Supporting whilst unsupported: Navigating pastoral provision in international schools

Working in a pastoral role at an international school is an enlightening experience. 

I distinctly remember interviewing a candidate for a pastoral position at our school who was UK-based and had never worked in an international context before. 

When discussing how they might deal with a number of different safeguarding situations, they said they would refer the student to outside help, or get external agencies involved. 

And I remember thinking… what external agencies? What outside help?

In the parts of the world where many international schools are located, there can often be a lack of social service intervention, a lack of local counselling support services, and a lack of sexual health clinics.

As Liz Cloke’s recent article on ‘5 pastoral care differences in international schools’ highlights, to say that things don’t work the same way internationally as they do at home in the UK is an understatement. In fact, working internationally has given me a greater appreciation of just how much (albeit not perfect) support there is at home for young people.

As an international school pastoral lead, things can be complicated.

Not only are you working with the problem in front of you (whatever that may be), you are also working in a culture that has its own beliefs, values and taboos, that may completely conflict with your own (westernised) beliefs about how things should be handled.

Without a better understanding of the cultural nuances of the country you are working in, there can be a risk of unintentionally causing enormous offence, which will of course be completely detrimental to the support you are trying to give a student. For example, in Asia, the concept of face (and the associated fear of ‘face-loss’) is extremely powerful. Understanding this can be essential in interpreting why students, or families, may be resistant to the help you are trying to offer.

As a western teacher, a lot of these things can be completely invisible to us at first.

We cannot afford to take for granted that we are guests in a country, and must learn to work with (not against) the cultural complexities that we encounter.

The problem with international schools is that the poor or culturally insensitive handling of a situation could result in the worst case scenario; a student being removed from the school by their family, and sent elsewhere. 

After all, international schooling is a choice, and most families have the freedom and means to move if they are not happy with how a school has handled a particular problem. 

In this regard, dealing with concerns that may have normally involved social service intervention at home may require you, as a staff member involved in pastoral care, to concede some ground in the best interests of the child.

The plan in place has to be sensitive to the wider cultural factors.

There are often situations that challenge your tightly held values, but what I have found is that these can also lead to some of the most resourceful approaches to pastoral care and support that I have seen.

This is where the saying ‘it takes a village’ is very much applicable. 

Within Eastern culture I am in awe of the notion of extended family (or even the families of friends) who will step in to help, for example, if a student needs a place to stay due to a family breakdown. This sense of community really does ‘catch’ students and, even if in a slightly haphazard or unconventional way, can temporarily provide the much needed family support or parenting that they require.

Although I don’t currently work in a school that has boarding provision, I know of several other schools that have had students staying with them throughout the pandemic, who are yet to see their families. It is also relatively common for Chinese and Korean families who have sent their children to Thailand to have them live in homestays with other Chinese or Korean families, whilst they complete their schooling. I often feel for these students, that even whilst they have been given the opportunity to receive an international education, with all of the hopes that come with that, they grow up in a home, family and country that is not their own. 

And now, with it coming up to a year since the initial worldwide lockdowns (and familial separations in many cases), this is undoubtedly taking its toll.

I guess the point of this article is that although many international school students can seem ‘privileged’ from the outside (and are in many ways), they can also be very much alone when it comes to getting the support they might need.

Whether that’s because they are guests in a country, and therefore external agency provision doesn’t extend to them. Whether it’s because of the strain of the arrangements (and often sacrifices) that many families have made in order for them to be there. Or whether it’s because of cultural factors that make the request for support or support intervention much more complicated. Schools very often unintentionally play an enormous role in the coordination of support, and in doing so pastoral staff are often also very much alone in their navigatigation of this.

This is where it becomes incredibly important to have a good team of counsellors and pastoral staff to share the burden of this responsibility… otherwise there can be a great deal of restless nights (this is of course still likely to happen, but at least you are not alone). It is also important to have a good counselling network within the local international school network, because often there is no clear reference point from which to gauge the appropriate course of action. The hope is that by discussing issues that arise in a confidential manner with other trusted school counselling staff (who may have valuable prior experience to share) you can come to some plan or resolution, however imperfect it may be. Finally, given the impossibility of ever truly being able to fully ‘see’ or understand an issue through the eyes of someone from a culture different to your own, it is essential that schools ensure that there is an identified, native member of staff, that can be consulted in such situations.

The irony of working in a support role, is that often you may find that you are unsupported. This makes forging these networks in the international school context of utmost importance.

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