Relocation - ‘A glass half full’
School leaders from across the globe share their relocating tales with LSC Education
2015 fast approaches bringing with it the chance for New Year’s resolutions and grand plans. Could this be your year to explore the globe? For those fortunate enough to work in education leadership, their professional status is literally a passport to travel; offering rich and varied lifestyles, cultures and friendships. LSC Education has been talking with a number of school leaders who have recently relocated their families across the world; from Scotland to Indonesia, from England to Egypt, from Poland to Uzbekistan, from England to Austria and from the Netherlands to Indonesia. The school leaders we spoke with have children from age 3 to age 22. Some are seasoned travellers who describe their children as ‘third culture kids’, others are rather more green to the process of relocating.
We were keen to learn about what motivated our school leaders to relocate. For some, the quality of education and environment featured highly. ‘We were attracted to this country by the Principal role that was on offer, the quality and potential of the school, the location of the school in an area of natural beauty and the emphasis on academic rigour balanced with outdoor education and the arts, ‘ commented one leader.
By contrast, less concerned with location, our leader in Uzbekistan explained, ‘We were attracted to overseas living due to the nature of constant change associated with the lifestyle. We were attracted to moving first to Poland because the school had an excellent reputation. We moved to Uzbekistan for the work environment. The school is excellent, and at this point in our lives, we are more concerned about the quality of the school than the location.’
Another leader, his own childhood spent travelling, saw the move more fatalistically, ‘I travelled extensively as a child and lived all over the world. So going overseas was always going to happen. There was no big reason for coming to Egypt. I had spent time in the Middle East as a boy and felt drawn back here. It just seemed to be the right job in the right place at the right time. It just 'fitted' and felt right.’
The big questions
"It is often the case in these situations that the role of the person who is moving for a new job is quite clear, but the impact on the family is less so."
All the leaders that we spoke to were relocating partners and children so we asked what kind of questions their family discussed ahead of committing to the move. Concerns ranged from the impact on spouses to cultural induction for children and worries over pets and school uniform.
‘We tried to identify the main positives and the challenges we would face. Key among them were the opportunities that might be available for my children and my wife. It is often the case in these situations that the role of the person who is moving for a new job is quite clear, but the impact on the family is less so. For the children – moving to a new school, leaving behind well- established friendship groups and the challenge/opportunity of learning a new language were considered. Work opportunities for my wife were also discussed’ said one school leader.
Seemingly, questions discussed were very much focused on the personal impact on the family. One leader with four young children shared her questions, ‘Was the school right for our family? Was the living environment safe? Is it clean? Can we run on the streets in the morning? What type of outdoor activities are available to us?’
For another leader, with children in their twenties, the buy-in from her children was weighty indeed, she commented. ‘Of course we talked about everyone supporting the idea. For me, my children had to be settled before I made this decision, otherwise, I would not have been able to do it.’
"The visa process has been challenging, but fortunately, the staff at the school are well versed in how to manoeuvre the system."
Naturally, life moving overseas is not without challenges. We asked our leaders to share accounts of the situations that they faced. Across the board their feedback suggested that finding suitable housing and logistics were potentially stressful, however support from the school was clearly the best solution to this. One leader reflected, ‘Finding suitable family accommodation was a challenge. The school was very good in providing practical help and advice, but there was a limited supply of suitable property to rent / buy. It is much easier when the school provides accommodation and this also removes the language-based challenges of dealing with rental contracts, setting up utilities etc.’
Another leader who moved to Indonesia also highlighted how the school were supportive over the issue of visas. ‘The visa process has been challenging, but fortunately, the staff at the school are well versed in how to manoeuvre the system. There have been some issues with the housing provided for me- that it met a liveable standard.’
For some, the biggest challenges of the relocation were more those of an emotional and cultural nature. These challenges were most pronounced for families moving from developed to developing countries. One leader explained, ‘the emotional experience was the hardest. Moving from Poland, which was essentially a developed country by the time we left, to Uzbekistan, was quite an adjustment. Things we had taken for granted, such as reliable power sources, were no longer there. We had lived in Poland for 11 years, and the differences in the daily life shocked us. Now we are moving again and the adjustment will be much easier. Having been through a move allows one to know what to expect.’
This was echoed by another leader, also entering a developing country. ‘The children starting a new school was an issue. Understanding cultural expectation, as this culture of Indonesia is so different. The experiences of extreme poverty versus wealth. This was supported very well by the school. There were also restrictions of being ex-pats - children for instance not able to walk to the shops.’
For all the leaders we spoke to, their spouses/partners were hoping to also embark on some form of work whilst they were overseas. For some this meant both parents working at the schools, for others from different professions this meant seeking work locally. For a number, finding a support network for their spouse was vital for settling the family into the new location, as the new leader was themselves immediately engrossed in their new school duties. Another leader remarked on the challenge for his children in learning to interact with children from a very different culture. ‘The children there were very loud and very hands-on and tactile. As Westerners and Brits we really are not hands-on. And so he found it hard to accept people touching him. It wasn't aggressive. It was just how the children play.’
“Working in an international school with a student body and faculty who are very diverse in nationalities is energising. The commitment to internationalism is very satisfying.”
