Preparing to Teach Overseas. Before You Go.

Preparing to Teach Overseas. Before You Go

If you are contemplating working at an overseas Christian school or if you are already in the process, then you are about to embark on one of the most exciting and rewarding journeys you could take. As someone who has been serving at overseas Christian schools in Bolivia, the Philippines, Paraguay, and Haiti I would like to offer some suggestions that you may consider before heading into a new life.

Pay close attention to the core values and mission statement of the organization.

On an organizational level, it is well worth the time to check carefully the core values and mission statement of the organization you are serving. You will want to ask specific questions about the mission and vision statements: Do they communicate the purpose of the school? Are they written in a way that is easy to understand? Does the school have a document that clearly states its core values? You will also want to carefully read the school’s statement of faith to make sure it is a statement that you agree with and can sign with a clear conscience.
In some cases, you may be serving in multiple organizations. If you are working in a missionary school, you may be a member of both the sponsoring organization and the missionary school, and while both may have the overall goal of reaching the world with the gospel, each will have its own purpose and values. In their zeal to get to the school, some people fail to pay attention to these kinds of details and later realize they are not a good fit for the school.

Make Sure the School is Accredited.

Based on my experience over the years I would not work at a school that was not accredited. School culture and values are insidious and slow-moving animals that, left unchecked, can result in a great deal of dysfunction and misalignment. Administrators, teachers, athletic coaches, and parents are all well intended and have a wide variety of views on the purpose of school and what should or should not happen on any given school day (including before school and after-school activities). Without outside accountability, it is easy for a school to lose track of its purpose and run off the rails. Sometimes the administrators and teachers who have been there for many years are the last ones to see it. Experienced members of an accreditation team will come in with objectivity and outside eyes. They would be able to spot the existing contradictions that are taking place and help the school get back on track.

Because parents send their children to private overseas Christian schools with the goal of having them attend American colleges and universities, many, if not most contemporary overseas Christian schools are accredited institutions. Accreditation reviews and self-studies often aid in providing the needed structural framework that is often lacking in many overseas Christian schools. Overseas Christian schools that sincerely attempt to meet and even surpass the standards of accreditation are schools that are improving and moving toward excellence. While there may be some quality overseas Christian schools that lack accreditation because of the need for organizations in general to have external standards, it would be better to work at a fully accredited institution.

Create a personal mission statement.

Stephen Covey, in his book First Things First, states that “one of the most powerful processes we have found to cultivate the passion of vision is creating and integrating an empowering personal mission statement” (p. 106). A personal mission statements can be a highly useful and energizing for the teacher at an overseas Christian school. Creating a personal mission statement should be a well thought out process. “What we are talking about here is not simply writing a statement of belief. We are talking about creating an open connection with the deep energy that comes from a clear, thoroughly integrated sense of purpose.” (p.107). It is especially powerful for Christians who share the same vision of God, that of reaching the world with the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Tim. 2: 4)

Several years ago, the author formulated a mission statement that is still his vision and purpose today.

“My mission in life is to see myself as a servant of God first and be faithful in that calling. I want to be part of God’s plan to reach the world with the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. I want to be willing to go anywhere in the world to be a refreshment and encouragement to other Christians who are striving to achieve that goal. To allow the Lord to use the gifts and talents, He has given me for the gospel. By the strength of the Holy Spirit, I want to fit in where God can best use me in that calling. To sum up, I want to be a faithful walking servant, being a blessing. “

One’s mission statement needs to be a flexible document. Over time our values can change. Thus, we need to be willing to revise our mission statements, if necessary, to match our changing values.

