WISEducation Magazine Issue 3 coming soon!

I’m very excited to share the front cover of issue 3 of the WISEducation Magazine, which is coming very soon!

This issue contains several new articles on a wide variety of wellbeing related topics, including; the paradox of connectivity, ‘firm but fair’: setting healthy boundaries in pastoral provision, and being away from home: the impact of the pandemic on teacher mental health.

It’s definitely an issue not to be missed!

To receive your free copy of the magazine straight to your inbox along with the newest blog articles, please subscribe with your email address via the home page sign up.

A huge thanks to all of the contributors for writing articles during what has been a busy start to 2021! I can’t wait for you all to read them!

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.

Rethinking our thinking: The tale of the preacher, the prosecutor and the politician

In order to grow, ‘unlearning’ can be just as important, if not more so, than learning.

That feels like a funny thing to say as someone who works in education.

Schools are in the business of learning. It’s where we learn how to read, how to write, how to pass exams, how to make friends, how to deal with conflict, and ultimately how to become an adult, ready to enter the world.

They are ‘learning’ and ‘thinking’ institutions.

But as much as we teach students to learn, we should also be teaching them how to ‘unlearn’, ‘rethink’, revise and update not only their knowledge and ideas, but also their beliefs about the world.

Recently I started reading a book called ‘Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know’ by Adam Grant, and it quickly became one of those books where I ended up bookmarking every few pages and found myself constantly nodding away like a crazy person.

Grant’s book examines the art of critical rethinking and encourages us to question our opinions and open our minds. He explains how in life we favour the ‘comfort of conviction’ over the ‘discomfort of doubt’. In doing this we have a preference for ‘echo chambers’ which reaffirm our views, and we surround ourselves with people that agree with us to a fault. 

We tend to shy away from and actively avoid environments and people that challenge our assumptions, and cause us to rethink. These are threats to our egos and sense of self. 

Grant argues that given the magnitude of information, knowledge and technology that is now available to us, there is a need to question and update our beliefs more readily than ever before.

In the book, Grant draws upon an observation made by a colleague of his, which outlines how we all take on one of three different personas when expressing our views or opinions; the preacher, the prosecutor, or the politician.

The preacher – this is where we are the ‘enlightened one’ who knows the answer. We often take on this persona when our closely held beliefs are in jeopardy, and we need to protect and promote our ideals.

The prosecutor – this is where we demonstrate our opinions by setting out to highlight the flaws in other people’s thinking. We prove we are right by showing that they are wrong. We shift to this mode when we vehemently disagree with another person’s reasoning.

The politician – we slip into this persona when we’re trying to win over an audience by campaigning and lobbying for the approval of others.

The problem with taking on any one of these three personas is that it means that we don’t rethink our own views. 

Instead Grant calls for us to take on a different persona; that of the scientist.

The scientist searches for the truth and does so by seeking to test out hypotheses about their thinking, and gathering updated knowledge that can prove or falsify their beliefs. Adopting this persona requires us to grant permission to ourselves and others to have the flexibility of thinking to change our minds. 

The problem with granting a flexibility of thinking is that when we’re in preacher mode we can view it as a sign of moral weakness, as a prosecutor it means admitting defeat, and as a politician it’s because we are fickle.

Grant jokes that the facts that we defend most strongly often tend to be the things we know less about. Rather than basing our arguments upon the latest scientific studies, we fall back on lines we remember from conversations past, hearsay, or ‘that thing I heard from my friend’s brother in 2006’.

This really made me laugh, and also forced me to acknowledge how true this is.

How many times have we regurgitated or asserted an opinion based on that thing we heard someone say that one time that we really liked the sound of.

I’m embarrassed to say that I have done it many times, without even recognising it!

I didn’t question it. I never fact checked. I’ve rarely sought to update my views. 

The fact is that our thinking should be constantly evolving. The more we change our mind, the closer we (hopefully) come to the truth.

When I reflect upon when I have seen these personas in an educational context, I feel that the preacher and the prosecutor personas are most prevalent. 

