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"Transition Programming in International
Schools: An Emergent Mandate"
by Barbara F. Schaetti

(Previously Published Winter 1996 in Inter-Ed by the AAIE—Association for the Advancement of International Education)

Moving

We're going to move?
When?
Where?
I don't want to.
Yes...I do?

Cleaning,
Rummaging,
Finding,
Remembering,
Packing,
Memories,
Empty boxes,
Full boxes,
Memories,
Last day:
Tired,
Empty,
Memories,
A lump,
In my throat,
Goodbye.

When we arrive,
I am curious
And excited
And scared.
Will this place ever be home?
It is so very new.

Sometimes homesickness blows in,
Like a summer storm.
But luckily,
With each passing cloud,
It ebbs further and further away.
Until,
Finally,
I am at home again. 1

 

Student mobility is a defining characteristic of most international schools. It's not uncommon for 30% of any given student population to turn over every year. While faculty and staff mobility may be less extensive, regular turn-over there too is common.

What does this mean for an international school? Consider the impact on a learning environment when on average one third of the population is in the midst of pre-departure anxiety, another third wound-up in post-arrival uncertainty, and the final third busy trying to keep it all sorted out. It quickly becomes clear that addressing transitions is an international school imperative!

The Process of Transitions

There are many models describing the transition experience. Some use three phases, some four, others more. It doesn't really matter; one can choose one's favorite. The best all describe the same general process an individual goes through when either internal or external environments—or indeed both —change. Although the number of phases and the names given to them may not matter greatly, what is important to know is that specific phases do exist and can be described. Once someone in transition understands that the experience of transition is indeed a process, a process that can not only be described but also facilitated, the emotional challenges of a transition are greatly eased.

It can also be useful to realize that a transition is a transition whether it be geographical, relational, or professional. The psycho-social process one goes through when moving from one country to another is similar to that one goes through when changing jobs, losing a loved-one, learning a new sport, developing a spiritual practice.

A Transitions Model

The model of transitions which I use is one developed by David Pollock, Executive Director of Interaction Inc.2. Pollock developed the model with international transitions in mind and I find it particularly useful in that regard. The model consists of five phases, with characteristics of each phase presented in light of one's social status (how one is perceived by others), one's social posture (how one presents one's self to and interacts with others), and one's psychological experience (how one typically feels inside).

I will review Pollock's transitions model in the following pages, addressing as I go areas I consider of particular significance to international schools. I will also suggest specific kinds of transition activities and transition education that the more far-sighted of international schools are already implementing.

Let me distinguish between transition activities and transition education. By transition activities, I mean any activity designed to facilitate a specific transition experience, whether it be entry to the school or leavetaking from it. By transition education, I mean both curriculum-based and non curriculum-based opportunities for students to increase their general knowledge about and skills managing transitions. Transition education also necessarily includes students learning about stress management, management of grief and loss, conflict resolution. It includes opportunities to explore cultural identity development and the life-long impacts of an internationally-mobile childhood.

 

Transition Phase 1: Involvement

We're going to move?
When?
Where?
I don't want to.
Yes...I do?

The first phase of Pollock's transition model is "involvement". People who are involved in their community have a sense belonging. They are perceived by others as being part of a group, with a reputation—for good or ill—and a social/professional position. They are known by others and they in turn know the people around them: histories, weaknesses, strengths. They have a similar knowledge about the community itself. They know where to look for the first flowers in spring, where to go to get their shoes fixed, multiple ways to get from point A to point B depending on the weather or traffic conditions. As an adult global nomad put it to me after living in a rural community for thirteen years, being involved means "everyone knows you for 50 miles around and 50 years back."

People in the involved phase typically present themselves to others as committed to their community, responsible and responsive. Their internal experience is one of intimacy. They feel secure, confirmed by the world around them in who they are. While they may also, of course, feel confined and claustrophobic, they nonetheless know what is expected of them without question.

The involvement phase means people's time orientation is to the present. Those in this phase are not thinking about where they have come from nor are they thinking about where they are going. Although they of course think about the past and the future, their primary orientation is in terms of what is going on now.

The experience of involvement typically requires that a person spend time in a given geographic location. It's important to remember that multi-mover students and their families may not have a recent experience of this phase of the transition experience. The well-known 3-year expatriate cycle does not really allow for it: the first year you're in the confusion of arrival, the second year you're beginning to figure out how things work, the third year—just as you're becoming involved—you get transferred on.

For some, a transfer can be a big relief. International school students are quick to say that one advantage of moving is that you can re-invent yourself in your new location. Don't like the reputation you have—change it at your next school. Want to start fresh—wait for that next international transfer.