Assess strengths and weaknesses

Some great assessment tools on the market can help overseas Christian school teachers get an idea of their strengths and weaknesses as persons and employees. Knowing oneself well and gaining awareness of one’s strengths and flaws can be helpful in multiple ways:
Self-awareness can help develop a clearer understanding of one’s values.
Self-awareness may help one discern the spiritual gifts that God has given him or her. Spiritual gifts may be different from particular skills that one has.
Self-awareness may help one gain a clearer understanding of one’s strengths and weaknesses, and where one can best fit into the organization, he or she is serving. Missionary schools often have desperate needs in many areas. They may unwittingly ask you to do something that is not one of your strengths out of the desire to get the space filled. It is appropriate to fit in and meet a need where possible, but it also may be wise, to say no based on what you know about yourself. On one occasion, I was asked to be an assistant principal, and, on another to teach Spanish. Looking back, saying yes to either one of those requests would have been a mistake.

(I have created a list of web-based assessment tools that will help one assess personality, temperament, values, strengths, and weaknesses, and likes and dislikes. These assessment tools can be helpful in making adjustments to the many layers and types of culture that one may face on the mission field. They also may be potentially useful in seeing how one may function best in the organization they are serving. They are located at the end of the article)

Understanding the History of a Country Can Reduce Stress

When one arrives at a foreign country of service, he or she will see and experience some things that will make him or her scratch his or her head in puzzlement. Understanding even a little about the history and culture of the country may alleviate some of the culture stress that people feel when living and working overseas for the first time. Believe it or not, there is usually a good reason why things operate the way they do in a foreign country. The country you see and experience when you get there will be a result of its history. So, it is essential to learn about the country before you go. There are bound to be plenty of books, literature, and articles on the internet on the history, culture, customs, and political systems of the country you are serving. Also, be informed about the country’s recent political events, including elections and laws.
You will probably have a more significant opportunity to learn the language of the country you are serving once you get there but whatever initial greetings and essential phrases you can learn before you go will be helpful.


Covey Stephen R, Merrill Roger, A, Merrill Rebecca, R First Things First: To Live, To Love, To Learn, To Leave a Legacy Simon & Schuster, New York, New York, 1994

Web-based Assessment Tools for Assessing Strengths and Weaknesses

1. Authentic Happiness, 2006 VIA Signature Strengths Test, Designed by Dr. Martin Seligman around the idea of “positive psychology” the VIA Signature Strengths Test measures 24 character strengths.

2. Ichak Adizes PAEI Management Styles, 2006 &
Based on the concept called PAEI developed by Ichak Adizes, the letters stand for four approaches to work. These are four kinds of motivations that drive our adult contributions. See which one applies to you.
3. Lingenfelter, Sherwood G, & Mayers, Marvin, 2003, Ministering Cross-Culturally: An incarnational model for personal relationships, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, Michigan.
The Mayers/Lingenfelter self-test is divided up into twelve areas approximating a person’s values. This is contained in the book and is a very good assessment for those who are going overseas for the first time.
4. Myers Briggs Type Inventory, 2006
This website has a wide variety of personality assessments that you can take. They are called “cognitive style inventories”. Some are also designed to connect to work satisfaction.
5. Situational Leadership Theory, Blanchard & Hersey, 2006
This website has prolific literature on leadership styles and theories. It gives a detailed explanation of situational leadership and how it can be used in an organization. Also discusses the styles of a follower in a situational leadership context.
6. 2007, The Gallup Organization,
Offers a wide variety of assessments in the areas of career development, education and leadership


The Overseas Christian School Part Two. Adjusting to School Culture: Part Two of Two.

This is a continuation of my most recent post on the Overseas Christian School Teacher: Adjusting to School Culture.