Just this week I had a student tell me that she wasn’t going to choose Sociology as one of her A-Level options (although she wanted to) because her father had told her that ‘it wasn’t a proper subject’. She went on to say that she didn’t think she would be going to go to university because he had also said this would be a ‘waste of time’.

This sort of preaching can be dangerous when it is projected upon impressionable young people. 

I’m sure we have all been subject to damaging views like this growing up. 

‘PE is pointless, Drama won’t help you in the real world, you’re going to fail in life unless you’re good at Maths.’

Parents (and teachers) often like to give their opinions on A-Level subjects, and even career choices, but often their schooling and experience is frozen in time, and ten, twenty, or even more years out of date.

Many jobs and careers now require degrees, and the world isn’t what it was. People can have multiple careers in their lifetime, and the skills gleaned from the social sciences seem to be increasingly sought by employers.

Sidenote: I really don’t believe that going for university is what is best for everyone, and there are many different routes to success!

My worry is that often our students will stand by the beliefs of someone they love and respect, even though these views may be outdated and no longer ‘true’. So, they need to be able to become the scientist, to either prove or falsify this hypothesis for themselves.

I distinctly remember having a sports sociology lecturer at university who I thought was the cat’s whiskers, saying that (sport) psychology was a waste of time, and I held that to be true for about ten years. It wasn’t until I became more of a scientist in my thinking that I started to challenge my beliefs by reading and listening to podcasts on this topic area, and I actually found out that I thought he was wrong! Ten years of avoiding something that I now enjoy, because I held someone’s else’s beliefs to be unwaveringly true.

Words matter, and as educators we must use them wisely. 

We need to give students space not only to make their own minds up, but to become scientists in their own learning and unlearning, thinking and rethinking.

We must encourage our students, as well as ourselves, to see our knowledge and understanding of the world as an evolving process, rather than a syllabus we learn and forever know. 

We need to guide them to realise that as things change, so can we.

Boys don’t cry: A personal reflection on the gendering of pastoral care

Boys don’t cry.

So the old adage goes.

As a society we have thankfully come to recognise the flaw in this thinking, as generations of boys and men have paid the price, suffering from suppressed and hidden mental health issues, and higher rates of suicide. In fact, in the UK, suicide is the highest cause of death amongst men under the age of 45.

An article by Dr Funke Baffour entitled ‘Male Suicide: A Silent Epidemic’ discusses the gendering of suicide, and examines possible explanations for the differences in male and female suicide rates. He explains that this is ultimately due to factors that you might have already guessed; men are less likely to ask for help, men have greater difficulty in expressing depressive or suicidal feelings, men have been socialised to internalise their feelings. 

These are quite sweeping generalisations and as Dr Baffour notes, research hasn’t been able to pinpoint the exact reasons for this just yet. She acknowledges that these are simple answers to a complex question.

It is coming up to the one-year anniversary of the first global lockdown, and it is clear to see the mental toll that the ongoing uncertainty has had on students. I have experienced more students openly expressing their concerns in the past few months than I have done in previous years, and the prevalence and severity of their problems certainly appear greater. This has undoubtedly been impacted by periods of physical separation from friends and families, ongoing fears and worries about the health of themselves and those they care about, and spending more time in dysfunctional family situations. 

This is further compounded in the international school context, where it is not uncommon for parents businesses or employment to have an international element. This may mean that at least one parent is regularly based overseas for temporary work contracts, or permanently working abroad and sending money home to pay for international schooling. What we’ve seen in this past year is that many parents have either been trapped abroad (or have had to remain away from their homes and families in order to continue earning money) or that parents have been laid off after finishing their most recent contracts. This has led to families experiencing greater financial stress, and perhaps even having to consider the viability of international schooling going forwards.

Students are stressed. Families are stressed. Households are stressed.

Things are different.

Prior to the pandemic I very rarely had male students self-refer themselves for counselling or pastoral support. In my experience, I have often had many more female students open up to me about their struggles. Indeed, I can probably count on one hand how many male students have come to me for help in the three years that I have worked at my current school. Whilst I recognise that the fact that I am also female undoubtedly influences which students reach out to me, I find this to be an interesting observation.

