Em and JB FIGT COVID video screenshot

My colleague and friend, Ellen Mahoney and I were recently asked by Families in Global Transition (FIGT) to make a short video discussing the impact of COVID-19 on the international school community. As always, it was a pleasure chatting with Ellen as we shared our insights and ideas. The video remains open to the public until the end of June 2020, before becoming an FIGT Member Only resource. If you’re not an FIGT member and are part of a family in global transition or work with those who are, I highly recommend you consider becoming a member. FIGT is a welcoming forum for globally mobile individuals, families, and those working with them. They promote cross-sector connections for sharing research and developing best practices that support the growth, success and well-being of people crossing cultures around the world. The resources and community are amazing! Alternatively, here is the transcript for your reading pleasure.

E: Hi everyone in FIGT Land

J: Hello!

E: We are super excited to film this short video for all of you and to get started I’d like to introduce my co-host, Jane.

J: Thank you very much Ellen. Great to see and can I just say, you’re in a tool shed and how perfect that is for what we are going to be talking about today! I’m very impressed.

E: It’s actually the only place I could find privacy, speaking of working from home, but as it turns out, the metaphor works nicely.

J: I couldn’t agree more. Thank you for introducing me. For those of you in the FIGT community who don’t know me, I’m an education consultant at Globally Grounded, specialising in student cross-cultural transition. My work is informed by 27 years in the education field (every time I say that I think, “oh my gosh!”) at both international and local schools. I have a Master of Education which really allowed me to study intercultural and international perspectives on education. I have parented two Cross-Cultural Kids (CCKs) growing up in South East Asia and was also a member of a domestically mobile family. I have been that child arriving at a new school – 7 times in fact. I have been that parent waving goodbye at the school gate in a foreign land and I have been that teacher who has welcomed CCKs into my classroom, and as a result developed transition-care practices that I now teach to other teachers across the globe. I love what I do. What about you Ellen?

E: As you know, I also moved around growing up. I’m a Third Culture Kid (TCK). My parents are American, but I grew up in Tokyo, Singapore and Connecticut in the US. I was a teacher and a counsellor for a while but about 8 years ago I started an organisation called Sea Change Mentoring. That allowed me to apply my youth mentoring expertise that I developed in the United States and it allowed me to apply it in the international world. So, I started this organisation to support young people and schools to help folks have healthy relationships in their lives, manage transitions and develop wellbeing. These days most of my work is with international schools and we help them develop mentoring programs, Social and Emotional Learning programs, teacher wellbeing programs, specifically. Right now, I’m in California, in a tool shed.

J: Very appropriately. In a tool shed in California.  Ellen, today, FIGT have asked us to give a bit of an overview of what’s happening in the international school space. So many of our community are members of international schools and there is a lot going on right now. Some of it is challenging. A lot of it is very exciting as international schools are thrown to the forefront of this whole situation because we understand about transitions, don’t we? So, let’s fill these folks in and let’s have a conversation about what’s going on.

I guess the best place to start is to provide a bit of a context. The reality is that right now, 91% of world’s student population are out of school campuses. Schools are in varying degrees of reopening, so we’ve got schools in China and Vietnam and Australia and other countries who have begun reopening. Then we have others who will not open at all for the remainder of this school year and look to open at the beginning of next school year, and others who’ve said they are not likely to open fully until January as far as we know. And one thing we have learned through this COVID-19 situation is that flexibility and fluidity is key to all of this. A decision can be made one day and it needs to be changed the next day. So that’s the context we’re working with right now.

E: Yes. In the international school world, as Jane was saying, we’ve got some schools opening, some schools opening later. For those who are opening either now or in the fall we’ve got folks planning on having a staggered start. Some folks are doing a rotating schedule; it will be all kids with last names starting from A-D will go to school on Monday and then the next set go on Tuesday; or one grade gets to go on a certain day; or they do mornings or afternoons and not whole school days so they can manage the social distancing. So logistically, that’s what we’re seeing being planned right now.

But on the human side of things, we’re seeing teachers really stressed out and for me, it’s the group in society I’m most concerned about right now. They had to really hustle to transfer the learning online as we all know. It started off and a lot of folks thought it was a sprint and then that sprint turned into a marathon without any kind of a break. And now we’re looking at a lot of teachers who are expected to work the summer. If teachers are foreign teachers, they would ordinarily go back to their home country for the summer and regroup and see extended family. A lot of folks are not going to be able to do that this summer. So, we’re seeing some real strains on mental health and wellbeing and stress.

We’re seeing changing family dynamics. Some are challenging and some are really positive. On the challenging side you might see parents who are feeling a little less effective than they would like to be right now because they’re also co-teaching some of the online learning components. Previously, maybe they’ve had help raising their kids with ease or support from nannies and now they’re doing all of that, and their jobs, and it’s just a new thing for them. Also, some folks’ relationships are strained. On the other hand, there are a lot of families reporting that they are feeling much closer and they are getting more quality time. I mean Jane, isn’t that happening for you and your family?