4. Be Willing to Experience Deep Change:

There is a chance you may find yourself in a place where you realize that you are not a good fit for the environment and the culture of the school. You may be in an area where you are experiencing what Quinn refers to as the “deep change or slow death dilemma” (p. 15). For example, you may discover in time that you do not share the core values or purpose and mission of the school. Or you may discover that the contradictions between what is being said and what is really happening are too difficult to overcome. If this is the case, it’s best to discover it early and look for a school that is more in line with your personal values and mission. Otherwise, you may be languishing in what Quinn refers to as “slow death” (p. 15). To use another analogy, “nothing would be worse than to find out after several years of working for an organization that you are in the wrong seat, riding on the wrong bus.” (Collins).
There is also the possibility that the Lord has put you in that organization for a reason. According to Quinn “One of the most important insights about the need to bring about deep change in others has to do with where deep change actually starts” (p. 11). It’s implied in this quote that deep change actually starts with us. “There is an important link between deep change at the personal level and deep change at the organizational level” (p. 9). Quinn goes on to say that people prefer a slow death to deep change because it’s what we know (p. 24). Deep change is risky and involves letting go of what we have been doing. Deep change requires discipline, courage, and motivation. The adjustment to the school you are serving maybe difficult, and it is probably true that the school is also going through some change. These ideas imply that each member of an organization confronts and experiences deep change, the organization can undergo deep change.

Also, keeping the big picture in mind is essential. God uses his word as well as people, places, and circumstances to bring about change in our lives. (Philippians 2: 13-15.) Living and teaching overseas will change you as a person. The culture you are living in, the school and people you are serving, the stressful situations you find yourself while living overseas may very well be the thing that God uses to bring about a profound change in your life and the organization around you.
5. “It’s The Little Foxes that Spoil the Vines”

This is an appropriate time to address what is all too often a common problem among school teachers in both an overseas and non-overseas context and a problem you will want to avoid. In fact, because of sin, most organizations suffer from this to one degree or another. That is the problem of chronic complaining. You are more than likely going to run into some difficult circumstances during your time teaching overseas. A situation that may be less than ideal, a change in school policy or administrative decision you do not agree with, a request from the administration that seems overwhelming or uncomfortable, scheduling changes that throw off your routine, an application that was turned down. One of the most natural things to do is to go to a co-worker and start complaining about an alleged injustice or a policy disagreement. However, this does nothing to solve the problem. While venting is a typical human response if one is not careful complaining can become poisonous, cliques start forming, and before you know, you are undermining the administration and creating division among the staff. This can eventually result in non-compliance to teacher expectations further resulting in firings and non-renewal of contracts. Not to mention that chronic complaining tends to lead to a lot of negative energy that can suck the life out for your time overseas and may ruin the blessings and experience of teaching at an overseas Christian school.
The good news is that we know from scripture there is a Godly way to deal with disagreement and perceived injustice. Again, another beautiful application of the “Little Big Principal” is when you find yourself in these stressful situations is to be faithful. If it’s a policy disagreement go to the administration and share your concerns. If you can, offer up a suggestion about a possible solution. Once you have shared your interest leave it on the administrator’s desk and let the matter drop, continue to do what is expected of you as a faithful employee and teacher. Remember, God also holds leadership responsible do what is right. Regardless of the situation, you are in or how bad things may be at the school no one can keep you from being a faithful employee who is pursuing excellence and being a blessing to the school and the people around you. An attitude of faithfulness and flexibility will do more to influence the people around you and bring about change than anything else you may say or do.
6. Engage the Fruits of Diversity

One of the significant benefits of teaching overseas is the diversity of the students and staff at the overseas Christian school. The amalgamation of different cultures, language, food, and worldviews bring with it a beautiful and fruitful dynamic that would be hard to find anywhere else. It can result in an incredibly rich teaching experience for the classroom teacher. For example, one year when I was teaching American history in the Philippines, I had two Korean students one whose grandfather fought in the Korean war on the side of the South Korea and another whose grandfather fought in the Korean war on the side of North Korea. In another similar situation, I had a Japanese student whose grandfather fought in the Japanese army in WW2. This kind of dynamic leads to history becoming alive and meaningful to the students. For example, the Japanese student mentioned above wanted to know why American history teaches that the Japanese military was so cruel when the United States were the ones that dropped two atomic bombs on Japan killing thousands of innocent Japanese civilians.