However the challenges were also seen by some as a massive learning opportunity, as one leader explained; ‘I thoroughly enjoyed being lost and needy which are not feelings that I had experienced in many, many years. I am used to having others rely on me and so to rely on others was a great learning experience. Being totally taken out of my comfort zone was a truly liberating experience and I would recommend it to any strong characters out there. It teaches humility in large doses.'
“School life was excellent – the children loved the smaller classes, friendly teachers and the broad range of extra-curricular trips and activities on offer.”
Balanced against the challenges were the extremely positive experiences enjoyed by the leaders and their families in their new international schools coupled with an enriching new lifestyle. One leader said, ‘School life was excellent – the children loved the smaller classes, friendly teachers and the broad range of extra-curricular trips and activities on offer. They appreciate the much richer educational experience they can access, though they have to work harder than before.’
Another agreed, ‘My children loved the new school. They missed their old school, but now they say that this school is much better. In an overseas school, everyone knows the “teacher kids” and the faculty take them under their wings a bit. International schools are generally very caring environments.’
We were keen to understand the benefits of working overseas in Education. The responses from our leaders referred not only to career development and to experiencing new cultures, but to personal growth, developing resilient and open minded children and the chance to broaden their educational networks. ‘The benefits totally out-weight the negatives and challenges,’ said one leader. ‘The opportunity to experience teaching slightly different curricular, leaving the constraints of a National base.’
For some, the thirst for change and the international diversity is rewarding. ‘Working in an international school with a student body and faculty who are very diverse in nationalities is energising. The commitment to internationalism is very satisfying. As with all moves, there is a steep learning curve, which I enjoy, as one gets used to the culture of a new school and the regulations of a new country’s education system. Overall, it is just more interesting than continuing to work in the UK.’
For others it is the process of experiencing personal growth that features highly. ‘The main benefit to working overseas in education is the personal growth I experience from learning a new culture and adjusting to a new environment. Having been through a significant move with my family, I recognize now that we are much more open minded for our next move and for challenges that transitions being. My children are more resilient than they would have been had we stayed in one place for our careers. They are so worldly, and they think about the world in terms of its possibilities.’
“We have had amazing travel opportunities, but it is the daily interactions that make living overseas so invigorating. It’s great to watch my boys speak Russian to neighbourhood friends.”
We asked our leaders to tell us about the highlights of their time overseas. Our leader who is based in Uzbekistan gave a very personal insight into her life. ‘We have skied the high peaks of the Tien Shen Mountains and cycled throughout Slovenia, France and Switzerland. My sons have travelled to Sofia, Bulgaria for cross- country running and Moscow for Knowledge Bowl. They have a sense of independence that is far beyond their peers at home. We have had amazing travel opportunities, but it is the daily interactions that make living overseas so invigorating. It’s great to watch my boys speak Russian to neighbourhood friends, I smile when I see goats crossing the road on my way to work, and I enjoy knowing the “egg lady” at our local market. She and I make small talk as she packages my weekly supply of eggs.’
For another leader, her succinct answer was equally as powerful ‘Everything. It has been a gift to work and live like this.’
Our leader who moved to Egypt listed his highlights; ‘Cultural diversity. Coping under pressure. Dealing with nationals in a foreign tongue. The food! The weather! The mind- expanding opportunities. But mostly, you end up working and socialising with people that you would not normally.’
Advice for others
“Do it. Do it now. Take that leap of faith. Open your mind. Be open to have your mind expanded and your attitudes changed.”
We asked our leaders to offer some advice to others considering moving overseas for a similar leadership post. It was highly recommended that people do their research into the country, local area and the school itself. Other suggestions included being open minded and flexible about locations, while considering all the needs of the family and being probing about the provision and support available on arrival.
It was also suggested that it would be best for leaders to have a minimum of two pre-visits during the term before starting.
Our leader who moved to Austria advised, ‘Study each opportunity carefully and pick the one that has the best balance in terms of opportunities for challenge, professional development and progress with the opportunities available in terms of new experiences for the family.’
The matter of healthcare was also raised by one leader who moved to Indonesia, ‘I would say that it would be quite difficult to make such a move if someone had very small children. I think one has to be flexible and open for new experiences. Also, I would say that I would not live abroad if I had significant health issues. Health care in different parts of the world is not the same as one might expect in their home country.’
Full of passion for his time traveling, one leader commented, ‘Do it. Do it now. Take that leap of faith. Open your mind. Be open to have your mind expanded and your attitudes changed. Be open to becoming a different person. Just take that opportunity and do it. Look out for decent recruitment agencies. They are few and far between but the good ones are worth a fortune in saved time and stress.’
Did moving meet their expectations?
When we asked if the leaders were likely to relocate again, there was a unanimous ‘yes’. One commented, ‘I imagine we will spend our careers overseas. It’s just too much fun and our possibilities are endless!’
The following resources were recommend by our leaders:
- Third Culture Kids - The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds by David Pollock
- Expat Arrivals (www.expatarrivals.com) website is a good source for families.
- Internations (www.internations.org) is an organisation that operates in many counties around the world
- Expat Child (www.expatchild.com) - gives general advice about relocation overseas and useful guidelines on supporting children
Thank you to the leaders who shared their experiences with LSC Education.