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. 

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