You will also be working with a diverse staff that comes from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences. Rather than take the attitude of “We have to do it this way because this is the way we do it in the U.S.” which so often happens, be open to other perspectives and other ways of doing things. Mark Twain has famously said “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”(Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad, Roughing It.) So much the more for those teachers who are willing to take on the attitude of a learner and reap the advantages of engaging the diversity that occurs at an overseas Christian school.


Clinton J Robert, The Making of a Leader Navapress Colorado Springs, Colorado, 1988

Collins, Jim, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap, and Others Don’t, Harper Business, New York, New York, 2001

Elliot, Dan, Simulated Classroom Discussions via CD: LDRS 591 Organizational Culture 2006, Operation Impact, Azusa Pacific University

Smith, Douglass K. “”the Following Part of Leading”” The Leader of the Future. Ed. Frances Hesselbein, Marshall Goldsmith, and Richard Beckhard. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996.

Quinn Robert, Deep Change: Discovering the Leader Within Jossey Bass Publishers, San Francisco, CA 1996

The Overseas Christian Schoolteacher Part One: Adjusting to School Culture

While adjusting to the host culture will take some time the overseas Christian schoolteacher, particularly if it’s the first time will soon realize that the adjustment will also involve layers of culture. For example, there is the organizational culture of the school. Organizational culture is defined as an “ideology and a set of values that guide the behavior of organization members. It includes ceremonies, rituals, heroes, and scoundrels in an organization’s history” (Elliot, APU). Keep in mind that the culture of the school you are serving has been accumulating over time and can be insidious and powerful. It’s also true that these subcultures will overlap and “make different and conflicting demands on you” (Elliot, APU). It is likely according to Elliot that “you will go through a process of enculturation and induction” into the organization’s culture that you are joining. There is the possibility that this enculturation and induction into an organizations layer of subcultures will prove to be a difficult adjustment. While it is important to find out as much about the organization you are going to serve before you go, it also the case that you cannot be prepared for everything. What can the teacher do to make the adjustment easier?

1. Be a good follower: Being a good follower is essential to good leadership. It reduces conflict, gives a good example for others to follow and shows a spirit of humility. Author Douglas K Smith shares what he believes are the skills of a good follower:

• Ask questions instead of giving answers.
• Provide opportunities for others to lead you.
• Do work in support of others instead of the reverse.
• Become a matchmaker instead of “central switch,” learn to help people follow each other.
• Seek common understanding instead of consensus.

2. Practice the Little-Big Principle: Another important aspect of being a good follower is what Robert Clinton in his book calls “The Little Big Principle”: “faithfulness in a small responsibility is an indication of probable faithfulness in a larger responsibility” (Clinton, The Making of a Leader, 95). Endeavoring to be faithful in the small things is essential to modeling servant leadership in front of one’s students and colleagues. A few practical examples of that would be: being to meetings on time, turning in assigned paperwork from the administration on time, being faithful to both obey and enforce the rules and policies of the school, and turning in grades on time.
Being faithful in the small things is important to God and is a theme that runs throughout scripture. In the Old Testament we see this exhibited in the life of David (1 Samuel 16:11), and in the New Testament, we see in it in the life of Christ. (Matthew 20:27, 28). It’s important to realize that while faithfulness is vital because of your Christian witness, it’s also true that nothing will hurt your chance for advancement, pay raises or more responsibility than the lack of faithfulness in the everyday duties of being a teacher.

3. Be Flexible

Overseas Christian schools tend to be unstable because their members live and work in challenging environments. The schools often suffer from a high attrition rate at the director’s position, volatile political situations that include street protest, military coups, and natural disasters.

Here are a few things I have seen in the past 25 years of teaching overseas that required a great deal of flexibility on the part of the teachers and staff.

a. Category Five Typhoon: No school for seven days. (Philippines)
b. The untimely death of a student.
c. Civil Unrest strikes and protest of various kinds resulting in school closing.
d. Director of school is fired or resigns in the middle of the school year. (Happens reasonably often)
e. Earthquake. (Haiti)
f. Staff turnover.