Of course, the flip side of this is also true: do like to reputation you've worked hard to build, now begin all over again from the bottom up. A multi-mover non-salaried spouse, having at the time lived in one place for several years, told me how she had finally been able to build a reputation in the community such that she was elected to the board of her children's school. At last here was a position which she could put directly on her c.v., a credible position with status (albeit volunteer). Unlike other expatriate spouse volunteer positions, she would not have to search for ways to legitimize its professional relevance to hoped-for future employers. This multi-mover, finally re-involved in her community after their last transfer, came home one day to learn that her husband had been transferred yet again. There she was, facing loss of reputation, loss of position, loss of being known and of knowing others. Time to start over—again.

 

Transition Phase 2: Leaving

Cleaning,
Rummaging,
Finding,
Remembering,
Packing,
Memories,
Empty boxes,
Full boxes,
Memories,
Last day:
Tired,
Empty,
Memories,
A lump,
In my throat,
Goodbye.

When students learn that they are about to be transferred, their time orientation suddenly shifts from the present to the future—where are we going, what will it be like, will I fit in...

People in the leaving phase of transition are typically (and hopefully) perceived by others in celebratory fashion. Friends pay them a lot of attention, ask a lot of questions about where they are going, when. It's a time of recognition, of farewell parties and of bringing closure to relationships and activities.

Inevitably, however, one's social posture necessarily becomes distant. In order to leave, one must loosen ties, let go of roles, disengage. In order to transplant a plant, one has to pull up its roots. Just as when transplanting a plant, however, a person's roots must be carefully disengaged; they will otherwise be torn and damaged and not be able to take firm hold again in the new location.

While those in the leaving phase of a transition must disengage from people and activities being left behind, so too must those remaining disengage from people leaving. This can lead, on everyone's part, to feelings of rejection and resentment. A child or adolescent —or indeed an adult—may understand when friends plan future activities and don't include them, but it hurts nonetheless.

International school teachers often report another dimension to disengagement. It's common to see students creating conflict and rousing anger with one another as a way to ease the sense of loss from an impending transfer. For some reason humans seem to think it's easier to leave a friend when we're angry with him or her than otherwise. Unfinished business goes with us, however. Three months later, 6 months later, the regret over harsh words once spoken can very much impede a person's ability to settle into a new community. Just when it seems least worth our effort—after all, we'll never see this other person again —is when it's most important to reconcile differences.

Leaving, one's own or a friend's, is a time fraught with emotion. One common response is to deny uncomfortable feelings. (There is a bumper sticker in the United States which reads "denial is not a river in Egypt".) I asked a group of secondary school students with whom I worked recently what skills they or those they knew had gained from moving internationally. One young man replied, "how not to feel feelings". The other students laughed with him, but everyone in that room knew the truth of what he said. For multi-movers especially, not feeling feelings can become a survival skill. So can disengaging from all academic and social roles immediately upon learning of a transfer. While people leaving must disengage, they must do so in a timely fashion: neither too late nor too early. Teachers and counselors can help parents judge how much advance notice to give a particular child of an impending move.

The quality of a student's leaving so dictates the quality of that student's transition experience—and indeed his or her whole integration into adulthood of a mobile childhood—that I consider attention to leave-taking one of the most critical intervention points for an international school.

Transition education focused on leave-taking includes providing students with opportunities to consider the kinds of issues discussed in the preceding paragraphs. Important among these are ways to manage stress and feelings of grief and loss. Transition activities include creating and participating in good-bye rituals, curriculum-based considerations of the student's destination country, and attending to student's individual transition needs 3. Overall, leave-taking activities should help students—those staying as well as those leaving—to build a RAFT: Reconciling conflicts with others; Affirming the relationships they have had; saying Farewell to people, places, pets and possessions; and Thinking ahead by gathering information about their destination countries 4.

 

Transition Phase 3: Transition

...aaah...

When in this third phase of Pollock's model, people find themselves without status, unknown and unknowing. They have special knowledge—such as where to go to get shoes fixed in Copenhagen—which is totally without use in Tokyo. Their internal experience is typically one of chaos and isolation. The whole world seems turned upside down, often right on top of them. Time orientation for people in this phase is typically to the future: how will this situation resolve itself, will it ever end.

The transition phase is a time of self-centeredness. People in this phase necessarily think first and foremost of themselves. Despite all good intentions, parents may be less emotionally available to their children during this time and certainly the reverse is true. At the same time, just when people may most want to isolate, they must self-initiate: get up, get out, meet others, keep busy. It's typically a time of psychological anxiety. There's often a loss of self-esteem as the reality sinks in that you truly are statusless and unknown by others.