Over the past six months, however, I have started to speak to many more male students for the first time, who are reaching out for help because they are struggling to cope.

I feel that this is indicative (in part, at least) of the internalisation of the ‘boys don’t cry mentality’, despite the rhetoric around gender and masculinity increasingly telling us that it is ok for boys to show emotion. 

That it is ok for boys to struggle mentally and emotionally. That boys can cry if they need to.

Yet, I have recognised that when a male student comes to me upset and crying, it feels strange. It’s not ‘normal’. Or at least, it’s not normal in the sense that it doesn’t happen very often, and takes me by surprise. 

Even though I would like to consider myself open-minded and progressive in my thinking, I am aware that I have also internalised aspects of the ‘boys don’t cry’ thinking, because I don’t have much previous experience to draw upon. Because even in my limited experience, boys haven’t tended to cry, or open up emotionally, around me. Nor do I expect them to. 

What I have noticed, upon reflection, is that pastoral support or intervention for male students often seems to be delayed. 

When a male student is demonstrating changes in their behaviour such as an inability to focus or meet deadlines, a change from being easy going to withdrawn and angry, a change from engaging in lessons and taking pride in their appearance to coming in most days tired and scruffy, it is much more likely to be explained as a character flaw – a behavioural (as opposed to an emotional) issue.

He’s lazy, he’s disrespectful, he just needs to ‘sort himself out’.

We can often delay our response and misconstrue cries for help as ‘boys being boys’.

I can definitely identify this in my own thinking, and realise that I’m often slower in recognising that these students may need deeper help and support, and not just a superficial behavioural intervention or a pep talk.

Perhaps we are quick to give a simple answer to a complex question. 

Afterall, boys will be boys.

In our move to become more progressive in our thinking about gender not just being a binary notion… it’s not as simple as that… our gendered biases run deep.

Perhaps boys don’t cry because we don’t let them.

Boarding a ship in a storm… university guidance counselling in a pandemic

This year I had the opportunity to move into an international school university guidance counselling role. Having spent an extended period of time in the Higher Education sector, I thought I had a fairly good grasp of the university experience. 

Turns out I hadn’t even touched the tip of the iceberg.

Prior to taking this position I was fortunate to have the opportunity to learn from a really experienced and skilled colleague, before he left the position for different pastures. I learnt about SATs, BMATs, UCAS, Studielink, Early/Regular Decisions, GPA, transcripts, and a host of other application systems and entrance exams. 

I had listened, taken notes and asked an extensive list of questions.

I was ready… Or so I thought.

That was until the pandemic came. And stayed.

Who knew a guidance role at a school could be so drastically impacted by an indefinite global pandemic??!

The intricacies of navigating different national university systems and the skill of experienced guidance counsellors who are able to do this so effectively is something that I am genuinely in awe of. 

I wholeheartedly try my best to do everything I can to be the best counsellor I can possibly be; I listen to podcasts and attend webinars, I keep up to date with the latest university news, I’ve joined international counselling groups so that I can ask questions and communicate with counsellors with more experience than me – anything that will help me to better help my students. But truth be told, I wish that the students that I am working with now could have me, Ms Sadie, the guidance counsellor, in a year or two’s time. 

The counsellor that has already found a way to navigate university guidance during the pandemic.

But failing that I am Ms Sadie, the 5-month new guidance counsellor, and what I lack in experience I try to make up for by instilling in my students that they are not alone, and that WE are navigating the stormy seas of applying to university during a pandemic together. 

Neither of us are anchored to anything stable at the moment, and many students are at a genuine loss about how they can accurately plan their next steps. The ability to pivot and change their plans is not just a desirable but an essential quality that they must possess right now. 

Will they be able to go to the UK/Canada/Australia/New Zealand and attend in-class lectures? Will they be able to feasibly get into these countries to start their lessons? Will their university destinations be placed under another lockdown, or will they be able to go out and meet new people? Will they be able to easily come back home for holidays, or if things just don’t work out?