J: Yes, it’s been a very special time. I’m sure that it’s all helped by the fact that we lived abroad together before and had to rely on each other with no support network around us, so that has certainly been our experience.

E: So that’s what we’re seeing on the family dynamics side and then, you know, the other big piece is that this pandemic has really amplified what we’ve already known. It seems like this emphasis on the importance of relationships and mental health has really come to the forefront right now because of this pandemic. I think we both think that’s a good thing, that at least now, we are really focused on it and we’re hoping that people will remember this when we get back to a little more sense of normalcy.

One of the themes that we talked about for today was thinking about alright, what’s prepared us for supporting international schools and for supporting families and students right now and what gets us through this strange time? Jane and I both talked about how our experience at FIGT and in this community, and all of the reading and training and support that we’ve done around transitions and getting to know our own stories, has really equipped us to manage. It made us think of a story about Mona Stuart, a member of the FIGT community, who is also a SPAN board member and International School educator, known for her wisdom and graciousness. She was talking to another friend of ours who had to leave Indonesia very quickly with her whole family and she said to our friend “you know, this is what you trained for, you’ve got this!” We keep going back to that thought, you know what, this is what we’ve trained for, this is what we’ve trained for. Thanks to the Pollocks, both father and son, to Doug Ota, Ruth Van Reken, to Tina Quick, Lois Bushong, to Ann Baker Cottrell and Anne Copeland – I mean all these wonderful people who have taught us how to manage these transitions. And oh my gosh, there are so many transitions with this pandemic.

J: Yes, and of course the tool that we really want to focus on today has proven to be reliable and effective for generations of Third Culture Kids, since it was first written about in 1999. That is the RAFT, but don’t switch off now. Don’t think ‘I already know all about this, I don’t need to hear this,’ because we feel that the great thing about the RAFT is that although it was originally designed for TCKs moving from one location to another, it is actually an excellent tool for all of life transitions, including the transitions associated with a global pandemic.

To quickly give you a refresher, firstly let me remind you that the RAFT is an acronym for really helping our community to get from one place to the next place, and let’s face it that’s what we’re dealing with right now isn’t it, in the global pandemic?

R stands for Reconciliation and that’s all about forgiving and being forgiven, making things right.

A stands for Affirmation, and that’s all about appreciation and taking the time to thank the people, the places, the possessions, the perspectives that you have enjoyed during your time in the location.

F stands for Farewells so marking the occasion, saying goodbye to those people, those places those possessions. This is probably the most challenging element to complete during this pandemic for people who have had to leave suddenly, which has happened so often.

T of course, stands for Think Destination and that’s about researching, planning and visualising the new destination and the new people. We’re talking about location but we’re actually talking about so much more than that during this global pandemic, don’t you think Ellen?

E:  Oops, sorry I was on mute as there are children running around in the background. I was just agreeing with you heartedly.

J: We are going to talk about the three key communities within an International School community and these are the Arrivers, the Stayers and the Leavers. We’re going to share with you what we’ve been seeing and what to expect and then also using the RAFT to help us work through the challenges that we see and also the positives as well.

Firstly, let’s talk about the Arrivers. It’s such a time of uncertainty this whole COVID-19 and I am often reminded of Michael Millar’s quote where he says our brains “would rather know that something bad is going to happen to us than be in a state of uncertainty [and] even people who usually navigate change quite well may find themselves reacting differently in times of deep uncertainty [as we have right now in the world] starting to feel lost, hopeless and anxious.” That is definitely something that we are seeing in international schools right now. The uncertainty around plans of moving to new destinations and starting school in the fall have all just been thrown into such chaos and that is disarming, even for people who are used to navigating change. So what we’re seeing in international schools is them surveying students and faculty prior to their return, just so that they can have a bit of an idea of what these students and staff have been dealing with, how they feeling and how they can put support mechanisms in place for these students and educators before the school year starts. We’re also some schools learning online part of the time and face-to-face part of the time so that’s quite challenging for faculty. It’s also equally disarming for students because there’s that lack of routine and consistency. For Arrivers, we are also seeing that a lot of schools have moved their new student orientation online, which is fantastic to be able to provide that, and of course, in amongst all of this, Admissions play an absolutely vital role.

Admissions have always been incredibly important but now more so. Some Admissions staff members have been telling me that they are finding themselves in more of a Counselling role, as they work with families during this time of uncertainty, not knowing when they’re going to be able to be on the ground or returning. We will talk about it a bit more later, but Arrivers are not just new people coming into the school in the international context during COVID-19. Some of the things that Admissions teams are doing are creating virtual tours around their school. Instead of asking students to write an essay on their favourite topic so that schools can get an understanding of the writing and their language and so on, they are actually asking them to write more about their emotional wellbeing in regard to transition just so that they can implement effective support mechanisms as well as understand how they read, write and comprehend. So, there’s a lot of great stuff going on, in amongst the challenges, associated with the Arriving community.

