An International Journey Back Home

by Dr. Ian Gross

Culture shock can be described as feelings of uncertainty, confusion, or anxiety that people may experience when moving to a new country or surroundings. It is not what you might expect when returning to your home country. As an international teacher and school leader for over two decades, I certainly had feelings of uncertainty moving myself and my family back to the UK. What had brought me to this point was a career in international education, and it was the draw of an international school in the UK that brought me back. After twenty years away and only visiting during summers, the thought of living here again was somewhat alien to me and to my family. My daughters may have been born in the UK but other than a collection of holidays, this had not really been their home. This was an opportunity for them to place roots and to gain more cultural awareness of ‘home’. It also helped that one was starting university and the other, GCSEs.

The International Environment

Having heard countless teachers comment on arrival to their first international school how ‘this is not what we are used to from teaching in the UK’, I was about to experience their comments from the other side and see for myself what the other side was all about, again. My teaching career had begun in England and I was aware of change and developments through colleagues, articles and staffroom conversations. High-quality learning, excellent teaching and strong leadership should look the same regardless of the location, or the weather. What was important, was the school environment and the opportunities it afforded. I was returning to take up headship in a private international boarding school. Therefore, I could see the similarities to current roles in what would be considered traditional international schools overseas.

Definitions for international schools are frequently referred to and argued in academic literature, and can include reasons such as the nationalities of student or staff population, the curricula used, the language of instruction compared to the host nation, and others to name just a few. Many teachers I have worked with would argue it is the student population that makes a school international, in which case the UK school I am currently in now is probably more international in nature than the last couple I have worked in Malaysia and Bahrain, both of which have a majority of host nationals, compared to just one or two individuals who are British in my UK international school.

Having made the decision to return, another choice needed to be made; which school for my daughter who would be starting Year 10? Colleagues who had previously made the choice to return to the UK had commented on the difficulty for their teenage children to integrate well into the English school system, either returning after a period away, or similar to myself, going to an English school for the first time, which led to the decision for her to join the international school, allowing for familiarity in terms of peer groups, and friendships that had not been formed many years previously.

Similarities and Differences

Now, three months into the new school year, I can reflect on the initial similarities and differences between working in an international school outside of the UK, as opposed to one in the UK. For the students, I can see the definite benefit of the host country, the UK being an English-speaking environment. Whilst students (and adults) will naturally drift socially to what they know, and understand, they are in an English speaking, listening and reading environment. Typically, an international school, in Bahrain for example, would be immersed and surrounded by the Arabic language and culture, making the international experience in school somewhat transitory and temporary. In the UK, international students are immersed in the English language inside and outside of the school, they can quickly pick up the local culture, and even their home life (the boarding school in this case) is dominated by the same cultural references and language. From what I have seen, this immersion positively supports their language development and their education.

The staff perspective is interesting from a choice point of view. Very few of the staff have made life-changing decisions to come and work in a school that is relatively not far from where they grew up. Typically, they have not had to pack up homes and ship their lives to somewhere they don’t know anyone. Their lives are already busy with routines of friends and family, with the school a part of this, not central to it. Another consequence of this is the missing social side of joining a new international school with events carefully planned to help induct new arrivals, not just in the school but also in the location. The social aspect of international schools therefore feels lacking in sorts, there is no expectation for staff to pass on local knowledge or discuss local frustrations. In coming back to England you are coming back to others’ assumptions that you will know your way around and what to do.

Earlier I mentioned good leadership is recognisable regardless of the location, and the support for school leaders in the UK is highly developed, both within the school, organisation and from the myriad of external agencies, something very much lacking overseas in many schools. The support and guidelines are clear and often precise with well-rehearsed routines to follow. Coming from a culture where schools often face issues in isolation, support networks in the UK are strong and understanding. It feels as if the UK government has many more regulations for schools than international schools face in many other countries, despite frustrations from foreign governments not understanding British education culture. I now understand how some school leaders straight from the UK become frustrated working in other countries, where things simply are not the same or lack the same level of support or urgency. Coming from the other side, I have observed my time is taken up with more compliance, regulation and guidelines here in the UK. That’s not to say other countries don’t have expectations; just different ones.

A New Adventure

Reverse culture shock is a real thing. I miss the sunsets, the social life, I miss the little things like seeing monkeys in the trees outside the window. However, I look at this as a new opportunity, one where I get to experience the UK as a new adventure, an adventure in a new country through my children’s eyes. An adventure where I still get to enjoy international education, in a location where I can understand the small talk of the locals, and join in with moaning about the weather.

Dr Ian Gross is the principal of The Worthgate School Canterbury, UK

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