A still point in a shifting world

28th March 2014 at 00:00
International school students can feel far from home, so turn them into global citizens

Most schools have years to nurture a child, but at international schools like mine the time is much more restricted. Inevitably, this has to change your approach and priorities.

I am deputy headteacher of primary at the British School of Beijing in Shunyi, China, which has students of 60 nationalities - all children of expats, with the English, German, Finnish and Korean contingents being particularly strong. Most parents are posted to Beijing as diplomats on two- to four-year contracts.

Hence, teachers see only snapshots of a child's school career. This risks students' education becoming unsettled: they must adapt not only to different countries but also to the varied personalities and priorities of their school leaders and teachers.

The key to achieving the right balance is to help children become global citizens. They can then move around the world with confidence, aware of their own cultural identity and that of their peers. International schools are eclectic and diverse communities, but often become even more integral to the fabric of a family's routine and social life than schools back home.

So, how can school leaders deal with the particular challenges of an international school? Five key themes stand out.

1 Embrace local resources

Teaching a curriculum developed on a different continent can be challenging. To engage students, school leaders must be flexible and create opportunities for experiential learning. For example, one of our parents runs a chocolate factory in the nearby city of Tianjin, so we spend a day making chocolate there - a dream trip for the children. You can also adapt the curriculum to fit your location: in history lessons for our nine- and 10-year-olds, we focus on the empires of China.

2 Make your school a family hub

It's not only students who get homesick and lonely. In fact, children often adapt better to new surroundings than their parents, who may miss their families or have fewer opportunities to meet new people. So hold English classes and coffee mornings for parents and encourage them to get involved. By immersing themselves in the life of the school, parents will start to see that community as a home from home.

3 Celebrate individuality and identity

School leaders should be sensitive to the cultural traditions of each nationality in the school. This winter, our students will attend a German Christmas market in the school grounds. We also celebrate Diwali with candles and firework displays. These traditions really mean something to our communities, so there's a deep sense of pride and emotion on these occasions. They become much more than token gestures of multiculturalism.

4 Be part of a wider world

Nord Anglia, the schools group we are part of, runs a global classroom, allowing students to connect with their peers around the world. This year, children from all 27 Nord Anglia schools are competing on a science project about finding solutions to global water problems. They interact online with academics from Imperial College London and representatives of all the schools will gather at a summit. Selected students will also undertake an expedition to Tanzania.

The global classroom acts as a stabilising influence for our children, who often relocate to different countries and continents. It allows them to remain involved in the education of their peers and the friends they've left behind, creating a sense of belonging that might otherwise be disrupted and extending their community beyond the walls of the school.

5 Stay in touch and learn from best practice

We use a range of resources to stay up to date, keeping track of the changes to the English national curriculum and what other schools are doing so that we can plan for the next year. We also recruit staff from the UK to keep us connected with the landscape of British schools. They are mostly employed on two-year contracts to keep the team fresh.

Best practice can also be shared face-to-face. Our leadership team has recently returned from a regional conference where school leaders discussed their teaching experiences and cultural insights. Staying in the loop helps us to retain a truly international element in the education we provide.

Ultimately, successful leadership in an international school is about flexibility, adaptation and creativity. It is also about togetherness. These values create an environment in which each family, and each culture, can coexist and shine.

Elizabeth Lamb is deputy headteacher of primary at the British School of Beijing and a representative of The Key, a support service for school leaders. www.usethekey.org.uk

What else?

Use the culture shock of a diverse international school to enrich your teaching.


A Teachers TV video explores how to teach English in a multilingual classroom.


Read about one teacher's experience of working abroad.


Abandoned pets and drunk parents: find out some of the more bizarre aspects of life at an international school.


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