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, http://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn. 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 http://www.adizes.com & http://www.ealewisconsulting.com
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 http://www.personalitypathways.com
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 http://www.12manage.com
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. Strengthquest.com 2007, The Gallup Organization, http://www.strengthquest.com
Offers a wide variety of assessments in the areas of career development, education and leadership