 14 years
I’m Richard Bridges, I worked internationally for 14 years (2007 - 2021) in schools in Beijing, Sao Paulo, Hong Kong, Seoul, Warsaw and Dubai teaching mostly History.
Take advantage of the induction programme in the school. I haven't always been the most outgoing person but I made the effort to take part in every initial activity offered - from meals out to pub quizzes and sporting activities. It allowed me to make those social links that I could then build on in the future.
Try to learn the language - which is easier said than done - but knowing some key words made a real difference to my confidence in a new country over time (and also means that when my classes ask me whether I speak Mandarin, I can say 'a little' and feel proud of myself)
Walk your neighbourhood. Wherever you end up living, don't just restrict yourself to the same streets every day! Explore! You'll find that little hole in the wall coffee joint, or the quirky neighbourhood dumpling shop!
It's OK to miss home - but don't let it define you. Find a way to bring home with you. Photo collages and little trinkets that trigger memories. Put that one thing (maybe three) in your suitcase that you can't live without (mine were the holy trinity of Yorkshire Tea, Branston Pickle and Salad Cream).
Carolyn Hill, international teacher for 25+ years
My name is Carolyn Hill and I am originally from Australia and having been teaching for over 25 years, most of those years have been outside of my home country. I have been lucky enough to teach in London, Beijing, Tokyo, Dhaka, Ulaanbaatar and my hometown, Ballarat. I currently teach Kindergarten in Busan, South Korea in an International Baccalaureate school that follows the Primary Years Programme. During my career I have taught all year levels in primary school and three different curriculums. I am a qualified teacher in Australia and England.
Be open - Moving to a new school and country can be very overwhelming and makes us want to find connections to what we know. This might mean finding food (for example the local equivalent of a sausage roll) that is familiar or in school finding things in the systems of the school that are familiar. I have been the new staff member that has said "...in my last school we did it this way." This is natural and might even be a better way of doing things but I have found that it is better for settling in to listen and experience first hand out what happens in your new school, it often provides insights into school culture that are worth knowing. Also remember that you might be talking to someone who made those systems or was friends with the person who did.
Allow yourself to settle in and 'pay too much' for things - when moving we can all become stressed about money and think that things were cheaper/easier in our previous home. It might seem like you are spending too much for this or that but this is your new home and this is what it costs. Converting back to your home currency may not always be useful depending on the currency you are paid in but working out a budget for the first couple of months that allows for buying things that will make your home feel like home will be helpful. Also ship or bring things with you that you know you cannot live without, for me I travel with a Bialetti stovetop espresso pot as a good coffee in the morning is essential for me. I also ship things that make my home feel like my home such as photos, paintings, rugs and a few kitchen items.
Find things in the new country that bring you joy - each new place has its own special things, find the ones that make you appreciate why you left where you were before and are unique to this place. For me I have embraced things like sleeping in a ger on a cold night in Mongolia or swimming in the ocean all year round in Busan or starting a book club in Beijing. This can often lead to meeting people outside of school which then helps with making connections to the local community in your host country.
Find your 'people' - we cannot be all things to all people and while it is important to work well with all colleagues in your school community it is equally important to find people who you can have a chat with about music or art or whatever else is important for you. I was unable to leave Mongolia for 18 months during Covid and that was hard especially as a single person who had to deal with a lot during that time but was supported by my close friends there. I then moved to Busan during the pandemic and was lucky to find friends here who I quickly felt very close to and could rely on for a laugh, a drink or a swim.
Sam Cullen, international Primary class teacher
I am Sam Cullen, and I worked as a Year Six class teacher at the British School in the Netherlands, a 3-18 multi-campus school based in The Hague. In my second of year of working there I was the History lead for my primary school.
I found working at the BSN to be an exciting and stimulating experience. I would recommend ‘going international’ for anyone who enjoys working in education but wants to try something different or needs a new challenge. I felt I could focus on teaching and pedagogy at the BSN, at spend much less time on administrative tasks. The school’s emphasis on professional development was hugely beneficial, and I always felt the BSN wanted me to become a better teacher, irrespective of where my long term ambitious were. Here are my personal tips for settling into international school life:
Sign up and jump into the ‘Welcome’ experiences the school may offer. Even if you think they’re corny or not your usual thing – most people will probably think the same! Friendships often develop with those people that start at the same time as you.
Introduce yourself. Much of the staff have been through the same experience, so will be patient and welcoming. Don’t be afraid to sit with new people at lunch, talk to someone at the printer or go to a social event.
Jump into the new country – join a language class and/or sports club, they’re great for meeting people, eat the local food, visit the local sights, and adapt where possible. Don’t move abroad to then surround yourself 24/7 in the ex-pat school bubble.
Bridie Anderson, international teacher for 15+ years
I’m Bridie Anderson, and I've been teaching at international schools across Asia, Europe and South America since 2007, and I'm currently studying for a Masters in Education at the University of Queensland whilst I am teaching in Luxembourg.
Embrace the rollercoaster - The first few months at a new international school are intense, exhilarating, challenging, stimulating and exhausting - sometimes all at once! Living and working in a new country is incredibly exciting, and the most mundane activities feel like an adventure. Inevitably, the novelty wears off after a while; a few bewildering encounters or less-than-straightforward procedures and suddenly homesickness looms large. Before you pack your bags and head to the airport, remember that this is completely normal. Recognise that there will be good days, great days, low days and homesick days. Settle in and enjoy the ride!