The experience of this phase as chaotic may be exacerbated by being on "home leave," visiting friends and family and favorite places, living in hotels or other people's homes, rather than being in one's own domain. The loss of continuity brought on by a move is extreme during this phase; one is not only without familiar people and places but also without the household goods which may be the only real continuity outside the immediate family. Teachers and staff can educate students and parents about "sacred objects," those few things which remind a person of home and community wherever he or she may be. Sacred objects are best taken on the airplane, in a carry-on bag, rather than packed in a household shipment.

However uncomfortable this phase may be, it can also be a time of great creativity. The creative act is essentially one of stepping outside the tried and true into something new and different. William Bridges, in his book Transitions, writes about the chaos of transitions as a necessary phase, a necessary fermentation, out of which comes the creative future.5 The more this experience of chaos is resisted, the less creative are the future possibilities. This is an important perspective and consideration for people in transition, even for the non-salaried spouse and dependent child who may not feel that they have much power over future possibilities.

 

Transition Phase 4: Entering

When we arrive,
I am curious
And excited
And scared.
Will this place ever be home?
It is so very new.

Entering is the second critical area for international school attention. People in this phase of transition are constantly having to introduce themselves to others. In uncertain positions within the new community, they may easily misinterpret nonverbal signals and morés taken for granted by others. Entering is often a time when people feel marginalized, on the edges of the society and looking for a way in to the center.

School based family partnership programs and student buddy systems are extremely valuable for people in this phase. They provide the new arrival with a mentor, someone to help them move through the superficial to a deeper experience of the new community. People in the entering phase of transitions tend to rely a lot on observation—especially perhaps multi-movers who've learned to look before they leap. A mentor can help someone in this stage navigate the necessary risk-taking behaviors of saying hello to strangers, joining activities, looking for friends. A mentor can also help offset the typical exaggeration of problems brought on by culture shock—the cold that becomes pneumonia, the headache that becomes a brain tumor, the bad day that becomes a ruined life.

The entering phase of a transition is usually one of great vulnerability. People in this phase can often be ambivalent, fearful, and easily offended. While their time orientation may again be to the present, it may also be only temporary as they look repeatedly to the past and the (often now idealized) memory of where home once was.

It's important to realize that the multi-mover student (or parent) arriving in a new international school community may be tired of this oft-repeated transition cycle. Starting over again and again can be an exhausting process. As international school faculty or staff, it's important to be patient with someone who has such a sense of transition fatigue. Acknowledge what they may be experiencing, don't force them into active roles in the new community before they're ready, and at the same time encourage them to build the new relationships that ultimately recreate the experience of involvement.

Transition activities include the mentoring systems mentioned above. School-wide welcome ritual, such as updating a world map with color-coded pins to indicate student nationality(ies), host countries, and favorite countries, serve not only to welcome new students but also as community-building functions. In the classroom, transition activities may include providing both new and continuing students opportunities to speak of their past host countries and to share their expertise and interests. Indeed, the more such opportunities can be integrated into the curriculum, the more relevant the curriculum becomes.

Students at all grade levels repeatedly tell me that their first self-imposed task upon entering a new school is to make friends. Even students in the midst of transition fatigue, more inclined to isolate than to socialize, need to have at least one friend before any measure of security is reached in the new environment. Teachers can support this friendship-building process in the classroom without any hindrance to even the most focused of curriculums: small group work, pair and triad work, interactive learning exercises, student reports to the class—all these allow students to get to know one another and build relationships in a way that listening to a lecture never can. A teacher's conscious use of diverse teaching styles becomes a transitional support activity.

 

Transition Phase 5: Re-Involvement

Sometimes homesickness blows in,
Like a summer storm.
But luckily,
With each passing cloud,
It ebbs further and further away.
Until,
Finally,
I am at home again.

The most fortunate of those in transition stay in their new location long enough to finally complete the cycle. Now one's time orientation is again to the present, this time with a sense of permanence. People who have re-involved themselves again have a sense of belonging, of knowing others and of being known. They again have a reputation and a position in society. They experience themselves as committed and secure, affirmed by the community in which they live, work, study, and play.

 

A Special Kind of Transition: Re-Entry

Re-entry, moving to one's passport country, is typically found to be the most difficult of all transitions. As such, it requires special attention in any discussion of international school student transitions.

Many factors come into play to make re-entry such a challenging transition, not least of which is the assumption that one is "going home." Even a short one or two year international sojourn is enough to change perspective and outlook. People returning to their passport countries after such a brief time abroad may expect to fit right back into their old friendships and daily patterns. Typically, however, their international experiences have re-shaped them enough that they don't fit in quite the same way. They've become to some extent like a square peg trying to squeeze into a round hole, a hole they think should be familiar but isn't. This is all the more true for the multi-mover or long-term international sojourner whose experience of "home" may be based solely on family stories or periodic vacations. A Canadian who grew up in Papua New Guinea and India spoke of "riding on his parent's mythology" about Canada. The Canada which he eventually re-entered bore little resemblance to the Canada of his family's myth.