Rather than choosing a future direction because of the normal considerations (the national education system of choice/the course they want to study), it feels a little bit more like they are placing bets on the options that are most likely to go ahead as normal.

But it is no small bet. International families are laying down tens of thousands of pounds on something that they have no clear odds of winning.

For transnational students who have been attending international schools in countries that neither they or their parents hold a passport for, the odds feel a little higher. For families that have settled permanently in new countries and have built their lives and businesses there, immigration considerations for their children who have now outgrown their education visas may be something that they have never had to consider before… 

‘If I don’t or can’t go to university, how do I stay with family in the city/country that I see as home (but doesn’t match my passport)?’

‘If I leave my family, what if I can’t get back to them because I don’t have a visa/I am not a citizen of the country that my family lives in?’

‘What if I leave and then I have to do online learning and I end up not being able to see anyone?’

I have a number of students who have older siblings that have already decided to put their studies on hold because they don’t want to study online for their degree. Whilst this is a completely understandable choice, the issue has remained that not all of them have been able to be reunited with their families due to the difficulty in both travelling to and re-entering the countries in which their families are living. These are eighteen and nineteen year olds that are now isolated in foreign countries away from everyone they know, having to make difficult decisions with little to no support.

Advising students with these very challenging realities is tough.

Advising students about degree programmes and potential career choices to pursue feels like shaky ground given that some industries (such as hospitality management) are set to be decimated for some time by the pandemic. 

Sadly none of us have a crystal ball, but it can sometimes feel as though I am constantly torn between advising them for the world I wish for them, and the world that actually exists right now.

I salute all of the international school counsellors who no longer have an accurate map, and to the students who have boarded a ship in a storm. My only hope is that as a result of this experience we’ll all be better swimmers once the calmer seas come, and the shoreline finally reveals itself in the distance.

The ‘selectively gay’ teacher conundrum

My wife and I were chatting last night, as we often do about everything ranging from human rights issues to how pretty our dogs are (just in case you didn’t know – this takes up a good 70% of our conversations on average). My wife is currently working on a project that is looking into her experiences as an openly gay PE teacher and this got us thinking about some of the questions that we often ask ourselves relating to our sexuality and its impact or interpretation by others. Questions that we feel you wouldn’t ask yourself if you identified as a cisgender, heterosexual individual, and in particular the question of whether or not being openly gay unintentionally makes us ‘role models’ for LGBT+ students…

Our discussion reminded me of a really interesting article by Bennie Kara entitled ‘Don’t Tuck in your Labels’. In this article Kara talks about all of the labels and categories that she identifies with and has become comfortable using. Kara discusses the importance of speaking our truths without fear and being our authentic selves with our students and the world around us. 

I found this really interesting as an openly gay woman myself, as at times I still find myself tucking in my labels or, more crudely, selectively expressing my ‘gayness’. When I married my wife I found that I was forced to confront my sexuality in ways I hadn’t necessarily done so before. I felt a shift in which it became unacceptable to let people assume (or not correct the assumption) that we were friends, or even sisters(!). I’d hidden behind this for a while, and even felt that this was a bit of a safety blanket, especially when we were travelling in places that were not considered LGBT+ friendly. It feels embarrassing to say this, but at times I have been grateful that as gay, cisgender females we can be relatively ‘inoffensive’ and easily mistaken as friends. 

At times this has made my life easier. But it has also made me sad that I was accepting of my relationship not being viewed or valued with the same weight as heterosexual relationships. Somehow I became complicit in the devaluing of my relationship and the love that I had for my then girlfriend, and now wife. As a result of these feelings, I would question my worthiness or eligibility as a role model for young people who may also be questioning their identity or sexuality. 

I had to learn to let my labels ‘hang out’ and be ok with it, for myself and my sense of self worth.

An interesting conundrum that I have come across since working in education is being seen as an LGBT+ role model. I am incredibly grateful to be able to openly live and work with my wife, and I hope that in simply doing this we have the opportunity to model what gay relationships can be – which is ultimately just the same as any other relationship. I also hope that due to the fact that me and my wife genuinely like each other (most of the time!) and laugh easily in each others company, and with our students, we can model what a healthy relationship (gay or otherwise) looks like. However, it can also sometimes mean that when students are struggling with their sexuality or ‘coming out’, that we are often called upon to put on our rainbow capes and swoop in to save the day.

