This article first appeared in International Schools Journal, Volume VXII No 2. April 1998. It is reproduced here by kind permission of the European Council of International Schools, Inc.
Over-committed staff, crowded school calendars, competing budgetary demands—how, under such circumstances, to provide the necessary and increasingly mandated programming to support students in transition? For indeed, the importance of transition programming in the international schools arena is becoming an accepted norm, and the responsibility of an international school in providing it an expected standard. The question is now not ‘why do it?’ but ‘how to do it, along with everything else?’
Transitions are not easy. Even if ardently sought and eagerly anticipated, at some point in every transition experience a global nomad and his or her family will have a difficult time. The following poem was written by a student some two years after her international transfer. As her teacher reported, she was perceived to have settled in well.
Want To Go Back
Never wanted to come here, want to go back
Hate speaking English here, want to go back
Hate all the homework, want to go back
Miss all my friends there, want to go back
Don’t like the people here, want to go back
I hate Holland, want to go back
—by Alexandra Johansson
Norwegian global nomad; 12 years old
The irony in this poem, of course, is that once she does go back, she is more than likely to want to leave again. Re-entry is never as easy as one assumes.
How can schools support their students during these trying times? One way is to develop a “transitions resource team”.
Potential Team Contributions
A transitions resource team has the potential to serve an international school community in a variety of ways. It can consolidate transition efforts, clarifying what is being done and where needs are not yet being met, supporting current efforts, and providing opportunities to ‘fill-in-the-gaps’. It can also increase transitions expertise, addressing first the professional development of team members on the subject of transitions, and then that of other interested school staff. Ultimately, a transitions resource team has the potential to promote greater all-around in- school expertise.
Transitions resource teams can provide transition education. Team members can work with other staff to design opportunities for students to learn more about managing transitions. There are many ways to do so, including re-designing aspects of the curriculum, providing developmental guidance sessions, and through advisor-advisee programs. Transition education can address stress management skills, management of grief and loss, conflict resolution training, explorations of cultural identity development, and considerations of the benefits and challenges and life-long impacts of an internationally-mobile childhood.
Similarly, transitions resource team members can promote transition activities, working with other staff to ensure that each student arriving and leaving, whether at the beginning, end or middle of the year, receives some kind of specific transition support. A transitions resource team can also promote transition activities to support students staying on while those around them come and go.
Importantly, transitions resource teams can customize transition services. As is well known, the single term ‘international school’ covers vast differences among individual institutions. No one model of an effective transitions programme will be appropriate for every school. Where to begin, on whom to focus, addressing what issues—answers to these questions and more depend on the characteristics and personalities of each individual school. Transitions resource team members know their school community; they can develop and provide flexible programming specific to its particular needs.
A transitions resource team can help institutionalize transition programming. No longer dependent on dedicated individuals acting in relative isolation, transition education and transition activities become integrated into the fabric of a school, much as are basic academic and extra-curricular activities. When any one dedicated individual moves on, the rest of the team—and the institutionalized programming—remain to carry forward. Perhaps the ultimate indication of institutionalized transitions programming can be found in those schools that make it part of their strategic planning for accreditation.
Students, families, and even staff come and go from an international school throughout the school year. Because they are on-site, transitions resource team members can ensure year-round access to transition programming. They can both plan ahead, scheduling transition education as work loads and school calendars permit, and respond spontaneously, providing transition activities when specific needs present themselves.
As school-based ‘internal consultants’, transitions resource teams can also help keep costs down. There is, of course, a time and place for external consultants: facilitating strategic programme development, training on basic issues and new trends, providing occasional follow-up support. An external consultant, however, cannot provide a similar level of work over a similar time span as can a school-based team, at least not without exorbitant cost. The goal of every good external consultant working on a particular project should be to phase him- or herself out of that contract.
Finally for our purposes here, a transitions resource team can enhance public relations. Expatriate communities and their corporate, diplomatic and other sponsors are beginning to expect school-based transition programming. Schools with such programmes are a model for others and achieve a competitive advantage in student recruitment.
Team Composition and Structure
The composition and structure of transitions resource teams naturally vary among those schools that have them. Still a relatively new format for addressing transition issues, there are not yet many models to draw from. Transitions resource teams, however, are much like any other intercultural team. To function effectively, some key considerations will make a difference.
Each school must determine its optimum number of team members. The several transitions resource teams now in operation average between 8—12 individuals. The issue of course, is that not having enough members puts the members themselves at risk of burn-out and the programme at risk of dependence on too few. At the same time, having too many members can make for unwieldy meetings, cumbersome decision-making, and challenging communication.
As with other such working teams, membership on a transitions resource team should be voluntary. At the same time, it seems a good idea for members to commit to serving on the team for at least 2 years. Staggered tenures provide for some members to continue on even as others step down or move away.
Experience shows that teams are most effective when their members represent a cross-section of the community. Counselors, teachers, administrators—and perhaps parents and students—should all be represented on a transitions resource team, as should all school sections: primary, middle, secondary. One school has taken the idea of representation to a new level, developing steering committees as ‘outreach arms’ of the team itself. In this structure, the student representative on the team works with a student steering committee; that committee then reaches-out into the student body and becomes an information channel between the student body and the team. Similarly, the team’s parent representative works with a parent steering committee to liaison between the team and the school’s parent association. When possible, teams have tried to ensure diversity among members in terms of length of time at the school and nationality.