Because of these types of issues listed above often what happens is a disruption to classes resulting in missing school days, or sometimes the administration may need you to fill in for another teacher that had to go home for a health reason. An attitude of flexibility will go a long way in making your time overseas a blessing instead of a burden.


Next month: Part Two of Adjusting to School Culture. 

The Importance of Structure in the Overseas Christian School. School Policies: Part 3 of 3

School Policies
Clear, well written school policies is a third key structural element for an overseas Christian school. Most schools have various types of critical foundational documents such as student/parent handbooks, teacher handbooks, board policy manuals, and so forth, that need periodic review and perhaps revision. However, it’s been my experience that what happens in many cases, due to the high turnover rate in administration and lack of competent staffing, these documents are not reviewed and updated on a regular basis. Because the school lacks any kind of coherent procedure for reviewing and updating its policies, it is unable to identify where particular policies are no longer working well and where restructuring needs to takes place. I have personally witnessed school handbooks that had not been updated for years. Often there will be a recognition that a change needs to take place (for example a change in school grading policy), and a new policy will be announced without the change being made in the appropriate school documents, leading to inconsistency, misalignment, and confusion in the everyday operation of the school. I have observed over the years that one specific area of weakness in many overseas Christian schools is its hiring policies.

Lack of structure in hiring policies.

In what Bolman and Deal call “the keystone of structure,” one of the common areas of weaknesses you will see in overseas Christian schools is a lack of structure in “allocating task” (Location 1301). Below is a list of some areas of weaknesses that are common in overseas Christian schools when it comes to hiring practices.
• Hiring of unqualified administrators and teachers
• Hiring of unqualified office staff
• Lack of job descriptions and clear expectation for both staff and teachers
• Lack of balance in allocating task. Some staff and teachers are overworked, while others seem to have less responsibility.
The hiring and firing of administrators, teachers and staff members, is the most consequential action school leadership does. For the school board, it would be the hiring of director, principal, or administrator. For the director, it would be the hiring and placement of administrators and teachers. Unless there are school board policies with high standards, clear expectations and procedures for hiring qualified personnel, the consequences could be devastating for the school. I know from experience that high turnover rate at many overseas Christian schools makes finding qualified teachers and administrators challenging. Though it’s common practice and at times almost impossible to avoid, putting teachers in the classroom and administrators in leadership with little or no formal training in education has the potential to lead to all kinds of unintended negative consequences. For example, school boards of small overseas Christian schools without strong structural framework for hiring a director, may be tempted to measure qualifications anecdotally and sidestep the importance of experience and training. Pressing needs leads schools to promote someone in house to the director’s position, and it is even more tempting to go this route if the person is well-liked, but without a hiring policy that measures things like training in education, basic knowledge of curriculum, high value for student learning, commitment to the shared mission, and core values of the school, the daily operation of the school will lose balance and break down over time.
Another particularly critical area in the structural frame that is often overlooked in overseas schools is the hiring of secretarial staff. Often in small overseas private Christian schools, the school office staff are nationals with little formal training in being school secretaries. While having nationals as secretaries can have advantages when it comes to public relations and communicating in the host countries language, unless the secretaries are competent with 21st century technology, it can potentially create huge headaches for the school—particularly, for the director who needs a competent, experienced secretary who is up to date with the latest secretarial and administrative software. Most Christian schools have various types of important school documents like student/parent handbooks, teacher handbooks, and board policy manuals, and without a competent office staffer who can organize the documents and keep them updated for review and easy access, structural weaknesses will become evident in the implementation of important policies and procedures.
A particularly egregious area in some overseas Christian schools is having poorly written job descriptions without clear expectations. This can lead to multiple problems like the inability to hold teachers accountable, miscommunication or misunderstanding about what is expected of the teacher, misunderstanding about the chain of authority, lack of uniformity in expectations, changing expectations, lack of balance in teaching responsibilities, and the list goes on and on. Especially problematic is the inability to hold teachers accountable. Without an agreed-on job description that is part of a signed contract, the school has no to way to really give the teacher a valid performance review or enter into any kind of growth plan. The ability to remove a teacher who lacks professionalism and is not a good fit is vital for a school that wants to assure student achievement and excellence.

