The coronavirus outbreak over the last few months has been an unbelievably stressful time for all of us. We are all trying to react, adjust and cope with an entirely unprecedented situation that is affecting everyone around the planet. In my work with, and experience as an, international school teacher(s), I have been really fortunate to being having lots of conversations with colleagues around the world since the outbreak began in China, in January.
In both private, and public (recorded for our #coachbetter podcast) conversations, I have had a realtime window into the stresses and challenges of starting distance learning when teachers and students haven’t yet returned from holidays, or the realities of trying to get back to your current home during travel restrictions, and generally just figuring everything out in this new world order often before the rest of the world even realized what was happening. If you want to hear some of those stories, please check out the conversations on our Eduro Learning Remote Learning Curated Resources page.
It’s been a challenging time for those of us living outside of our home countries, but I’ve also come to realize that friends and family who have never left their home country are approaching this pandemic with a slightly different approach. After a lot of conversations, I started to wonder if the people in my international school network were able to cope with this pandemic in a unique way. I thought I would share my thoughts about that here, to help others who might be looking for new ways to cope with these unprecedented levels of stress.
All of these ideas came up because we’re living overseas, but they don’t depend on location at all. They work wherever you are, it all depends on your perspective, and they can be applied to your life, no matter where you are.
It’s hard to believe that Alex (my husband) and I have been working in international schools for 20 years already. I can still remember our first year in Germany and how much I cried, adjusting to a new life in a new country, away from my family and my home. But now, 20 years later, I’m realizing that teaching internationally has prepared us for much more than we ever could have expected. In fact, over the past few weeks, I’m starting to recognize that all of us that do this kind of work have been pretty well prepared for the pandemic.
Three Ways Teaching Internationally Prepared Me for the Pandemic
1. New Job = New Life
Every time we decide to move on to a new school, it means packing up every single aspect of your life and starting anew. When we change jobs, we change countries so that means we have to move everything we own, complete the process of becoming a legal resident of an entirely new country, find a new place to live and settle yourself into a new culture (and usually, language). And, of course, on top of that, you’re starting a new job in a new school with new colleagues, new expectations, and new norms. For most international school teachers, we do this every 3-5 years, so you get pretty good at adapting to a new environment pretty quickly.
2. Everyday Uncertainty
Living in a foreign country means anything can happen when you step outside your door. You might not understand the language or the cultural perspective on how to handle daily interactions. Likely you probably will take a while to understand local dynamics, you might not ever really understand the local news unless you make a concerted effort. If you’re anything like me, you’re making cultural mistakes all the time because things are done in a way that might be the total opposite of the mindset you grew up with. All of this means you have to adjust yourself, your mindset, your attitude, and your small habits to suit your local culture. You have to become a new “you” every time you move. Granted, some countries require more adapting than others, but you also become better at adapting every time you move.
3. Overcoming a Crisis Abroad
Crises happen all over the world all the time. If you stay in your home country, you see them in the news. When you’re moving from country to country, you end up living through some of them first hand. In our 20 years, we’ve been very lucky, and haven’t had too many serious challenges, but we have lived through: The Great East Japan Earthquake (and then the tsunami & Fukushima meltdown), riots, floods and protests that forced us to move from our apartment in Bangkok into temporary housing during the last time we lived here. After just one of these experiences, you realize that if you can get through something crazy and scary like that, in a foreign country (where you don’t know the language, you don’t hold a passport, you don’t have a social safety net, etc), you really can get through anything.
And then, the Pandemic
Even though we’ve lived through some interesting times in the places we’ve lived, those situations only ever affected us and our local community. Friends and family living in other parts of the world heard about it on the news but we always got through it on our own (always with an amazing school community). This is the first time the emergency we’re facing is the same for everyone around the world – at the same moment in time.
All the conversations I’ve been having lately with colleagues, friends and family have made me realize that teaching internationally have helped us develop skills to cope with unexpected challenges in unique ways.
3 Simple Strategies to Cope With Life-Altering Change
1. Find the familiar
When you’re in a foreign country and everything feels so different, I often find myself looking for any connection to my home country, or a previous home. It might be an environment (like a park) that reminds you of a place you used to enjoy, or a taste (a certain kind of food or drink), or even a product in a shop. When you’re in an entirely unfamiliar situation, looking for any connection to your previous life experience can be very comforting. You’re seeking out something that still feels familiar, even if it’s a “new” familiar thing. Even when everything seems different, what is the one simple thing that can be consistently there for you, providing a bright spot of comfort in your day.
During this pandemic, some of my familiar things are:
- still being able to take a walk outside so that I can take pictures and appreciate the interestingness of my surroundings here in Bangkok.
- continuing my powerlifting training (I am very fortunate to have the space and finances to set up a home gym in our second bedroom).
- finding little things in my day that make me happy (I say “hello” to my #bestfrond on our daily walks, I’ve been waiting for a lotus to bloom, I love the meals I’ve been making, I appreciate the digital connections I have on a daily basis with colleagues, friends and family around the world).
2. Know Your Limits
When you move to a new place, there’s only so much information you can absorb at once. You’re trying to learn the culture, the language, the location, the school, your new routines, etc. It’s so much change all at once, it’s overwhelming. Some people prefer to go with the flow and find out what they need to know once they need to know. Some people like to do a deep dive and find every single grocery store within a 5 mile radius the first weekend (ahem, that’s me). Know your level of information needs and stick with it. You don’t need to know everything immediately, and it’s ok not to know it all right away.
3. Make (or Connect With) Friends
Usually a life-altering change is very isolating. Even if we know others are going through the same situation, we can feel all alone, like we are the only one that feels this way. When we move to a new place, we always start by finding our connections to people who are already there (or who have previously lived there). Those friends can help us build a new social support system in country.
However, this doesn’t mean that you will make friends immediately, or that you’ll have the same kind of connection that you do with your longer term friends, so don’t forget about your support system in previous homes. When we first moved to Germany I had to get a special phone plan to call the US (on a landline), now we’re so lucky to have FaceTime and Skype and Zoom or whatever you use to chat with your friends around the world. Reach out to everyone and see how they’re doing. Build your social support network in person and online.
Of course this doesn’t mean that all of the international school teachers I know are handling the pandemic any better than anyone else (and certainly not that I think I’m handling it better than anyone else). We all have to find what works best for us in this unprecedented time, and it’s totally fine if your version of “coping” looks totally different from mine, or anyone else’s. There’s no one right way to manage your life during a pandemic, but I hope some of these strategies from a life lived in a nearly constant state of change might be helpful for others who are looking for ways to make daily life in quarantine a little more bearable.
I especially appreciate all of the ways that my international school friends are sharing their perspective on coping with this change, from Keri-Lee’s Letting Go of Perfect, to Nici Foote’s instagram lives on quarantine in China, to Will Kirkwood’s Teaching & Parenting in a Distance Learning World, and Adam Clark’s counseling advice on YouTube. I’m pretty sure that I can speak for all of us, and say that we certainly don’t have all the answers, but we’d love to connect and share and support in any way we can.
How are you coping? What aspects of your unique life experience have helped you adapt to the new normal?