There is an ideal scenario for single teachers moving to a new locale, and it goes something like this: You arrive in your new country, and on the day that teacher orientation begins, you romantically “click” with another newbie. Before you know it, you’ve entered the world of the teaching couple…and yet you still get to keep your own housing allowances. Perfection!
I actually know people for whom this has happened—and just about as quickly, too. In most cases, the progression is slightly slower, but there are numerous success stories of happy couples who have met while teaching abroad.
But what happens when you start dating a colleague and things go sour? How do you prevent awkward staff meetings and water cooler gossip? Generally, you don’t. There’s a reason that people across all professions advise against “fishing in the company pond”. The rationale behind this advice seems to be even stronger in international settings where you don’t have the same outside networks as you would at home. Having various social circles allows you to keep distance between your personal life and professional life. Overseas, your co-workers are often also your family, friends, and roommates. It’s difficult to keep your private life private, so if you start dating the teacher down the hall, people are likely to find out. When these work relationships don’t have fairytale endings, recovery can be a challenge. So how does one bounce back?
Curious as to what other singles have said about dating colleagues, I asked some international teachers to share their stories. First, they say, it’s important to keep expectations realistic and discuss the “what-ifs” up front. Nobody wants to walk into a relationship expecting the worst, but both parties should be willing to have a conversation at the onset about what will happen if things don’t work out.
Many people who have begun dating colleagues have said that the person they were seeing was in a different division or building. Some claim that this is preferable—if the relationship flounders, you don’t run the risk of bumping into one another around campus. It’s far less awkward to see an ex once a week at bus duty than every day at the copy machine. For this reason, many teachers won’t even consider dating a co-worker that works in the same division.
However, if the colleague in question happens to be in closer proximity, it’s even more important to keep a level head if things don’t work out. I know a girl who had begun seeing the teacher in the classroom next door to hers, only to find out after a few weeks that he was also seeing her teammate directly across the hall. This presented a literal love triangle and caused some feelings of anger and regret—as well as relief that the invested time had been measured in weeks, rather than months or years. This particular situation also led to a deeper friendship between the women involved, and eventually, the ability to shake their heads and laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. What was he thinking?
Interestingly, this happens more often than one might suspect. Given the aforementioned nature of small social circles and the infamous expat “bubble”, it’s not uncommon for those who begin dating a colleague to learn that he or she has previously dated someone else on staff. If similar in nature to the fellow from the story above, you may soon find that your new interest is actually dangling fishing poles all over the company pond, waiting to see who will bite first. Depending on how prolific this fisherman is, you may look around a staff meeting one day and realize that there are very few degrees of separation, and that everyone has dated everyone, Hollywood-style.
Granted, not every school will be the international version of Melrose Place, but scandalous stories abound, and the drama can run deep. In order to minimize this drama, make sure that you have an outside circle of friends who aren’t connected with your work friends. This is sometimes a challenge, especially when living in smaller cities or when language barriers are an issue. Still, if a relationship doesn’t pan out, you’ll be thankful that you have an outlet that doesn’t revolve around your job.
Frequently, people deal with breakups at work by complete avoidance, though that can be both difficult and uncomfortable, especially if the colleague is someone with whom you work directly. In this case, avoidance will affect other members of the team, and quite possibly, the students. Teachers in this situation may find themselves anxiously awaiting the end of the school year, but not for the same reasons as the rest of us. Will June EVER arrive? I’ve got to get away from this place!
So what is the best advice, here? Probably the same advice you’ve always been given…stay away from the company pond, and go fishing somewhere else. One woman who spoke with me had this to say: “Do not date a co-worker unless you can break up cleanly or move often!”
We all know that there are success stories that keep the romantics among us feeling hopeful, but for every success story, there are plenty of failures. Unfortunately, these failures can lead to uncomfortable workdays and a strain on other professional relationships. By keeping communication open and maintaining an outside network of friends and a good sense of humor, you can allow yourself to take the risk while knowing that you’ll be okay if things don’t work out. More often than not, they won’t. If you’re open to dating a colleague, you have to be willing to accept that fact and be prepared to move on if and when a breakup happens. Take a lesson from the pond. When removed from a hook and placed back in the water, a fish may initially be too stunned to move. But soon, that fish will get right back to swimming, and it won’t look back.