When the world recovers from coronavirus, some international teachers may want to end their adventure, says Helen Wright
When our children were little, and the summer holidays approached, my husband and I almost invariably stretched our ambitions (and our budgets) to the point where we found ourselves over successive years bumping through turbulence on a long-haul flight from Heathrow to somewhere often quite far afield – Toronto or Kuala Lumpur or Hong Kong or Brisbane or Perth. These trips were milestones in our children’s lives.
What we really noticed, however, was the change in our children when they returned home – after even a few weeks away in a different climate, with different sounds, food and companions, they had visibly changed. They were more alert and more adept; their language was more advanced, and – inasmuch as one can say this of a toddler – their critical thinking and problem-solving skills seemed to have improved. In any case, we attribute their subsequent unwillingness to accept any argument that boils down to "it just is" to the fact that they had learned from an early stage that things almost certainly don’t have to be "just" anything.
Of course, the same was true of us – we grew and changed during our time abroad, both travelling and, later, living overseas.
The same is true of teachers in general. This is one of the many reasons why teachers in international schools, who have experienced significantly different cultures, ways of life, climates, geographies and so on, can be such valuable assets to schools anywhere else in the world, including "back home", wherever their home is.
Unsurprisingly, teachers and school leaders who have worked in different environments typically develop not just an understanding of these environments but the capacity to adapt robustly to changing situations. Living and working abroad can be challenging, exciting, exhilarating and immensely satisfying, especially as teachers absorb the learnings of their new environment and throw themselves into a way of life that is unique to their context.
But what happens when a global pandemic strikes, when economies become upended, schools are closed, communities are locked down, and the ability to travel to see wider families and friends in person is curtailed? What do these international school teachers do then? Over the past three months, since the virus started to circulate in China, closing schools in the country from Chinese New Year, I have observed two broad sets of responses – not necessarily exclusive, it must be said – as teachers and school leaders work through their feelings.
The first of these is the homing instinct – a quite primal desire to return to a place of familiarity, nearer to elderly parents, and, in a political and civil context, a place which resonates more closely with the memories teachers have from their childhood; even though, of course, everyone’s freedom is being curtailed at the moment, and for good reason. Many English-medium international schools in China were very happy to support their teachers in this homing instinct, allowing them to work from their homes in the UK, US or Australia from late January to recently, when they called them back, just ahead of China closing its borders to non-residents.
The desire to return "home" is strong; will these teachers return, however? Most school leaders are anticipating that they will – not least because they will not, as yet, have other jobs lined up – but as restrictions are eased and the danger of Covid-19 diminishes, it is a fair bet that a number of these teachers will decide that they have had enough of an adventure, and that it is time to go back home.
Conversely, though, I have noted another response – a desire to move away, to take risks, to think about future opportunities. I have been struck by the number of teachers and school leaders who are seeking advice about potential next career moves, and who, as they emerge from the fog of the initial crisis and onslaught of Zoom planning calls with their teams, with their online learning underway as best they possibly can, have begun to listen to another primal feeling – that sense of their own mortality and the desire to make the most of life. Our mortality usually slumbers under the surface but is now strutting its stuff, full-frontal, in our lives. I
In confronting it, a significant number of school leaders and teachers are starting to think that life is too short to keep doing only what they have been doing, and that if they do not move now (or, realistically, as soon as is practical), then when? CVs are being dusted down, and teachers are reaching out, looking for guidance and support ... where might they go in this brave new world?
Not every teacher will experience these responses, and not everyone will act on them, even if they feel them. But I predict (even at this early stage) that as the world unfurls from this crisis, we will see ripples of migratory behaviour amongst teachers. And, to be honest, the world’s schools will be richer as a result, as all of these teachers bring and share their cultural experiences, and grow themselves. A great school, after all, is where all members of the community are learning.
Beating this virus is not just about survival – it must surely be about creating a better world. And what better way to start than with teachers with rich experiences who have grown and flourished through their engagement with different cultures, and who can share these learnings with children and young people?