The problem is that sometimes I have worried about how my ‘gayness’ is interpreted by others. What if I’m seen to actively encourage someone to become gay; what if families think I’m ‘promoting homosexuality’ to their children? As ridiculous as that might sound, we know that in times when people feel threatened, they can lash out and target differences, especially the ones deemed to be ‘dangerous’. Truth be told, when I’ve been in the position of helping a student work through figuring out their sexuality, I automatically revert to tucking my labels back in, just a little, so they are not on full display. Be gay, but not TOO gay. Be a socially acceptable version of gay. Adapt to fit into the society you find yourself in. Keep yourself safe. 

At times it can feel like when you watch that sitcom where one of the characters is nervous because they are about to meet their in-laws for the first time. They’re looking for reassurance that their partner’s parents are going to love them, and are encouraged to just be themselves… followed by a hesitation and joke that maybe they shouldn’t be themselves… or at least be a little less of themselves… it’s safer that way. 

This is what it can feel like in different environments as a gay woman. Be who you are… but maybe just a little less gay… or at least less visibly gay. It’s better that way, right? You don’t want to make other people feel uncomfortable. 

The truth is that ‘toning’ down your sexuality, which is not a personality quirk but an important part of who you are, can often feel dishonest and frankly, wrong.

I guess my closing thoughts (for fear of turning this article into a drone) is that in my experience, even those people who may be ‘openly’ gay are often still fighting internal struggles with how and when they present this part of themselves. The world is only just starting to open up (at least in a more significant and visible way) and we all internalise what we have grown up with, and what the world around us tells us is the dominant narrative. This is the baggage that we will continue to carry, and may repeatedly have to take out and unpack. I don’t think there is anything wrong with this. Rather than always pretending to be ‘ok’ with being gay when I talk to my students, I would rather be honest. 

I can struggle with my ‘gayness’ and still be comfortable (even proud!) of being gay. To dismiss these feelings only does my students a disservice, and worse, conveys the message that there is something shameful in the internal struggle they may also be experiencing. 

There is the space to hold both ideas, for me and for them.

The ‘shock’ factor: Triaging wellbeing during a pandemic

For my first article of 2021 I had thought about writing a cheery ‘new year, new you’ style piece about wellbeing, but I quickly realised that with all of the current world ‘going-ons’, I felt it might be inauthentic and to be honest, a bit of a lie. 

I’ll admit that I have had a personal ‘slump’ over the Christmas break. I spent a lot of time on the sofa either asleep, or thinking about how tired I was. I felt completely adverse to working, as though starting anything might open up the ‘burnout’ wound that had grown increasingly raw over the last few weeks of term. Any knocks to this, even opening my laptop for anything other than to watch Netflix, would damage the new, fragile skin that was slowly starting to form. Best to keep watching Netflix then, doctors orders!

This period made me think about wellbeing once again, but not necessarily from the (over-simplified) perspective that ‘wellbeing is good’ or ‘we should all be focusing on our wellbeing’. The closest analogy of my thoughts about wellbeing, in a time when the world seemed to be conspiring against everyone in it, was that I felt in a chronic state of ‘shock’ – the kind you hear about on first aid courses, rather than the moment when someone tells you something you weren’t quite anticipating. The kind of shock where something bad happens; a serious injury or traumatic experience, that causes your blood flow to shift away from the periphery of your body and shuts down non-essential bodily functions, in an attempt to redirect the blood to your vital organs. Your body reacts this way to try to ensure its survival, and yet it can be a critical and life-threatening condition if left untreated.

At a time when we are living in a perpetual state of fear and anxiety, it can feel as though all of the lifeblood is rushing away from the centre of who we are. The energy we use to be us – everything that we stand for, the vital functions that we need to get through everyday life, and the things that allow us to flourish – seems to be depleted. To wake up, get dressed, try our best to work or study, eat, sleep, repeat, can feel at best, draining, at worst, near impossible. Even our basic, vital functions may not be operating as well as they normally would under different circumstances. 

