School Counseling Overseas: A personal reflection on seeing the world, while doing what you love!
I started my life as an expat in 2011 and with it came all the general feelings of: excitement, ambivalence, and nerves. What was this new school going to be like? Will I like it there? Will they like me? Will I be as effective as I am back in the US? Fortunately, for me, I found myself in a school that allowed me to explore all these questions in a professional, caring community. In this article, I will share with you my personal experience as an international school counselor as well as triumphs, issues, and concerns that most international school educators experience throughout their careers.
In my first international school position, I quickly discovered this:
- kids will have the same issues at home as they do abroad, but sometimes with a new set of challenges due to being in an international setting.
- behavioral problems are not the same as what I saw back in the US working for an urban, special needs population. They often are not as intense, but still cause for concern when a student doesn’t quite fit in with the school expectations.
- an effective international school allows its staff to just worry about teaching or counseling. I’ve never had to worry about resources, funds, etc. which is quite different from the politics of budgets back home in the US. For professional development – I’ve been to France, Romania, India, Miami and all paid for by the school. The perks can be AWESOME.
- access to services might be limited depending on location.
- cultural perceptions of support may differ. Some cultures are very open to social/emotional issues, learning needs, etc. and others aren’t. As a counselor, we have to help the school and family navigate through these different perceptions.
- learning support (special education) may not be as intense as it is at home – IEPs (Individualized Education Plans), ISPs (Individual Support Plans), etc. are not as long or drawn out. Staffing may also seem lopsided – depending on school needs and attitude towards inclusion. The school may also make it clear to parents that they cannot handle the more severe learning/developmental needs.
- leadership makes a huge difference in making or breaking your experience – sometimes moreso than in the US – because each school has their own mission/vision. If these are not clear or there is no clarity in what is expected of you in carrying this out, it can be quite stressful.
- Third Culture Kids (TCK) is a real thing and it even applies to us Third Culture adults! As a counselor, our job is to help with transitions and supporting families with the complexities of adjusting to school, life, and culture in their adopted home.
Build a bridge between your experiences at home to your new home
So how do I bridge my skills to the international experience? For me, it was quite easy. I followed the same rules and goals I set for myself working as a social worker in the United States:
- I jumped in right away and got to know the students, parents, and teachers – I became involved in activities that interested me, volunteered to chaperone trips, popped up in classrooms, etc.
- I am consistent – I always follow through on whatever I say I’m going to do
- I am transparent and my expectations are clearly drawn out – what you see is what you get and the students know what they can expect from me at all times
- I am open and flexible. Students, parents, and colleagues know that I will “meet them where they’re at” so that we can move forward together. This is crucial in a school setting where local culture or the culture of the kids does not always match up with my Asian American norms.
It’s not always champagne wishes and caviar dreams…
While the international school life can be very, very rewarding (benefits, housing, travel, etc.) it is not without its challenges. Once the “honeymoon phase” wears off – you might find yourself missing home or your last school. Local culture may not vibe with how you want to live life. The school may not be all that you hoped it would be. These are all real concerns and issues that international educators face every day. Everyone responds to new experiences differently – so there really isn’t one fix to it all. The best defense against this is your offense.
- research your future destination – talk to teachers already at the school, read anything and everything about it, and decide if it’s the right move for you or your family.
- take things one day at a time – tell yourself it’s okay to feel “maladjusted” in the beginning and find your center in your job and extracurricular activities.
- it’s not like where you’re from and don’t expect it to be. Personally, I moved abroad so I can experience new cultures and still do what I love for my career. The financial and travel benefits are usually amazing. I get frustrated and confused when teachers freak out over their new home NOT being like their own home. This will stunt your adjustment and growth because you spend more energy being upset than learning from your colleagues and students.
- have an exit strategy. I don’t advocate for people jumping ship before fulfilling a contract BUT when personal safety, health, etc. are at serious risk – then maybe it is time to put all that aside and get out. I have money put aside in case I need a ticket out quickly for emergencies or catastrophic event. Some friends in Uzbekistan had safes in their apartments where they kept passports and cash.
- sometimes, you just have to tell yourself – it’s only my first gig abroad or it’s only a 2 -year contract and make the most of it. It’s OKAY to realize that a school or place isn’t your cup of tea. Don’t beat yourself up over it, but find a way to get through it. Use the ‘first school abroad experience’ to get your foot in the door, make a list of your pros and cons, and make sure your next school can give you what you need.
Full disclosure: I went through some of this at my 2nd school abroad and used that experience to set my expectations for my next school. I now feel better prepared for the next chapter.
Take care of yourself
My international experience has been as enjoyable as it can possibly be because I knew I needed to take care of myself. When I was in Uzbekistan, the expat community and available activities was quite limited – but we did the best that we can and had a great time making “something out of nothing”. In Thailand, there is more opportunities to meet people in/outside of work and I took advantage of that. I joined groups on meetup.com, met up with people from Nomadness Travel Tribe, and sought out live music/restaurants. Now, I am already reaching out to my colleagues and friends who have lived/taught in my next destination. I have also joined Facebook groups and other social media outlets to build my “database of fun”. Moreover, I keep up with members of PSCOC and Brothers and Sisters at International Schools as well as other professional groups on Facebook and Twitter for support and resources.
A personal conclusion
I have enjoyed my five years away from home and I will be making a career of it like many of my colleagues. Hopefully, my shared experiences and advice provide good insight into the international school counseling world. Please know that if you are willing to give this a try, there are plenty of supports in place for you. Drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions or comments! Follow my journey at http://www.yvettecuenco.com. Twitter: vettievette. Instagram: vettievette.