Supporting local staff in international schools
According to Henry Wong, helping local staff understand the micro-culture in which they work is as essential as orientating new international staff when they arrive.
After sixteen years working in the non-teaching division – of several international/bilingual schools, I have come to the opinion that the majority of local support staff are really diligent, and when necessary, are willing to go ‘above and beyond’, work overtime or on weekends without asking for extra stipend. Of course, I cannot vouch for all local support staff at all international schools, but this has been my experience.
Lack of commitment among host country support staff is typically not the challenge. However, suitable cultural adjustment – or ‘fitting in’ can be a problem. This observation is further reinforced after speaking with my counterparts from other international schools around the world, and after interviewing more than twenty host country support staff and foreign academic administrators across China.
International schools as microcultures
International schools in any country become a focal point of cultural diversity. They are a little world within a larger one, a microcosm in a thriving universe. Think of a penguin population from the glaciers of Antarctica inhabiting a cold oasis in a scorching desert. I know it sounds a little bizarre, but it is a suitable analogy. These schools are built to offer a global experience and therefore they provide their own micro-culture.
This international school micro-culture is just different from the overall culture of that country. It is also important to differentiate between a subculture and a micro-culture: a subculture is still a portion of the overall culture, whereas a micro-culture is not. For example, the millennial culture is a subculture in the US, because it is a derivative of the overall culture. By contract, a flourishing Chinese culture in an African village would be a micro-culture.
Two-way culture shock
Despite a common language with which to interact in international schools, when people of radically different cultures come together, be it a professional or casual setting, it is extremely important that they receive adequate preparation and education to develop empathy and understanding of one another.
While culture shock certainly affects foreign teachers, it also takes a toll on local employees, who include teachers, para-educators, and non-teaching support staff. Many foreign teachers have some previous experience working overseas, and most new recruits undergo an orientation programme specifically designed for them. They therefore more or less know what to expect. On the other hand, the situation can be difficult for local recruits. Not only do they lack international exposure, they may have never worked in a cultural setting that is radically different from their overall culture. The micro-culture of international schools is totally alien to them.
Dealing with the micro-culture
International schools usually do an excellent job in preparing new foreign teachers professionally and culturally during their onboarding process. Unfortunately host country support staff are less culturally prepared for their roles. While foreign colleagues face the culture shock of living outside their country, local employees encounter “international school micro-culture shock.” This “international school micro-culture shock” may instill feelings of insecurity, being undervalued, inequality, and a lack of confidence.
What makes things worse
The situation is further exacerbated when:
- The local staff members are not adept in the English language which is the medium of operations.
- Some local cultures are less articulate naturally. The lack of articulation is sometimes misinterpreted as an absence of willingness to work or aptitude.
- The school environment is dominated by western culture.
- Local employees take the role of supporting and serving their foreign colleagues.
All of these elements and insecurities fuse together to make host country employees feel as if they are ‘lesser beings’, and not equal to their foreign colleagues. They assume the status of foreigners within their own country.
Training relevant to local staff
Although a detailed training program is set up for the academic staff, local non-teaching support staff are often overlooked. I know there are heads of school who place a major emphasis on cross-cultural training for both their foreign and local employees. Local non-teaching staff may be fittingly invited or even required to join their new academic colleagues for the cross-cultural training sessions. However, the sessions are structured predominantly in a fashion that is more relevant to the foreign recruits.
I have identified three pillars that provide a solution to this challenge. Though the observations, interviews, and surveys were primarily conducted in China, both the issue at hand and the solution is applicable to international schools around the world:
- Careful recruitment and picking suitable candidate during the interview process.
- Organizing an induction or orientation program that is relevant to the new local recruits to equip them with the skills for working in a culturally diverse environment.
- Offering practical insights and advice to support staff on how they can best cope in an international school and how they can make a difference, while valuing their individuality as they continue to work there.
It takes two
It is helpful when local support staff play a part in helping foreign teachers assimilate into their culture. In the same way, it is beneficial for foreign administrators and teachers to play a crucial role in helping their local colleagues adjust to the “international school micro-culture shock.” As the old adage goes, “It takes two to tango.”
Henry Wong is a workshop facilitator for The Association of China and Mongolia International Schools (ACAMIS). He has published several books including his latest booklet, Preparing Host Country Support Staff for their Roles in International Schools.
For more about Henry’s workshops, see: https://www.pdacademia.com/cross-cultural-communication