As another school year is coming to an end, it is evident that once again, being an expat and learning/teaching at an international school can be very emotional, no matter how many times we go through the cycle of re-settling in a new country only to leave it a few years later…
As we reflect on the time we spent at a place, on our students’ personalities and growth, on the tears shed for seemingly no reason, on our children’s adjustment to the new place and their need to say goodbye, it is important for us adults to remember that we need to be kind.
In most cases, we are the ones making the choice to come to a place, or to leave it. Even as well-traveled and emotionally experienced adults, we still have strong emotions, and we still find ourselves feeling like we have not done enough, seen enough, spent enough time with the incredible friends and family we have made during our short time in this place.
And then we have our children and our students, who have usually been having little to no say in our decision to come or go- not the “when”, “where”, or “how”. “That’s it kids, it’s time to say goodbye and start this torturous cycle all over again”…
At the beginning of every school year I remind my students’ parents that the sad truth is that being a global trotter is not for the faint hearted. In order to continuously do it and survive with minimal damage, one has to learn how to make friends quickly and how to say goodbye and detach quickly.
So how can we, as educators, support our students and their parents, and our colleagues and friends? How can we ease the transition into a new life and try to make the most out of our or their last few important moments in a place? Here are some thoughts and ideas we could all practice to support each other, and especially the young generation, who is still learning about what it means to make friends, to be a friend, to be “from somewhere”, to leave others behind, and so on.
Talk About It- In many cases, children are not sure what they feel, and don’t even know if they have the permission to feel a certain way. Sharing and explaining the situation to the students is very important. Talking about reasons and feelings, validating their feelings and reminding them that there’s nothing wrong with feeling sad or angry, would allow them to feel OK with those feelings, which would hopefully allow for further processing. Sharing our own feelings and thought processes would help students understand these feelings are natural.
Be Kind- Remember that this is a very emotional and sensitive time for our students and families. Students may react strongly to events, to words, to their thoughts and fears. Some would keep to themselves while others will externalize their feelings and translate them into actions, appropriate or not. Try to be patient and understanding, to not be punitive, and to give students time to digest and share their feelings.
About “Anchors”- Changes, changes, changes… Continuously moving countries and cultures, learning new languages and forgetting old ones, losing and creating new friends, not seeing older siblings or grandparents, etc. are all natural side effects of this lifestyle. As a parent of a third culture 10 year old, I do my best to make sure he has people, places and objects in his life that ground him; that are a “constant” in this ever-changing lifestyles. Whether it is a weekly family day, a traditional/religious holiday, a weekly Skype call with family, or even buying an apartment in a country I do not wish to be my home, these things are what my son can fall back on, and he knows that whatever happens, these are his and they are a part of his identity and roots.
Choice- What would we do without choice? What if we were told we will be leaving everything familiar and move somewhere else for no logical reason? The feeling of a lack of choice is very serious. Without choice we feel helpless; we feel no one cares about what we feel, think or want; we feel we don’t matter. Try to give your students or children some choices- whether it is what to do in the last few days at a place, what to do over the summer break, how to celebrate an end of year party, what to do with free time, etc. Empower them and give them the feeling that they are in control and that they matter.
Sharing and Visualizing- Upon leaving Ghana a few years ago, our school counselor suggested that we sit together as a family, take a large piece of paper, and divide it into 4 squares: At the top, 2 squares reading “I am glad to leave behind” and “Things I will miss about this place” (about the place we are leaving), and at the bottom squares (the place we are going next) are “What I am looking forward to” and “What I am not sure about”. She suggested that we sit as a family, and take turns sharing one thing (yes, adults too!) about a square, and take turns until no one has anything else to contribute. There are no wrong answers and no judgement. This is an exercise in reflection and connection. We tried it back then, and it has become a family ritual whenever we move to a new school/country.
Honoring the people- The clock is ticking and not much is left before it is time for us (or a dear friend) to leave for good. Consider the time you have left and plan it accordingly. Think about the people you (and your children) met and spent time with and the relationships you created with them- friends, colleagues, guards, maids, etc. Try to schedule time for you and/or your children to spend quality time (one on one or a small group is the best) with them to properly say goodbye. Simply avoiding it is probably not going to feel right later on, and is likely to come back and haunt you down the road.
Honoring the place- Although places are not living things, some are more of symbols and they do hold important memories and feelings in our lives. Think of the places you have been to where you live. Were there any places which became important to you and your family? To your children? Make sure you take the kids there one last time- whether alone or as a family. Saying goodbye to a place helps you process that you are leaving.
I hope the above ideas resonate with you. Whatever method you choose to bring the school year or the experience in your country to a close, please make sure you keep the kids’ feelings, thoughts and experiences in mind, and validate them by listening and sharing your own feelings, and you empower them by giving them choice.