Entering one's passport country is also challenging because, once there, students typically attend local rather than international schools. Students and teachers in an international setting tend to be very aware of helping new students make friends—after all, everyone there has at one time or another been new. This is much less the case in a local school context where student mobility is more often the exception than the rule. Ask any international school multi-mover student who has experienced re-entry which is easier, entering another international posting or re-entering one's passport country, and the answer will invariably be the former.

Transition activities and education specific to preparing students for a re-entry experience include those described earlier in the discussion of "leaving". The particular characteristics of re-entry should also be addressed however, giving a slightly different twist to the focus of the work. It can be especially effective for students to hear from their peers on this topic.

Students re-entering their passport countries for university need particular attention from their graduating institutions: preparation not only for the experience of re-entry but also for managing an international transition essentially on their own and for transitioning into a new phase of their young-adulthood (6). Re-entry programs for university-bound students are increasingly recognized as critical components in any school-based transition programme (7).

 

School-Wide Transition Activities and Education

More and more international schools are accepting responsibility for facilitating student transitions into and out of the school community. Parents are beginning to expect it. Administrators, teachers, and counselors are recognizing it as intrinsic to an international school's educational mandate. Indeed, some schools, recognizing that student adjustment depends on family adjustment, are also addressing parents' transition support needs.

There is much that a teacher can do in the classroom, that many already do do and others should do, to address transitions. It should be noted that it is generally easier to integrate transition activities and education into primary and middle school classrooms, wherein curriculum activities are still relatively flexible, than it is in the secondary school classroom. Nonetheless, it is no less important to do so at the secondary grade levels.

The kinds of activities and education that primary and middle school teachers can bring into their classrooms may, in the secondary school, be best integrated into a developmental guidance program run by the school counselor, a "home room" class which students regularly attend, or a "personal and life-skills" class in which all students participate. This by no means, however, mitigates the need for all secondary teachers to at least consider the impact of transitions on their students and the ways in which they can indeed address transitions within their classroom and curricular constraints.

Much of my current work with international schools is in developing "transition resource teams". Consisting of a small number (7—10) of committed teachers, administrators, and counselors —and sometimes parents and students—these teams ensure that transition activities and education within the school are not dependent upon any single individual. The teams help their schools develop in-house expertise, provide an ongoing resource throughout the school year to students, faculty and staff alike, and serve as liaison to any transition work being conducted for families through the schools' parent associations.

Transition resource team members work with teachers in the classroom and with counselors school-wide to encourage and support transition activities. They provide a focus for transition education of the kind described throughout this article and as listed in it's earliest paragraphs: increasing student knowledge of and skills managing transitions, stress, grief and loss, conflict. They provide opportunities for students to explore cultural identity development and the life-long impacts of an internationally-mobile childhood.

 

Transition Programming: An International School Mandate

Addressing student mobility is an essential component of an international school's mandate. You don't have the luxury of focusing on academics alone. An international school must take into account the environment in which students are living, one in which students and the school community are in a constant state of transition.

A teacher once said to me, only partially joking, "just teach them maths." Yes, absolutely—no, not exclusively. An international school which doesn't provide transition programming for its students is as negligent as it would be if it did not teach maths at all.

Barbara F. Schaetti is President of Transition Dynamics, a training and consulting firm serving the international expatriate community. Barbara is a dual-national, second-generation global nomad. She works extensively with international schools, parent associations sponsored by international schools, on-site expatriate support organizations, and the employer organizations which send families abroad.

References:

  1. Gross, Naomi, US American global nomad age 15, Talking Leaves: A Literary Magazine. International School of Geneva (LGB), 1993.
  2. Pollock, David C., The Transition Model, Albany NY: Interaction Inc., 1990.
  3. More and more is being written suggesting specific transition activities for the school and classroom. One source of ideas is an article by this author in the Winter 1995 (vol. 23 no. 75) issue of InterEd. Although the audience for that article was originally the expatriate parent, many of the specifics listed there need only slight adjustment to be applicable in the international school setting. A school-specific listing of transition activities titled Students in Transition is available directly from the author.
  4. Pollock, David C., The Transition Model, Albany NY: Interaction Inc., 1990.
  5. Bridges, William. Transitions: Making Sense of Life's Changes. Reading MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1980.
  6. A Conversation About Re-Entry. Video produced by Barbara F. Schaetti on the university-bound re-entry experience. Seattle WA: Transition Dynamics, 1994.
  7. Schaetti, Barbara F., Re-Entry Programs for The University-Bound Student: Ingredients and Timeline. Seattle WA: Transition Dynamics, 1995.

©1996 Transition Dynamics

 

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