A word about accreditations reviews.
Accreditation reviews and self-studies for overseas Christian schools are indispensable. I personally would not work at an overseas school that was not accredited by an approved accreditation agency. Accreditation reviews often aid in providing the desperately needed structural framework that is lacking in many overseas Christian schools. However, being accredited is not the total solution for a dysfunctional school or one lacking structure. Just as a reminder, many of the structural problems I have experienced and written about were occurring at fully accredited schools. To be clear, accreditation institutions provide the framework; they do not provide the structure itself. The accreditation agency is not an authority over the school, nor does it manage the school. Its function is to work along with the school to provide a framework that enables the school to correct any possible structural problems that may exist. As valuable as the self-study and accreditation reviews are, they are limited and, in some cases, inadequate. Not all accreditation teams are created equal, and unless the review team does a thorough job of reading the self-study and properly reviewing and collecting documentation, the review could lead to a flawed report. I have experienced several accreditation visits at schools where the final report was based mostly on anecdotal evidence from face-to-face meetings with administrators, teachers and students. Because the final report weighed anecdotal evidence so heavily, it missed several critical areas of dysfunction and structural weaknesses.
Another area where accreditation reviews may fall short is in the area of “showing grace.” Overseas Christian schools have a tendency to be unstable because their members live and work in difficult countries and environments. The schools often suffer from a high attrition rate at the director’s position, unstable political situations that include street protest, military coups, natural disasters, and local and education laws that all have an adverse effect on the school. Because of these dynamics, the accreditation review team, in some cases, appropriately takes these dynamics into consideration when writing the final report and shows “grace” and consideration toward the school when deciding its accreditation status. While showing deference for the school’s current circumstances is needed at times, unless the accrediting agency strikes the right balance, you may find a fully-accredited school suffering year after year with the same structural problems that are not being corrected or addressed.
This article addresses three critical structural elements of any school: foundational documents, written curriculum, and written policies. Because of unique dynamics associated with overseas Christian schools such as administrative and staff turnover, unstable political and environmental circumstances, and constantly changing demographics, it is vital for the future of these schools to have consistent review and restructuring taking place so that these key areas remain strong. It is also important to note there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution. According to Bolman and Deal, “structures must be designed to fit an organization’s current circumstances (including its goals, technology, workforce and environment)” (Location 1210). They also assert that too many prescriptions and mandates implemented too quickly can be damaging to school morale and may lead to “apathy, absenteeism, and resistance” (Location 1304). The key is the right amount of structure in critical areas. There are other important facets of the structural frame in overseas Christian schools like board governance and facility policies that are beyond the scope of this writing but should also be consistently reviewed for restructuring as needed.


Bolman, Lee G., and Terrance E. Deal. Reforming Organizations, Artistry, Choice and Leadership (Fourth Edition). Jossey Bass, 2008.

Rice, Condoleezza. No Higher Honor, A Memoir of My Years in Washington. Broadway Books, 2011.