For me at the moment, wellbeing seems to be eluding my definition of a vital bodily function. This is not to say that I don’t think it is vital (I really do) but at the moment when I feel like my stunted blood flow is only serving the most core parts of me, I often don’t feel that there is the capacity for much else other than simply getting through the day.

I think about it from a teaching standpoint as well. When second and third waves are well underway, and in some ways a lot scarier than first waves due to their size and the rapid pace at which they are spreading. When schools are left in limbo about new year reopenings and leaving students, teachers and families in the same limbo, with everyone unsure about how the new year is going to start amidst increasingly fearful conditions. With GCSE and A Level exams potentially cancelled and the uncertainty that goes along with this, both in terms of how teachers will plan and assess students as well as keep them engaged, and how students will find ways to stay motivated despite being robbed yet again of their opportunity to validate their learning to themselves and others. When political mistrust is just as dangerous and pervasive as a virus, and seems to be mutating at light-speed and causing a myriad of symptoms which include (but are not limited to) chest pains, anxiety, stress, difficulty sleeping, and an impending sense of doom. The external environment that we are experiencing at the moment definitely isn’t an optimal environment for ‘being well’.

What we need is for wellbeing, as a process, to take on the emotional equivalent of positioning your legs above your heart. We need it to help us to stem the effects of this chronic, unrelenting shock. It doesn’t have to require much effort, and other people can help you if you are unable to do this for yourself, but it can give you the time for things to start flowing the way that they are meant to. But how? Well, one way in which wellbeing could be the equivalent of a first aid maneuver at the moment is to literally put your feet up and allow yourself to feel everything you’re feeling. Angry, frustrated, robbed, relieved, scared, grateful – the list goes on. You can experience all the seasons of emotions in one day (and more than once over). Now isn’t necessarily the right time to try to bring in a new initiative or programme (although it may be in some cases) but to instead simply get through the day in whatever way you (and your students) can. Try to be understanding, and give others the space to do the same. Create an environment of genuine empathy and kindness. Speak to people. Allow time and space for processing. Allow the lifeblood to gradually flow back to where it was meant to be, and continue to monitor for change and call for help if you need it. Let the body do the healing that it needs to, in order to access better wellbeing in the future. 

Student identity in flux: Transitions in a global pandemic

Transitions are a fundamental part of the life journey. Some transitions are obvious and expected, such as the move from primary school to secondary school, the move into Further or Higher Education, the move into work and between jobs, and retirement. Many of these transitions may well be intended and planned, but nonetheless can feel scary, uncomfortable and hard.

There are also the unintended transitions. These types of transitions may include a relationship break-up, a bereavement, an illness, an unexpected move, and for sure – a pandemic.

Transitions can be exciting, daunting, saddening, and inspiring all at once, or any combination of these things.

The pandemic has been a globally experienced unintended transition, which everyone has experienced, and continues to experience, differently. 

What’s interesting about transitions is that how we experience them is often tied to our identity. 

In my current role I have the opportunity and privilege to work alongside students as they make their university choices, and decisions about what their life holds beyond international school. This year, the list of universities students were going to apply to when they began this process has changed significantly. Many students are considering taking a gap year. Many students are looking to remain closer to home. Many students are concerned about what their university experience is going to be like. 

University is often the end game for many students going through secondary education (particularly in international schools), and many of them, intentionally and unintentionally, build their identity around this. I think of the students who pick Sciences and Maths because their long-term plan is to become a Doctor or Engineer, and the tireless work they put in to ensure they get into a good university that will enable them to do this. Regardless of the subject choice, students and their families may have been thinking about this particular transition for a long time, and preparing themselves for the person they are about to ‘become’. 

This is rightly an exciting time for young people, and as much as I enjoy witnessing this, at times have to hold back my ‘real world’ thoughts and feelings. Sometimes reality checks are important, but you have to question your motivation for a reality check and whether what you are going to say is helpful or harmful, and who it is really for. Our students haven’t been jaded yet and we don’t need to fast-track this process. In fact, it is vital that they leave school full of optimism, enthusiasm, and a genuine belief that they are capable of bringing about positive change, in whatever career they choose.