Find your family - Moving abroad means new adventures and opportunities, but it also means moving away from your support network. That’s why it’s crucial to establish a support network in your new country. This ‘family away from home’ will be there to help navigate the challenges of life in a new country, and experience the best parts with you. And if you’re lucky, these friendships will last a lifetime.
Working holiday or a new career path? People choose to join international schools for different reasons. For some, it’s a chance to experience a different educational setting and develop professionally. For others, it’s a gateway to an exciting new lifestyle and opportunities to travel. When choosing an international school, try to ensure your expectations are aligned with the school culture so that you get the most out of your international teaching experience.
Consider the context - No two schools are alike. This is true anywhere you go, but often people moving to international schools experience a workplace culture shock as well as the bigger life one. ‘Why don’t they use … here?’ ‘Haven’t they heard of …?’ ‘What do you mean they assess with …?’ It can be baffling and frustrating at times. Many of us have been guilty of trying to enlighten our new colleagues by sharing the fantastic practices ‘at my last school’. Sharing best practice is wonderful, and one of the benefits of new staff joining a school is fresh ideas, but don’t share that 10-point improvement plan for your new school just yet. Every school is its own little ecosystem, balancing the specific needs and interests of its students, their parents, staff, governors, local education authorities, exam boards, budgets and curriculum frameworks. This is particularly true of international schools, where the local culture, language and Ministry of Education may have fixed rules and requirements for operation, and stakeholder groups may have very specific expectations.
When starting at a new international school, most of us aren’t aware of these nuances yet, and ‘at my last school’ suggestions can sometimes come across as…less helpful than intended. Take the time to understand the school’s culture. Ask questions and observe how things work in practice. This will help you to better acclimatise to your new school, and those great ideas of yours will be all the better for it.
Kenny Hegarty, Vice-Principal of SJI International Senior School
My name is Kenny Hegarty, and I’m currently the Vice-Principal (Senior School) at SJI International in Singapore, a role I started in 2015. My professional journey began as a teacher, Head of Grade, and leader of student achievement at a large comprehensive school in South Yorkshire. Subsequently, I moved to China in 2009, before moving to Singapore.
Prioritize Wellbeing and Flexibility: The landscape of international schools is characterised by its unique challenges and opportunities. A paramount quality to cultivate is adaptability, as changes are par for the course. Central to this is prioritizing your own well-being and maintaining a harmonious equilibrium between work and personal life. Safeguarding against burnout, dedicate time for self-care, and make consistent efforts to stay connected with family and friends through digital means. This practice serves to sustain a sense of connection with loved ones across geographical divides.
Master the Curriculum Landscape: Devote adequate time to acquaint yourself with the intricacies of the curriculum, pedagogical methodologies, and educational philosophies embraced by the new school. This foundational understanding will facilitate the alignment of your teaching approach and expectations. Notably, Kenny's transition to his initial international post proved instrumental in deepening his comprehension of the International Baccalaureate programme.
Embrace Continuous Professional Development: Capitalize on the professional growth avenues offered by the institution you will join. Active participation in workshops, seminars, and training sessions can substantially augment your skill set while concurrently fostering connections with peers. This practice proves especially pivotal if you are new to programmes such as the International Baccalaureate.
Forge Meaningful Collaborations: Nurture relationships with fellow educators, administrators, and support staff. Collaborative efforts and shared experiences expedite your integration into the new environment, facilitating a seamless assimilation.
Appreciate Student Diversity: A hallmark of international schools lies in their diverse student cohorts. To best cater to your students' needs, invest time in understanding their cultural backgrounds, linguistic diversity, and unique learning requirements. Initiating this research as you contemplate potential locations for living and teaching can prove immensely valuable.
Flexibility in Teaching Styles: Foster an openness to adapt your teaching methodologies to cater to the diverse learning styles and abilities manifest among your students. Tailoring your approach to accommodate these nuances will undoubtedly enhance the learning experience.
Cultivate Cultural Proficiency: Delve into the local culture, norms, and customs. This investment offers a profound insight into your students' backgrounds, fostering deeper connections and understanding. Cultivating cultural sensitivity is imperative to enrich interactions with both students and colleagues.
Engage in School Community: Participation in school events, orientations, and parent-teacher meetings establishes a platform for connecting with students and their families. Despite any initial apprehensions, these interactions prove instrumental in forming friendships, fostering connections, and establishing a robust support network.
Seek Guidance from Mentors: When accessible, seek guidance from seasoned educators and mentors within your new school. Their wealth of experience can provide valuable insights and counsel, smoothing your path to successful integration.
Leverage Local Resources: Familiarize yourself with local resources that can contribute to both your professional and personal spheres. Libraries, cultural centers, and recreational activities all enrich your experience, enhancing your teaching efficacy and quality of life.
About the author
Chris is the International Director at Wellington College International. He has spent more than 20 years working in a range of UK and international schools. He trained as a teacher at the University of Cambridge, after studying at the University of St Andrews, including a year at the University of California. His first steps as a teacher came at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji. This led to further experiences around the world, most recently in China and the UK, where he was the founding Head of a north London school judged ‘Outstanding’ in all categories by students, parents, staff and Ofsted. Chris completed the National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH) in 2012 and is now a facilitator on the UCL/IoE NPQH course for aspiring Headteachers. He has written for the Times Educational Supplement, ‘Sec Ed’ magazine and ‘Teach Secondary’ magazine. He is a Governor of a Harrow primary school and a member of the Department for Education Star Chamber Scrutiny Board.