Culture Shock?

Pilar Cabeza de Vaca | September 2, 2022

Having spent many years leading orientation programs for American teachers who are recruited to work in international schools for the first time, I’m familiar with the stages of culture shock one undergoes when moving to a new country.  First there is the excitement of an impending adventure. Then reality sinks in, bringing some trepidation as you plan for the big move.  Fortunately the excitement and wonder return when you board the airplane and land in your new home. A sense of exploration buoys you through your first days, when everything is new, and you delight in meeting new people, discover the nuances of local mores, investigate the city’s bistros, understand neighborhood communities, and ultimately begin to settle in. Then it is time to start your new job, meet students and colleagues, sink into the daily rhythms of the school, and enjoy what is commonly referred to as the honeymoon period.

Unfortunately, the honeymoon won’t last long. You begin craving the comfort foods from back home. Local customs, behaviors, and communication start to feel like challenges rather than opportunities. By Thanksgiving, you’re wondering what made you take the job in this foreign country in the first place. Thank goodness for holiday breaks that give you the much needed time and space to regroup and remember that life is never perfect anywhere. This mental energy boost is enough to get you back on track and things do get better. Most of the time you feel comfortable with all the changes that your life has undergone. And by the end of your first school year that which was foreign is now familiar.

Switching jobs and schools, particularly as a head of school, is a little bit like moving to a different country. You’ll have a honeymoon period, for sure, that is partly celebratory but mostly immersion into the customs, culture, processes, and personalities all around you. No matter how much or how little experience you have under your belt, or how much self-confidence you have, you are in a foreign land. Your supervisory role only adds complexity to the experience.  Even though you are the newcomer to the community, the onus is on you to make inroads into building trust, understanding group values, attitudes and traditions, reading language, including body language, and successfully interpreting tacit messaging.  As you gradually become a part of the school culture don’t forget the value of the new perspectives you bring to the table. They are, after all, a reason you were hired for the role.

Your honeymoon may be a year or only a month long. What do you do to ensure you are successful after the honeymoon is over? Before you step on campus, have a solid entry plan that allows you to efficiently identify underlying issues, to seek out potential allies, to discover movers and shakers if your charge is to bring about change, and to help the community get to know you as well. When you arrive, take the temperature of your administrative team and learn how they work best so you are able to build on their strengths and complement their weaknesses.   Ensure you have a solid partnership with your Board Chair and allow them to manage their end of things. Communicate often and openly, with the faculty, staff, and students. Network with peers in the area; this will keep you from feeling isolated, and their wisdom and advice is always welcome. Finally, don’t forget to take care of yourself*. You will be far more effective as a leader if you model a balanced life and take the time to refresh and reset when needed.

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