What I am finding is that many students this year are understandably unsure about their university applications and plans. My initial reaction to this can sometimes be frustration (that their hesitancy makes it harder for me to help them) but when I am able to take a step back and consider the position they are in, I realise I haven’t quite comprehended just how much the pandemic is affecting this transition on an identity level, at such a pivotal time in young people’s lives.

Often the different aspects of our identity become more diverse as we grow older, but it tends to be relatively narrow when we’re younger (especially for teenagers). If being an ‘academic’ student that attends a good university is a key part of who they are defining themselves to be, then surely the current pandemic has turned this up on it’s head. What if they can’t go to study the course that they have been dreaming about? What if they don’t feel safe to go and study in the countries they have been thinking about applying to? What if the worry of moving countries and making friends is heightened because they’re not sure of how potential ongoing lockdowns will affect this? What if they are worried if they leave for university and get sick their families aren’t around to take care of them? What if a member of their family gets sick and they can’t get back to be with them? These worries are not unfounded, and may well be heightened by the experiences that many of their recently-graduated peers are having, the stories they are hearing about people just like them, finding that their future plans have had to be paused, or changed, or not working out they way they were ‘supposed to’. 

Yet, if they stay at home, then the identity of becoming the independent, mature, university student doesn’t exist anymore. There is a loss of the perceived freedom they have worked so hard to have.

Whilst I believe that many universities are doing a fantastic job of adapting to the ever-changing circumstances and are finding ways to ensure that students are still able to access their university education, I don’t always think that we (I definitely include myself in this we) always understand the impact that this in having on the identities of our students.

Transitions are challenging because it means a move into the unknown. Now, more than ever, students need our understanding, support and patience, as they navigate this transition.

The role of teachers as a catalyst for curiosity

This week I was really fortunate to have the opportunity to sit down and have a fascinating talk with Dr Stephen Whitehead, co-creator of EDDi. We spoke about a range of issues currently facing the world of international schooling, and also discussed our backgrounds in Higher Education. One thing that Stephen said that really stood out to me, was the idea that people can often act as a catalyst for the progress of others. Sometimes people can come into our lives (or we may go into theirs) and, for whatever reason, this can act as a source of inspiration or motivation that shifts our mindset and our actions. 

The idea that meeting people at the right place or time can act as a springboard or ‘catalyst’ for change has always been something that has particularly excited me about Higher Education. 

Perhaps it’s a lecture that strikes a chord with you and inspires your final year project, a meeting you have with a professor, during which they recommend a book that feeds your curiosity and plants a seed that influences your career trajectory, or the discussion you have with a tutor which helps you to realise your innate research and writing skills, and spurs you into taking a new professional direction. 

This is something special.

A problem that I often notice exists within secondary education is the lack of space for teachers to act as a ‘catalyst’ for our students. This is not to say that this doesn’t ever happen, but in my opinion the performative nature of compulsory education, and the constraining nature of most school qualifications, can often lead to two problems; (1) time restraints that result in us prioritising content over curiosity, and (2) the performative nature of exams shifting our focus to ‘fixing’ students in order to ensure that they pass their assessments.

Post-16 qualifications often feel like a perfect time to start cultivating curiosity… students are starting to narrow their focus and tend to be more motivated. But when the opportunities afforded to students in terms of university and work are constrained considerably by their academic performance, teachers can be left hamstrung. If students are not performing well, then it is often the job of teachers (and sometimes support staff) to ‘fix’ this. 

This ‘fixing’ and focus on helping students to move up grade boundaries is constraining for us as teachers. It can cause us to focus on the shortcomings of students, and attach a personal element to failure (‘you’ are failing, ‘you’ are not where you need to be). Whilst not without its flaws, what I feel Higher Education does particularly well is to reward curiosity and provide space to allow educators to focus on helping guide the student to who they could be, rather than focusing on how they are performing right now. 