E:   If you thinking about that RAFT then the Thinking Destination is where Admissions in particular, play a great role in helping families think about that destination so through those virtual tours, through finding out the stories families are bringing into the school in the beginning of the school year are really critical.

Moving on, when we’re thinking about the Stayers, Jane’s going to tell us a little bit about Stayers, but I thought this might be interesting for folks to hear. There’s a school I work with in China where 70% of their student body never left China during this time because they’re Chinese students in an international school. Now they may have left their city to go stay with relatives, but they never left China and most of them stayed in the city. In contrast, 70% of the faculty left the country. This just made me think about the Stayers and what is it going to be like when everyone does come back in the school year? The metaphor I keep hearing a lot lately, and I really like, is that we’re all in the same storm but we’re in different boats. As always, always, it’s easy to focus on the Leavers and the Arrivers and it’s really easy to overlook the Stayers. The Stayers have some pretty powerful stories this time around so it’s important to think about. So, Jane tell us a little bit about what we’ve seen with Stayers and then, how does the RAFT connect how we can support Stayers.

J: What we are seeing is that Stayers are often the missing link, the forgotten ones. You would recall from our research that we definitely found this in terms of transition programmes within International Schools. Stayers were the ones that tended to not be supported. Even just last week actually, in the SPANnest, they were talking about Stayers and this was also exemplified in that, suddenly, schools were thinking, ‘oh my goodness, we’ve been thinking about the Leavers and we’ve been thinking about the Arrivers but what about the Stayers?’ The interesting thing that came up out of it was that the Stayers have also suddenly become Leavers and soon they will become Arrivers. So, the faculty that you just mentioned Ellen, are a perfect example of that. They are Stayers but they had to leave and so they will be Arrivers as well. There’s a whole new challenge associated with that and Stayers are often the local ones as exemplified in the students in your story that you were just telling us about from the school in China. There is a bit of a risk of resentment associated with that and as we mentioned before there’s the challenge associated with kids who previously haven’t had any behavioural issues but it may be evident this time around when schools come back together, and the ones who were troubled previously are in serious need.

I’m reminded, when it comes to Stayers, of an article I wrote way back in 2016 where I talked about Stayers being the centre of a revolving door. They are the stabilisers as the Arrivers and the Leavers come and go, around and around. This is even more so the case in this scenario. So what can we do, using the RAFT acronym? We firstly really need to identify who these people are in our school communities. It is not as straight forward as simply the people who stayed on the ground. This is such a challenging time and to some extent, we’re all in transitions in one way or another, but we really do need to identify the Stayers. If we’re thinking about the RAFT I think a great thing that we really need to do is to A – Affirm and validate the experiences and the associated emotions for our Stayers. We need to really think about what schools are doing to care for them. How are you equipping them to understand and also effectively fulfil their pivotal role in the goodbyes and hellos in an international community?  So, Ellen, can you tell us a little bit about the Leavers?

E:  Yes, but before I do, I have to say one other thing. You just made me think of something. There’s a couple of schools that I’m working with that when everyone comes back to school campus next school year, they’re going to put up a big wall of gratitude for the community staff that stayed, so the janitorial staff, security staff, everyone that kept their building safe and clean and ready for them – folks that we unfortunately, often overlook.  So, it’s another nice way of affirming the other Stayers in our community.

J: That is wonderful.

E: I know, it’s so sweet, I love it! I can’t wait to see it.

For the Leavers, we’re seeing a lot of people that have had to leave unplanned and unexpectedly and some folks are not going to come back to the country that they were living in or they don’t know when they’ll be able to come back because of changing international laws about crossing borders and that sort of thing. So, there’s a lot of uncertainty, a lot of unplanned, unexpected goodbyes. People left for vacation with a suitcase filled with bathing suits and then couldn’t get back into the country they were living in and then had to adjust to winter in Vermont. It’s been pretty crazy!

We’re seeing a lot of lack of closure. I’ve seen among students a lot of emotional distancing which is typical.  We know from our training on transitions that it’s typical for many kids to create a kind of distance between themselves when they anticipate goodbyes but because we’re not in a physical space together, it makes it much easier to emotionally distance when we are expected to be physically distant as well. It’s much harder for teachers and counsellors and mentors to pull those students back and to get them incentivised to come back online and reconnect with their friends before they say the official goodbye.

