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I Wonder... International School Bubbles

By Joy Jameson
I Wonder... International School Bubbles

I wonder why international schools work hard to create a protective bubble around their international hire staff members? It seems as if the school wants them to only focus on the school and avoid all contact with the outside world.
Of course every employer wants to have happy staff members who fit into their work site. However, at many international schools this sense of belonging and control is taken to the extreme. The schools schedule meetings and events that run into the evenings long after the school day ends and events are even scheduled on the weekends. Teachers are also encouraged or required to teach extracurricular activities not only for students, but also for fellow staff members; in the case of the latter, this may include swimming sessions or basketball games literally at the crack of dawn, since no other free times are available due to school meetings and events.
The construction of the bubble starts from the first day. Everything is set up for the international hire teachers, including guides to take them wherever they need to go. The schools are careful to find everyone housing in the same general area and to encourage them to meet frequently for dinners and such at each other’s homes. Teachers even flock to the school on Sundays to work in their classrooms and hang out together. Some schools even go so far as to lock up the staff members’ passports and only return them when the teacher needs to travel to avoid midnight getaways.
At first glance this may seem like a perfect setup. It gives the schools control over their employees and there’s no need to pay for language lessons, since everyone they will have contact with speaks English. Staff members feel that they are wrapped in a big warm security blanket. It’s almost like they never left home.
However, after a while, this idyllic scenario starts to crumble. Suddenly the staff members realize that they don’t have a clue what is going on in the country since they can’t read the newspaper or watch TV due to language barriers. They realize that they have become dependent on the school to the extreme and are often unable to function on their own even to do simple banking transactions, pay bills, etc.
Because everyone lives so closely within this little bubble, a situation of no privacy develops, gossip starts to run rampant, and cliques form. This constant closeness of staff members sometimes leads to broken hearts and broken marriages, since dating usually involves people within the group. The resulting depressed emotional states of staff members play havoc with work performance and sometimes former best friends become worst enemies.
Why don’t schools work to create a more normal work environment in which the international hire staff members have time to learn the language, take advantage of the great cultural opportunities, and get to know the people of the country? After a brief orientation period, why not simply point the staff members in the right direction and let them fend for themselves, so that they learn to function independently, thus avoiding a situation of total dependence.
I wonder why the schools don’t want their international hire staff members to have a normal life in which they work hard at their jobs and then enrich their lives by having a separate non-school-related life after school hours? In addition, do administrators even realize that something is seriously wrong if they must resort to locking up passports to keep employees at the school?
Most of all, I wonder what will it take to make schools realize their current system is not working? How low will staff morale drop and how high will turnover rise before the need for change is recognized?

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05/16/2015 - Dave
Is living in a bubble good or bad? I think the answer is yes. We do tend to create a bubble wherever we are, and tend to gravitate toward those most similar to us. Supposedly, we evolved to function optimally in a community of 150 people, and if so, it seems quite natural for us to limit our reach. If I create a personal community of 150 people and it's not as varied as yours, that may be less optimal. Or, it may not.

Teachers tend to make their students part of their 150, and I think that is fine, and just possibly not an administrative plot to trap people. In my 20+ years in 4 overseas schools, the idea of administrators trapping us never occurred to me. I think if someone feels trapped, that's not healthy for them; they should push back, find creative ways to get some freedom, or just find somewhere less oppressive.

While in theory, reaching out to an infinite number of people is ideal, put me in the camp that says "Problem? What problem?"

Just sayin'.

05/14/2015 - Guy
As a teacher with over five years international teaching experience I totally disagree with this. I greatly appreciated the efforts of the schools to help me be comfortable in a new and foreign environment. I had some wonderful experiences being introduced to some fascinating places in Morocco, Turkey and Egypt. Cultural integration and awareness was always a big part of the settling in process. I have wonderful memories of this and on a teachers salary I was able to have experiences I could have never been able to afford.
05/13/2015 - cliff
Wow, I retired some years ago after spending over 30 years in International schools. I do not recall the schools or school administrators that I encountered
trying to isolate and keep overseas staff from being part of or learning to underestand and appreicate the local culture and customs. Just the opposite was my experience. Certainly schools supported and protected their staffs, both overseas and local----but
control was not the goal, wellbeing and safety is something that made our staffs better and more productive teachers. And yes, teachers work long hours at every school overseas or in their home country.
It sounds as if you've had a bad personal experience,but please don't white wash
the International schools and administrators with your negative brush. Max's comments were right on target.
05/13/2015 - Max
I'm not sure if this is one school you are talking about or a mashup of several. If it is your school, you sound unhappy.

I'll offer my views on a few points.

The amount of support that is necessary is obviously tied to the location. Although all places (even the first world) have their quirks and bureaucratic frustrations, some are much worse than others. Survival requires some support. Those are the kinds of places that my career has taken me.

Most of the schools I have been at have offered degrees of support as you have described them. I have never felt like it was so that they could control me or to make sure that I had no contact with the outside world.

At one school I worked at, the director said that his goal was to make life easy for the teachers so that they could do their best in the classroom. If they are worried about their plumbing, the threat of having their electricity being turned off, or having to go to some government offices and figuring out which lines to stand in, then they are not going to be very focused on their classroom.

I appreciate your point that teachers should be learning the local language. I would say that I am one of those rare international teachers who makes an effort to learn the local language beyond greetings and the market level. I feel good about my ability to communicate, although I am no linguist. I have never been able to get my level up to the point I could confdently deal with bureaucracy, a phone company, or a bank. Support is appreciated and often necessary.

In terms of extracurricular activities, schools usually offer them because there are no viable alternatives in the local communities for foreign children (and, yes, sometimes it is babysitting service). I have never heard of a school forcing teachers to run them for other teachers. Some staff members do organize games or leagues, but it has been their choice--again, usually because there is no viable, local alternative.

I would agree with you on the locking up of passports. Fortunately, I have never worked at a school that was afraid of its teachers like that.



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