For those of us working in international schools, often within the constraints of relatively rigid educational systems, how can we take a step back and find a way to cultivate curiosity? How can we fight the urge to ‘fix’ and find a way to catalyse?

Depending on the philosophy of the school you are in, it may not be easy to make these changes. But I believe it can be done. As teachers, we can be deliberate about not merely focusing on results, but also guiding our students towards their strengths. We can create space that allows us, and our students, to break from prescribed content by, for example, sharing a video or resource about current issues related to our subject. We can find and share books or articles with our students that are personalised to their own interests within the subject area. We can find a way to challenge their (and our) preoccupation with exam content, in such a way that still moves them forward in the right direction.

If the goal of education is to create sustainable curiosity, then we must seek to be catalysts for our students, inspiring and guiding them to become the people we know they can be in the future. 

Growth in tension: How working internationally changed my thinking

When I first arrived in South East Asia there were so many things that, perceived through my Western lens, I found difficult to understand. Why did no one queue in 7/11? Why did no one seem to get angry at bad driving? Why was it that the more frustrated I got when complaining about whatever small injustice I’d experienced, the more I was ignored or brushed off?

Things just didn’t work the same as they did at home, and in the early days of living in Asia there were times I felt quite frustrated.

I vividly remember not understanding why students would wear a mask to school for the most minor infection (this was 5 years ago). I remember early on into my time living here being given a mask by the doctor when I was diagnosed with the flu, and thinking to myself that it was a completely ridiculous idea. 

My long-held beliefs about how the world worked didn’t align with what I was experiencing. The framework I had constructed from previous experiences didn’t seem to serve me any more.

However, the longer I live in Asia the better I understand why things work the way they do here (mostly!) The more I realise my attachment to a ‘good queuing system’ is tied to (my) British culture. It isn’t necessarily a rude thing here to push in front of people or not queue. The system is different and therefore my interpretation of people’s actions needs to be different.

These small things that used to bother me now tend not to even register. The longer I live abroad, the more I notice a ‘loosening’ of my once very westernised values. I wouldn’t say that I have fully assimilated into Asian culture – I am a white, British female, and I absolutely receive privileges related to that which mean that I experience the world differently, and can’t always fully understand the nuances of a culture that is not my own. But there has been a noticeable shift in my thinking. 

I notice these subtle changes the most when I return home to the UK on short trips. There are so many things I love about being home. I love the Essex accent, the seasons, the pubs (oh I miss the pubs!) I miss the endless flow of ‘shall I put the kettle on?’ I miss the interactions with the cashiers at the supermarkets and local shops… ‘you alright love… how’s your Nan? Give her my love’. 

Undeniably I miss home.

What I have realised though, is that I’m not the same person that I was when I left. I cringe a little bit when people are rude or difficult to staff in shops (however justified they may feel). I am less bothered by queuing as I used to be (my Mum has even been embarrassed by my new queuing etiquette (or lack of) when boarding the train… Mum I don’t know what you’re waiting for, just join the queue where you are!

These are lighthearted examples, but I definitely feel that the longer I’ve been away from home, the more difficult I find it to connect with people there in the same way that I used to. I’m not as ‘Western’ in some of my thinking as I was, and I sometimes struggle to feel that I fit in like I did. 

This is a good thing.

I appreciate the opportunity I have been given to see and understand things through multiple cultural lenses, and to be able to both appreciate and critique how things work in different parts of the world. 

This has undoubtedly enabled me to appreciate and reflect upon the values that are truly important to me as a person, and not just the ones that I have adopted simply because of where and how I have grown up.

I don’t believe that I will be the only person working in international education who feels like this. And my advice to others would be that we can and should use these feelings to help us understand the experiences our students are facing, who equally will encounter challenges to their thinking as a result of their transnational lifestyles. 

There is much growth that can take place in this tension. Particularly during such difficult and polarising times, when it can feel that people have forgotten how to consider and appreciate different viewpoints, the ability to be more flexible and considered in our thinking can only be a good thing. 

Things may not look the same anymore, they may in fact look better.