So a couple of weeks ago I moved to Vietnam to start a new adventure at an incredible school, Saigon South International School, and so far it’s been a dream. We love the people, the food, the school’s mission and vision and we’ve already begun to settle in. We are definitely in the honeymoon stage, where everything is new and exciting, and where people are going out of their way to support us and to make us feel welcome and seen…and you know what, it feels great. I have been through this enough times however, across 7 countries over 25 years, to know that at some point I will experience some lows, as I begin missing the people that I love from my last school, and from home (my son who just started college for example), and as I get quickly thrown out of my comfort zone having to learn so much about how things are done around here…it’s a process, and it’s a very real part of what comes along with a move like this.
As international school educators we’ve all been through this in some form or another, and the more I reflect on it this week, and steady myself for the “Implementation Dip”, which is bound to come at some stage, I can’t help thinking about how the life of an international school educator in many ways mirrors the flow of a change initiative in schools. “Life as the Change Process” so to speak, where the parallels are just too striking to ignore.
I’ve been helping to lead change initiatives in schools for the better part of two decades now, and like Michael Fullan and other change leaders often write about, there is a process that schools and educators go through as they strive for sustainability. It usually begins with a sense of urgency and excitement about what the change can bring to the organization, and in our specific case of working in schools, what it can do to enhance culture and student learning. Inevitably though, after that initial buzz and enthusiasm and excitement settles, there comes a period of time where complexity arrives (implementation dip) and the learning curve throws dents into our comfort levels, and it can get super tricky. Well, in many ways, the same is true of any major life change outside of the professional environment, and moving to a new school and to a new country certainly fits that roadmap.
The change to a new school is thrilling, and nerve-wracking, and if you are fortunate (like I have been at SSIS), it goes very smoothly from the beginning, and you can quickly find a sense of purpose and meaning, which will help you gain some important momentum. Also, if you are very fortunate, you meet people who understand the position that you are in and make a concerted effort to pick you up at every turn, and support you through it all. Because I’ve been through this a few different times throughout my career, I have learned what to look out for as the weeks move along, and I have learned to not go through it alone. Many change leaders talk about creating what they call a “guiding coalition”, which is essentially a group of allies who can relate to your situation and be advocates and guides for you as the weeks turn into months.
A change like this can become quickly overwhelming as the honeymoon period begins to wear off, so having that support group in place is essential. The other thing that I have learned over time is the importance of communication. The absolute imperative of communicating and over-communicating how you are feeling, and what you are needing (indeed the same is true of change initiatives in schools). You see, as incredibly supportive as great schools and great communities are, there often comes a time relatively early on when students arrive and routines get started and people settle into their day to day lives both inside and outside of the school and you, the newbie, can become less of a priority to look out for. This is where and when it becomes of the utmost importance for you to reflect on how you are feeling and doing, and to use that guiding coalition to provide you with what you need. That implementation dip is a very real thing, and just like in schools, if you learn to embrace it and prepare for it then you’ll be in a much better position to climb out.
So, for all educators this year who are arriving in new countries and in new schools, and for many of us, new continents, enjoy the transition and soak it all up. Put yourself out there and join in and find your coalition. Say yes to invites and lean on your fellow newbies as they can relate intimately to how you are feeling…both the good and the bad. Make sure to over-communicate and prepare for the lows that will surely come. It’s hard to leave a school and community behind, and there is often a grieving process that comes along with any major transition…that’s part of it and it’s okay. If you prepare for the inevitable bumpy ride of the first semester and maybe even the first year, and if you put your support structures in place, then the climb out of that dip, back toward your comfort zone won’t be as challenging. Eventually you will find your place, and your purpose, and you will find your voice as a valued member of the community…that’s the sustainability piece!
Now, for all you returning educators, who have come back to comfort and calm, I want to ask you all to keep your newbies on your radar. Not just for the first few weeks, but throughout the year. It’s easy to assume that people have settled in and are doing fine, but in my experience many adults can find it hard to reach out proactively, particularly when they are new, for fear of looking like you can’t handle things or for fear of judgment. We all want to be our best selves each and every day when we join a new community, and it can be easy to lack that vulnerability if we find ourselves struggling a bit. Check in on them early and often and support them in finding their way. The notion of “Life as the Change Process” absolutely rings true from my perspective and experience, and like I said, the process is real.
Newbies, find your balance early on and keep it, and find some outlets that will keep you healthy and engaged. Make sure to speak to the people that you love back “home” and share your experiences, as it will help you meander through the ups and downs. Finally, get good at chunking out your time, and focusing on the day or the week ahead. Find gratitude in the little things that bring you joy throughout the days, and even if you have a difficult day, which you will from time to time, always search for that, “best part of a bad day”, which is always there waiting to help you change your perspective. Actually, these are just good life lessons for all of us if you think about it, because honestly, change is a constant in all our lives, all the time…some changes just happen to be a little bigger than others.
Okay, I’m off to call my son back home in Canada to tell him all about my day…he’s a newbie too in so many ways, as he starts to live his life as a full-time Canadian for the first time. We are going to help each other, as a team, and travel through this change process that we call life together, and I can’t wait. All the best for a wonderful school year ahead everyone, and remember to be great for our students and good to each other. It’s going to be an amazing year!
Quote of the Week…
Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change
-Wayne W. Dyer
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