In the summer of 2004, I found myself on a plane bound for Tokyo to begin working in a senior high school as part of the JET Programme.
Leaving everything I knew behind, the sense of adventure was strong. I was committed to staying for one year, and I’d have the choice to renew my contract if needed.
Suffice it to say, the experience was more formative for me than university and, unbeknownst to me at the time, laid the foundation for my future international teaching career.
A leap into the unknown
Choosing to work in the international sector is a big leap. There is usually an expectation of committing to a two-year contract and for some this scratches the itch for international travel enough that they elect to return home at the end.
But for those more seasoned colleagues in the international circuit, what are the deciding factors for staying beyond the initial two years? This question formed the basis of some master’s research I undertook two years ago.
Among the themes that emerged through this process, something I termed "gateway friendships" came across strongly. Gateway friends may be colleagues who have also remained in the placement beyond the initial two years but more often is someone who is outside the school community.
By introducing you to a non-collegial support network, gateway friendships and relationships enable teachers to have ways to learn about – and settle into – the local community. It helps to move staff beyond the school-based support structures and build a more permanent life within their community.
There are many ways to do this – here are five that work well:
1. Join a local sports group
Sports groups are a great way to meet others who are passionate about keeping fit. One example of this that I have used are the Hash House Harriers.
They are an international runners group, with over 2,000 clubs around the world. With their origins in the British military posted in Malaysia, runners meet weekly to follow a trail left by a volunteer.
Pit stops along the way for "refreshments" and a ceremonial gathering at the end of the run help form friendships with the most unlikely of people.
2. Taking part in a language exchange programme
Finding a local language exchange buddy can help immerse you in the culture and language quirks of the country. When I was in Japan, I formed some close friendships through learning Japanese in exchange for teaching English.
This allowed me to learn Japanese beyond the formal textbook phrases and develop a more natural style of talking. These groups are easy to find using apps like Meetup or local social media group pages.
3. Founding a book club
Bookshops, libraries and community centres are likely places to look for book clubs to join. However, with most of the world working virtually, it’s never been easier to set one up yourself.
In my apartment complex, I posted a flyer in the entry lobby, with a QR code link to an online book group I’d set up. It proved popular, with many of my neighbours joining.
The book club soon evolved into a group of friends who enjoyed spending time together.
Many organisations rely on volunteers to keep running. When I moved to Chicago, I joined the volunteer team at a local nature museum. For me, it was a way to meet people as passionate about the environment and nature as I was, and to learn about local wildlife.
Museums and community organisations are great for finding volunteer opportunities and often have dedicated sections of their websites for recruitment of volunteers. Look out for volunteer fairs that may be organised, too.
5. Alumni groups
Many universities and organisations have large alumni networks, with chapters all over the world. Through joining these groups, you can find others who have shared experiences like yours.
Joining the JET Alumni Association in Chicago allowed me to meet, and in some cases reunite, with colleagues from my time in Japan. It quickly became an important route to building my social life here in the states, outside of work.
The friendships I formed are one of the key contributing factors to building a life for myself in Chicago, as opposed to treating it like a pit stop on my international journey.
Whatever you decide to do, the most important thing is to be brave enough to take that first step and persist beyond the first meeting.
Why it's worth it
It’s very easy to fall into relying on the small bubble of colleagues you arrived in a country with.
After a while, the balance of support should shift, with the school becoming a vehicle for retention, through career development opportunities.
While school support systems are an important first step in settling new staff, it eventually becomes external factors that influence a teacher’s decision to remain in an international placement.
Tom Collins is a primary science specialist teacher and Steam departmental leader at the Nord Anglia British International School of Chicago – Lincoln Park