The Importance of Structure in the Overseas Christian School. The School Curriculum. Part 2 of 3

Having a written curriculum is another key structural element of any school. It would not be an exaggeration to say the written curriculum is what drives the school. Without a coherent, written, guaranteed, and viable curriculum, the school becomes a collection of classrooms where every teacher is completely autonomous in deciding what to teach, how to teach it and in many cases when to teach it. As a result, when it comes to the classroom as Judges 21:25 states, “everyman is doing that which is right in their own eyes.” Some would advocate for such autonomy in the classroom, and many veteran teachers, even today in small private schools see their classroom as their personal domain. Implementing a guaranteed, viable curriculum that is taught and assessed disrupts the autonomous classroom. Decisions about what to teach or why one should teach certain content falls under the watch of the standards and benchmarks. The written curriculum replaces the teacher as the autonomous agent, and the classroom is no longer private, but becomes public domain. Someone may ask is the lack of a coherent, written curriculum that widespread of a problem in the overseas Christian school? In recent years with more schools being pressured to seek accreditation, it probably isn’t as much a problem as it used to be. However, from my personal experience over the last twenty years of teaching overseas, the Christian schools that I have worked at in most cases had a partially developed curriculum that was not being implemented, or they had no curriculum at all. Basically, the schools were textbook driven. Keep in mind these are schools that have been in existence for thirty to forty years, and all but one were fully accredited institutions.
It is hard to overstate the importance of school curriculum. Outside of a school’s foundational documents, curriculum is the critical agent that carries out the school’s purpose. For the following reasons, curriculum in an overseas Christian school’s essential structure:
• Teacher attrition. While teachers at overseas Christian schools come and go, the written curriculum stays in place. It is quite common for overseas Christian schools to have new teachers who may have a four-year degree but limited classroom experience. Written curriculum will give new teachers the resources and tools they need so they don’t feel overwhelmed about the new school year. The provided stability this brings to the school cannot be understated. Curriculum maps that are well developed and have been left by excellent veteran teachers are an invaluable resource for newer faculty members.
• Extension of mission of the school. Written curriculum keeps a school focused on its mission and vision. Curriculum maps should be intentionally developed to carry out the mission and vision of the school both in student learning and in areas of spiritual growth of the students. Everything in the curriculum maps should flow from the school’s core values, mission, and vision.
• Teacher talk: Teacher discussion that centers around topics like instructional strategies, essential content, and subject philosophies, is invaluable to the school and “helps identify answers to important questions about teaching and learning.”
• Public documents: As stated earlier, what students learn in the classroom is and should be public. Student learning is not a secret operation between teacher and student. Written curriculum communicates to the students, parents, and teachers and accrediting institutions what the students are learning in the classroom.
I had a particularly enlightening experience during my first year of teaching social studies at an overseas Christian school. Upon arriving, I found the school had no developed curriculum and no lesson plans or instructional materials other than textbooks. When I asked about the location of these materials no one seem to know where the materials were last placed. After searching file cabinets and various teacher workrooms to no avail, the administration finally told me that the previous social studies teacher must have taken “everything with him.” I was basically starting from scratch. As a veteran teacher who had many years teaching overseas, I found this to be extremely frustrating. Imagine what a new teacher who has no experience teaching overseas, and who at the same time is adjusting to a new country and a new culture, may think or feel encountering a situation like this. A written curriculum that is developed and coherent keeps a scenario like this from happening.


Next Month: Part 3 School Policies

The Importance of Structure in the Overseas Christian School. Foundational Documents, Part 1 of 3

This is part one of a three part series on the importance of structure at overseas Christian schools. Having the right amount of structure is important for any organization but because of the unique dynamics that is part of a Christian school that operates in an overseas context it is especially important. I write this article referring mostly to the sound writing of  Bolman and Deal, and their book Reframing Organizations. I also allude to my own personal experience living and teaching overseas. I hope you enjoy the article. Please feel free to write me with any comments or questions.

