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Orientation and Cross-Cultural Training: Good for Host-Country Nationals, Too!

By Ettie Zilber
Orientation and Cross-Cultural Training: Good for Host-Country Nationals, Too!

One of the most important jobs of international school administrators—and one of our greatest challenges—is to research, recruit, and retain quality staff. This is no simple feat, considering the unique and challenging circumstances in which we operate. Once hired, a “golden rule” for achieving better outcomes in our multinational and multicultural communities is the orientation—or induction—of each new individual or cohort. Administrators are well aware of the importance of orientation, in order to make the transition as positive, seamless, and as smooth as possible. Many international schools have already developed such programs for their expatriate newcomers. Programs, policies, and practices take various forms and require varying budgets (Zilber 2008). Typically, planning for a smooth transition begins even before a contract has been signed. The principle objectives of such programs should be to assist in the relocation, adaptation, and acculturation of the employee into the new cultures of both the organization and the country. The sooner new hires can make sense of their new reality and adapt, the sooner they can focus all their energies on the job of educating our students. Sadly, however, there is a demographic within our communities that is sometimes overlooked in planning orientation programs: the host-country staff (HCS). These employees can include both instructional and non-instructional staff, and their numbers vary greatly based on a school’s profile, mission, and curriculum. The HCS all play vital roles in the school and interact with the foreign constituents on a daily basis. Some might wrongly assume that HCS do not need the same training as expat staff, since they have not boarded a plane or left their country, family, or culture to seek employment at an international school. However, I would argue that HCS do indeed need training and orientation in order to make sense of their interactions with foreigners within the community. They also need to learn about the organizational culture, which can be very different from the sorts they may have encountered previously. I believe that working in a multicultural organization—even when it’s located in your homeland—is a lot like working in a foreign land. Cross-cultural awareness workshops have been a mainstay at all my schools, intended not just for the foreign-hire educators but for HCS as well. Moreover, I believe that such professional development should be mandatory for every member of the international school community. The trainings we organized included workshops in which participants focused on examining their own cultural background; shared reflections while in homogeneous or heterogeneous groups; explored the anthropological definitions and elements of “culture”; discussed the values and behaviors common among different groups, including the host culture, expatriate culture, and cross-cultural kids; considered case studies to analyze “culture bumps”; underwent simulations with experiential debriefings, revelations, and “aha” moments; discussed excerpts from movies and literature; and of course, enjoyed a healthy portion of good humor and good food. One of the participants wrote a heart-warming testimonial summarizing what she took away from the workshop: Thank you for opening our eyes, sharing your wisdom, forcing us to think and theorize, encouraging us to share and bond, validating our personal narratives, giving us new words to articulate feelings, giving us tools to become better teachers, giving us insights to become better humans. What a weekend! — Shannon O’Dwyer It is of utmost importance for all members of the international school community to participate in such experiences—HCS included. Once all are bonded thanks to the same illuminating experiences, everyone will acquire the concepts, skills, and vocabulary to analyze “culture bumps” when they occur, or, even more importantly, perhaps avoid them altogether. I encourage us all to learn about “the Other” and how “the Other” perceives and responds to “the other Other.” Such training will truly change the modus operandi, decision-making outcomes, and relationships among all community constituents—including administrators, students, parents, educators, staff, and board members. Thus, I would ask: What type of orientation and cross-cultural training do you offer foreign staff and host country nationals at your school? I would love to hear from you. Ettie Zilber taught in Israel and Singapore and served as Head of School in Spain, Guatemala, China, and the U.S. She conducts cross-cultural training specifically for international organizations and their diverse constituents. CCK = Cross Culture Kid is one who has “lived in—or meaningfully interacted with—two or more cultural environments for a significant period of time during developmental years.” Zilber, E. (2008). Orientation Strategies for New Staff: by and for School Leaders. InterEd, spring, 2009, Vol. 36, #108.

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