What global educators need to know about teacher wellbeing

Posted on 23rd May 2019 in International Schools, International Education, Teaching, Wellbeing

Mitesh Patel explores how international schools can best support expat teachers’ mental and physical health...

Whether it’s your first time or you’ve been to five countries in five years, there is plenty to be excited about when you secure a new leadership or teaching position in a different country. Meeting people, adjusting to a new culture, seeing sights that would be unimaginable in the country you have just left – the first days and weeks of a fresh assignment often go past in a blur.

In the flurry of activity that inevitably occurs, it can be easy for new starters to get caught up in the adventure of living abroad, and not fully consider the practicalities of living somewhere completely different. Left unchecked, this can lead to issues with settling in, as well as stress, anxiety and even burnout. In the most extreme cases, it can also lead to the premature ending of the assignment.

More and more, international schools are turning their attention to how they can better support teachers’ mental and physical wellbeing. Ultimately, this is an insightful move as anything that negatively impacts teachers can also influence student wellbeing and progress, and affect the whole school climate as well. The good news is that making appropriate support and resources available to teachers can often address these issues in advance – and it doesn’t have to be time-consuming or complicated.

A successful relocation

Sometimes a successful relocation can be facilitated by the simple things. When it comes to health, making sure new staff know what screenings and medical exams they need when arriving in a country with very different risks is key. Having a mechanism in place to automatically organise it for them too, if possible, means there is one less thing for everyone to think about.

As an example, if your school is based in Vietnam, you’ll know that all foreign staff have to go through wellness tests and vaccinations before getting their visa. However, try not to assume that your new employee will also know that – they might not.

Another really simple way to help people cope with the culture shock (and let’s face it, there often is an element of culture shock, even when people have visited the country previously or have studied the language) is making sure they are equipped with destination guides. It might sound obvious, but it’s an invaluable way of setting the scene before someone arrives. And if those guides are personalised to expats, including real details of other teachers’ lived experiences, so much the better.

After all, don’t forget that moving to a new house in your hometown is stressful enough. When you’re a teacher heading to a country you don’t know, and potentially a junior teacher who is on their own, it can be positively nerve-wracking.

Physical Peak

No-one likes getting sick, but it can be much worse if you feel alone in a strange country and have to deal with the intricacies of a health care system in a different language. If you don’t know where to turn and you are feeling poorly from something like food poisoning, it can be a very frightening time.

So think how it would feel if events took a more serious turn. For example, imagine moving to Baku in Azerbaijan and finding yourself severely short of breath, only to then discover that the cause is a blood clot on your lung but the local hospital can’t do anything about it.

In a life-threatening situation, it’s vital that action is taken quickly. This is why it’s so important for new members of staff to fully familiarise themselves with the health care system in their new homeland, and for schools to be crystal clear about the details of any health coverage they provide. In the instance above, knowing that you can stay in Baku with a private nurse and be supported by friends, rather than being transported to an unknown location for treatment, would bring some very welcome reassurance at a traumatic time.

Mind over matter

When you’re a long way from home, feeling cut off from the people you love, it’s easy to see how mental health can be affected. Expats can be particularly prone to low-level depression and anxiety because their support network is often absent in their new place of home.

International schools have an opportunity to step in early and intervene, as long as they are attuned to the situation. Again the solution doesn’t always have to be complicated. For example, at a school in China, I was involved in setting up a helpline for expat teachers who were feeling increasingly isolated and tense. By being able to directly get through to expert support, these feelings were nipped in the bud and the teachers began to relax, flourish and enjoy their time.

Schools can also play a key role in encouraging new recruits to find replacement social networks to the ones they have left behind. In some countries, this may be via social media; in others, such as the Chinese example above, social media may not be appropriate. Whichever avenue is available, it is always comforting to be able to communicate in your native tongue at times and these opportunities can be highlighted to staff. Of course, that’s not to suggest that expats shouldn’t learn their new language or be involved in local customs – these are also great ways to foster feelings of being more at home.

In the future

For international schools who want to take a proactive approach to looking after their staff’s physical and mental health, it can pay to get creative. You can always ask outside speakers to host a ‘lunch and learn’ and health care insurers can often put you in contact with regional experts who will come in to talk to staff about key topics.

In the future, health care might become even more mobile, with apps that let users have a video or a phone consultation with a doctor, without having to travel. This could be a reality sooner than you think as trials are already underway in Singapore.

It’s the kind of innovation that would be of real value for teachers for whom it can be extremely difficult to nip out during a lunch break to visit a general practitioner. A face-to-face appointment, even if it’s from a distance, adds a much more personal and reassuring touch. And when you are far from home, that can make all the difference.

Mitesh Patel is the medical director at Aetna International. For more information, please visit www.aetnainternational.com