It was my first day teaching at an international school in Europe, a school that taught in English but housed students from around the world. Unbeknownst to me, I had several students who had just arrived in the country and had no social connections in the class. With the school having no plan in place to support the students through this transition, I could only imagine the stress and anxiety those students must have felt during their first few months. As a result, it took the students an inordinate amount of time to feel comfortable in the school community. Reflecting on my experiences, I know that as a school we could have supercharged the students’ onboarding to make their first experiences more meaningful.
Instead of bringing the students to the international community, let’s flip the script and bring the community to the new students. Bringing intentional experiences to new students at international schools can make the transition more seamless for the students.
Showcasing the Culture
When new students arrive at international schools, a common enough occurrence, the school should take time to showcase the new culture and location. Homesick and anxious students should be shown the area, explore new experiences, and be given a chance to connect outside of the classroom. This can include a cultural excursion outside of the classroom for all students or just new students and a few peer mentors. Another option is for students to create a showcase in school where they share about the local community and positive experiences they have had at the school. Finding ways to frame the community in a positive light will make the transition for the new student that much easier.
Local language classes or afterschool activities related to the local culture can further provide connections to the community for new students. Similarly, asking new students about past activities or clubs they have enjoyed can make them feel involved and further diversify the afterschool offerings.
Connecting to the Student’s Culture
Wherever the students are from, they will likely be feeling homesick or may miss communicating in their native language. At this point, the school should make the effort to bring the students’ cultures to the school. Finding ways to involve the students’ families is only the tip of the iceberg.
Many local embassies have cultural programs that they are willing to share with the local community. Reaching out and inquiring about after school activities or sessions they would be willing to hold will bring the cultures to the school and enrich all students, not just new students.
Likewise, being international students, they are most likely third-culture kids, meaning that they might identify with a variety of cultures from where they have lived in the past. Taking time to get to know the students through surveys or through their teachers could help to better understand the interests of the student.
Taking Time to Check-In
The social-emotional well-being of the students needs to be front and center. All schools have the intention of supporting new students through their transition but few have a formal support plan including regular check-ins with the students and their teachers. Communicating with the families to see what specific supports the students might need should be the first step.
Likewise, finding creative ways to incorporate these check-ins should be at the forefront of the administration’s mind at the beginning of the year. Creating spaces where the students can share how they are feeling can easily be incorporated into the schedule almost anywhere in an elementary classroom. However, the administration will need to be more tactful with students in middle and high school. Creating a safe homeroom space or having a teacher-advisor do the check-ins will need to be intentionally communicated to the teachers at the beginning of the year.
Student ambassadors can also be utilized to create a strong student support network. Providing time throughout the year where the ambassadors and new students meet to work through the transition will hopefully provide an ongoing friendship.
Making the new location welcoming and more forthcoming will help new students adapt more easily to the new location. By intentionally putting the students first and bringing the community to the students, the school can successfully support students’ social-emotional well-being as they transition to the new school community.
Christian is the Academic Coordinator at Washington Global, a middle school located in Washington DC., USA. Christian has experience teaching social studies, ELA, math, and working as a special education teacher, working at both public schools and private international schools. He is continuously seeking ways to provide support and equitable access to education for all students across the globe. He is currently pursuing an Educational Doctorate degree.