Transitions resource teams do, of course, need coordination. Whether administration of the team is vested in one person or rotated among members doesn’t seem to matter, as long as the team and the broader school community know whom to approach for what. No doubt as more and more schools develop transitions resource teams we’ll see the emergence of a new international schools position: transitions resource coordinator. Indeed it’s already happening.
As important as anything else, transitions resource team members need to think of themselves as adults learners willing to experiment and to learn by teaching and doing. As anyone knows who has served on an intercultural team, the challenges—and the rewards—can be enormous. Team members must be willing to listen, to learn, and to stretch ‘their edges’.
Necessary Administrative Support
The success of any given transitions resource team rests in part on the quality of the school administration’s support of that team.
Administrative support can be demonstrated in a variety of ways, not least by a member of the administration giving of his or her time to the particular endeavor. However, as one administrator active on her school’s transitions resource team emphasized, an administrator should hesitate to take a central leadership role. ‘Ownership’ of the team and it’s activities must be vested in the team itself and, through the team, in the broader school community.
Necessary administrative support takes other forms as well. Team members, for example, cannot be expected to do everything ‘after hours’. The school administration must be ready to arrange for release time as necessary, in order for team members to plan and implement transition programming. They must also develop clear guidelines on the resources available to the team: financial, material, time. The more successful transitions resource teams will have an administration who attends to their ‘process’ as well as their ‘content.’ More than simply a collection of individuals, effectively functioning teams require ongoing problem-solving and team-building support.
People tend to work better when their work is positively recognized. By writing of the transitions resource team’s work in the school literature, speaking about it at Board meetings, and supporting its presentations at international school conferences, the school administration celebrates the team itself. When it does so, it also achieves a second, and complimentary, goal: as mentioned earlier, it allows the work of the transitions resource team to enhance the school’s public relations.
Encouraging transitions resource team members to present at international school conferences is especially important—by sharing with their colleagues the approaches that work (and don’t), international educators, and the field as a whole, are enriched.
Knowing The Raison D’être
An international school is taking on a serious commitment when it decides to develop a transitions resource team. Appropriate foundations must be laid. It is all too easy for newly-formed teams to jump immediately into task—who’s going to do what, when, how. Team members must slow down the process. It is critical that team members discuss with one another their over-arching values, what each perceives as the transitions resource team’s raison d’être, what each envisions as team priorities.
When a team identifies its values, purpose, and goals as above, it sets a context for future work. In times of interpersonal misunderstanding, difficult decision- making, or changing team membership—all inevitable realities for a transitions resource team—a clear context provides a reference point. Ah yes, this is why we’re doing this work. Ah yes, this is what we individually and as a group believe in. Ah yes.
It is true that international schools are, in a very fundamental sense, doing no more than their duty when they address student mobility and cultural adjustment issues through transitions programming. At the same time, however, by supporting students and families in transition, international schools are filling in gaps left unattended by the sponsoring organizations which send families abroad in the first place.
While more and more corporations and diplomatic services are providing some form of pre-departure preparation, by and large these are still inadequate when it comes to families and children. Few if any such sponsoring organizations provide formal on-site support. Such is still typically left to the efforts of under-funded expatriate women’s clubs. This is to some degree understandable. It is hard to imagine even the most committed of sponsoring organizations being able to provide transition support services in every location worldwide where it has assigned expatriate employees and families.
Enter the international school. International schools typically form a hub around which an expatriate community circulates. It has the on-site facilities, the people, the experience to address transition issues. Sponsoring organizations may not have these, but they do have the financial resources. Opportunities are ripe for partnerships.
Imagine for a moment the possibilities, the mutual advantages. International schools receive the funding to do the work that must be done. Sponsoring organizations—be they corporations, diplomatic services, military agencies, missionary communities, non-governmental organizations—donate the funding. The moneys are appropriated specifically for the school’s transitions resource team; they are separate from school fees. In return, the organizations receive community recognition. More importantly, the children and families who accompany the organizations’ employees abroad receive transitions support. Indeed, all children and families at the school receive such support, whether their respective sponsoring organizations help fund the programme or not. Those organizations that do, however, have the added satisfaction of meeting what many expatriates consider their ethical responsibility.
Research increasingly documents that employee productivity is linked to family adjustment. Sponsoring organizations which fund school-based transition programming are therefore supporting employee productivity and the success of their international business ventures. They are also helping to make international assignments more appealing to top employees. As research indicates, one of the primary reasons employees today refuse international assignments has to do with family adjustment concerns.
Lest We Forget
It would be easy in the midst of this article, with its emphasis on the design, development, and funding of transitions resource teams, to lose sight of the reason international educators and international schools are increasingly committed to providing transitions support.
Consider the experiences of leaving, entry, re-entry, staying—all the many comings and goings that mean one is in transition. Questions of cultural identity, stress, grief and loss, the benefits and challenges and life-long impacts of a global nomad childhood—all the many issues that are interwoven with one’s transition experiences. Alexandra’s poem, and other heart-felt words like hers, call us to action. They remind us, lest we forget, that there is an opportunity here for schools to make a difference. Transitions resource teams provide one good way for international schools to respond effectively.
For names of specific schools with new or established transitions resource teams, please contact the author, Barbara F. Schaetti.
Many corporate and relocation research reports substantiate statements made in this article regarding links between family adjustment and employee productivity, and between family adjustment concerns and international assignment refusals. One such report is the following: Windham International and the National Foreign Trade Council (1994). Global Relocation Trends, 1994 Survey Report. New York: Windham International.