For strategies, we talked about R, Reconciliation. When Jane and I were talking, it wasn’t necessarily saying sorry although that’s always a good thing to do, if you have someone that you need to say sorry to, but just more about understanding that we’ve all been experiencing our own pandemic experiences. Before we say our official goodbyes, we feel it would be a good idea to give students the opportunity to tell their stories about what this has been like and what it was like to leave unexpectedly. Certainly, if they’re not going to return to school campus next year, what that feels like for them and their colleagues and their peer students. To actively listen to those stories and just that act of listening and making sense of it all, will tie up some loose ends and start the healing process.

Then there’s the Farewell. That’s the goodbye – don’t forget to say goodbye so that’s the F in the RAFT acronym. There’s a lot of creative ways that schools have been saying goodbye to their graduates. For example, sending them caps and gowns through the mail and then having kids take their pictures at home.  Actually, there’s an International School teacher in Singapore who just created this app called Sign My Book, signmybook.org, I think that’s what it’s called. People get to sign digital year books and then it can be printed out so they actually have something tangible to hold.

J: Such a fantastic idea!

E: I know, and I love that it was designed by an International School teacher who was really concerned about their graduating class. So, some really cool ideas there of saying goodbye, creative and otherwise.

J: Yes, I completely agree. Just going back to what you were saying about the storytelling and the active listening. When I’ve been speaking with my colleagues in Taiwan (who have returned to school – they’re a step ahead of the majority of the world), this was one element that they decided to include in their arriving process. They wanted to allow the storytelling and the active listening so that students could really gain perspective of each other’s experiences during this pandemic. The students have been saying how fantastic that was and how they appreciated a) having the time to tell their story and b) having the time to listen to others’ stories so that they could really come alongside students and understand where they’re at and move forward together. It’s a really worthwhile activity to prioritise in the days, weeks and months ahead.

So, if we bring this all together, there’s a lot of challenges but there’s a lot of great things happening. One of the greatest joys for me, and Ellen, you and I have spoken about this, is what we’ve seen in the sharing across schools around the globe. Interestingly, International Schools are now the leaders and they have been magnificent at sharing resources and sharing knowledge with local schools, as well as other international schools. They are really leading the way and RAFT building around the world so that’s been exciting. We’ve seen such things is Global Educators Collective Facebook group, which I know you, Ellen interviewed the founder of that on your Sea Change podcast. This goes to show the power of the global network. I’ve had the privilege of introducing local school counsellors and leaders to my International School colleagues so that’s just been bridging such huge gaps there. The unity amongst the education world has just been a delight to also be a part of. I mean Ellen, you’ve done some amazing work with your podcast and then your Teachers’ Wellbeing E-book which I’ve certainly shared across all the local schools that I work with here in Australia. We’ve done webinars and I’ve done quite a few customised webinars for local schools trying to support their overseas students. There’s been so many things that we’ve been doing as an education collective and that is such a joy, isn’t it?

E: Yeah, it really is. It goes back to what Mona said, “we’ve got this. This is what we’ve trained for,” and it feels good to be able to give back after we have been nurtured by these great minds in the FIGT community. It’s been pretty special.

J: I think it’s just also a reminder for us, because when you’re working across cultures you can kind of think that everybody knows, everybody knows about the RAFT, everybody knows about transitions but actually they don’t. In the wider world, they don’t. We really are in quite a privileged position to be able to share our knowledge with the rest of the world.

You and I have been talking about where are the places where we find joy? ‘Finding joy in unexpected places’ is the theme for FIGT this month and so we’ve certainly found joy in many different areas. For example, in western education, creative thinking and problem solving are highly valued and all of a sudden, schools have had to step up to really role model these skills. It’s resulted in some incredible innovation and reimagining, particularly with regard to digital technology. As Ellen mentioned before, the emotional wellbeing and relationships becoming front and centre, which is fantastic. Long may that last! And as many of us find ourselves at home, we’ve been reminded of the strength and joy that comes from those authentic relationships and making time to support our emotional well-being. I’m hoping that this will provide a real empathy that then generates within schools how our relationships and emotional well-being do need to remain there, front and centre.

It’s been so great to be able to share these ideas together today Ellen and, that you are in the tool shed is just perfect because it’s a constant visual reminder, as we’ve been saying the whole time, that this is what we’ve trained for, thank you Mona Stuart. We have the tools, don’t we, to navigate this extraordinary season?

E: Yeah, we do. I have this vision in my mind of all of these members of the FIGT community out there all over the world, as carpenters building rafts for other people. That visual just makes me smile. Speaking of joy, it just gives me joy.

J: It doesn’t mean that we won’t go through the challenges. I mean, this is an unbelievably challenging time, but it is so reassuring that we do have the tools and that helps us to put one step in front of another and then yes, get to that place of contentment. We are very privileged. A huge thank you to the FIGT community, hey?

E: Yeah, absolutely. Thanks everyone and thanks for listening. We miss you and we’re grateful for you and will see you next time.

J: Yes, take care. Stay well.

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