In their classic work on organizational leadership, Reframing Organizations, Lee Bolman and Terrance Deal write about the importance of an organization having the right amount of structure to keep it in balance. “The assumption of the structural frame reflects a belief in rationality and a faith that the right formal arrangements minimize problems and increases quality and performance” (Location 1200). Having the right amount of structure is crucial for all schools; however, it’s especially important for overseas Christian schools because of their complicated dynamics. Based on personal experience teaching at five different overseas Christian schools in twenty years, I have observed the dysfunction that happens when an overseas Christian school lacks balance in the structural frame. Four of the five schools where I have served were fully accredited institutions. This article addresses a few of the key structural elements that need to be in place and implemented in order for overseas Christian schools to avoid identity problems and high amounts of dysfunction.
Foundational Documents
“An essential ingredient of the structural frame is that ‘appropriate forms of coordination and control ensure individuals and units work together in the service of organizational goals’ ” (Bolman and Deal PG 40). The effectiveness of any organization will always flow from its reason for existing. This is especially true of the overseas Christian school. One of the critical questions the school will need to answer is why are we here? This is not a simple question. Over time, overseas Christian schools who do not have a clear purpose will struggle keeping the everyday practices of the school in balance. It is also important to point out that a school coming to a clear understanding of its mission through questioning its purpose is not a onetime event. This question needs to be reviewed consistently and periodically by the stakeholders and the wider school community. Overseas Christian schools are traditional and conservative in nature and yet, at the same time, have consistently changing dynamics and challenges. Because of this ever-present conflict, an overseas Christian school that does not consistently and periodically review its mission and core values may find itself in a full- blown identity crisis. As Condoleezza Rice states, “When a new challenge arises, the immediate response is to try to handle it within existing structure; but sometimes what is needed is an entirely different set of arrangements” (Location 2127).
Failure to consistently review mission and vison statements can have treacherous consequences. It is not uncommon to hear stories of an overseas Christian school suffering from various levels of identity problems. Some meet up to the challenge; some do not. In the past twenty to thirty years, American missionary schools have seen changing demographics in their student population because of the overall decline of American churches sending out missionaries. In one school where the author served, its stated purpose was to be a school for missionary children but only had 10 missionary children out of a student population of about 200. While the demographics of the school had gradually changed over time, the school failed to adjust to the community it was serving. Most of its supporting documents, policy and procedures, and even financial policies were still in place for serving missionary families even though few missionary children were attending the school. Needless to say, the school ran into one conflict after another. It can be painful for the missionary school community to come to the realization, possibly too late, that they no longer have a missionary school. The schools that can meet the challenge are the ones that pay attention. They pay attention to ensure that there is alignment between the practical, everyday operations of the school and its overall mission and vision. Some schools get lost in the routine and are forever stuck in survival mode, never able to see past the school day that is in front of them. In schools like these, the leadership is often reactive instead of proactive. Schools who dig in their heels and are unable to reflect on its purpose and change may end up closing down or, even worse, propagate a dying institution for the sake of maintaining the status quo or providing employment for teachers and nationals.
Why do some schools seem to be able to make the leap and appropriately solve their identity crisis while others are forever stuck in limbo? Because the status quo is safe. Restructuring and making the hard decisions are often risky for school board members and administrators. Again, I refer to Bolman and Deal, “Organizations are reluctant to make major changes because a stable structure reduces confusion and uncertainty, maintains internal consistency, and protects the existing equilibrium” (Location 1999). The potential price of holding on to the status quo is a structure that grows increasingly misaligned with the environment. Eventually, the gap gets so big that a major overhaul is inevitable. “Restructuring, in this view, is like spring cleaning: we accumulate debris over months or years until we are finally forced to face up to the mess” (Location 1999). I once served at a missionary boarding school that had a specific mission of educating children whose parents lived and served in an indigenous tribe. Over time, the school began to see fewer and fewer of students referred to as “tribal kids” enrolled in the school. The school either failed to see or ignored this dynamic due to lack of procedures or a willingness to review and assess if they were still fulfilling their mission. After many years, the school administrators finally came to the realization that most of their students were children of staff and teachers working at the school or children of parents who owned a business in the city. They were no longer fulfilling their purpose. After grappling with the hard truth for some time, the school eventually closed down for what was stated as contingency reasons.

Coming in July Part 2 on the School’s Curriculum.