The Challenge of Being International

We teach Peace but sometimes our students struggle to spell it.

We teach Peace but sometimes our students struggle to spell it.

The beginning of the new year has always meant new beginnings. World wide, people flood gyms and weight loss centers in search of a healthier lifestyle.  Others scour websites in search of new job opportunities.  For those teachers looking to go to schools abroad, the job fair season has just begun.  This got me thinking about the differences between my public school students back home and my international students here.  An international school student’s life can be quite challenging, and these challenges can affect their success in the classroom.


If you have worked in the states in an agricultural area you most likely have experienced a bit seasonal flux in your classrooms due to migrant students.  As the temperatures changed, so did the students in my classroom.  In an international school the flux has no season.  Children enter, and children leave, at all times of the year.  Most students stay for a few years, then their parents are moved to a new location or bureau.   Most students do not return to us once they have left.

Surprisingly, this transience makes the school a welcoming place.  Everyone knows what it is like to be “the new kid.” Everyone wants to make the school welcoming.  But every kid is also dealing with the loss of a best friend.  They make friends and they leave them behind, or their friends leave them behind.  These students are constantly dealing with moving on, never quite getting time to mourn.

Educational Swiss Cheese:

A colleague of mine once dubbed one of her students as “Swiss cheese.”  The girl in question was a student who had moved 10 times in 5 years.   With each school the student encountered a new curriculum.  Although International Baccalaureate and the IGCSE links many schools with common objectives, these programs don’t necessarily dictate what should be taught when.  So a student could move around enough to miss being exposed to topics like ratios, Ancient Greece, Romeo & Juliet, or the reproductive system.


Students in International Schools speak many languages.  And when they arrive at a school like ours, they are instructed in English, instructed in the language of the community (German), and then they must choose one other language to study.  This may be the language of their home country or it might be another language from the region.

Some schools are equipped to give excellent mother tongue classes to students and sadly, some schools cannot find qualified teachers for all languages.  For instance, a school might have three Dutch students in need of a Dutch teacher, but with only three students, they only need a teacher for three hours a week.  This can be done, but often that highly qualified  Dutch teacher is working full-time at a school with a number of Dutch students.  In Frankfurt we are able to offer mother tongue instruction in a variety of languages, but the community is also much more diverse.  Now imagine you are a new student coming to us from Bhutan?  It is difficult for any school to find a teachers for all languages that might enter their school.

Sometimes we have students who have moved so much that no language is fully developed.  These students are difficult to spot.  He speaks what seems to be perfect English.  He converses with his football friends in German.  Then he yells across the room to his lab partner in Mandarin.  And finally he makes the girl next to him cry….when you ask “What happened?” you realize he was harassing her in Portuguese.   It is not until these students are writing that you discover that they are struggling to find the words.  One girl once wanted my help with a word.  I offered suggestions to help her brain get going….then finally she said “It’s no use, Mrs. Ralf.  In my head I have this feeling about what I want to say about this character, but I have no words, in any language, to describe that feeling.”

Single Parents:

Students sometimes go for long periods of time without seeing one of their parents.  This is not to say that my students are largely from Single Parent homes. In my experience, I would say there are more kids here with two parents living in the same home.  But our students do live in situations where, for part of the year, they are home with only one parent for a variety of reasons.

Some students have a parent stationed locally, but that parent is often sent on extended trips away.  Some students are here because their parents work for multinational companies.  The companies are located around the world, so the parent travels a good deal visiting office headquarters and other satellite bureaus.  Since these students live far away from their extended family, when Grandma or Grandpa get sick, one parent usually must fly “home” to help take care of the sick family member.

What am I?


Students from 3 different countries drawing in their new sketchbooks.

In the international education circle students are dubbed, “Third Culture Kids” (TCK).  So many of our students come from multiple places and have been exposed to multiple cultures.  And some may even say that they identify more with the culture they are currently living in than the culture that is indicated by their passport.  A student might be Japanese, yet have never lived in Japan.  A student might be German, but only recently have moved into the country.

One of my German students said once,  “You know Mrs. Ralf, I’m just not funny in German.  I can be funny in English, but for some reason, I just can’t be as funny in my mother tongue.“  Much of his upbringing was in the States.  He had learned to be funny in another language, so when he tried to transfer jokes from one culture to another, it didn’t work. Another of my students said that when he speaks different languages, his personality changes.

Our kids often can’t describe what home means in the geographical sense.  Home is where their family is.  Home is the happy place in their mind, where they go in times of distress.  But for most TCK’s, home is difficult to define. Yet this skill of finding home in themselves makes them more resilient.  My students who are now in college often say that they are excited for where their future careers might take them.  They want to travel and are seeking opportunities that will take them to new places.

They Shall Overcome:

Most students are adaptable.  They arrive, they are welcomed, they adjust, they thrive.  But at any given moment, one of these challenges might be affecting their ability to succeed.  When they find out that they are moving, or their best friend is moving, they may struggle to concentrate in class. When starting a new project, they might feel like they are the only one in the room that is unfamiliar with the topic. When mom is away, Dad might not be so good at helping with Math. When they are writing, they might struggle to find the right word. When someone asks, “Hey, where are you from?” they might not know how to answer.

Most international schools do their best to support students through pastoral programs.  These programs educate the student on how to deal with challenges they are facing.   A framework is set up within the school to give our students a sense of community, even though they may only be a part of this community for a short period of time.

Recently I asked some of my former students how they felt about their experiences at International schools.  They all seemed to agree that their exposure to other cultures has helped them thrive at university.  They felt that their outlook was much more worldly, rather than local.  They felt that they are more accepting of others both culturally and personally. And all of them said that they can see themselves, in the future, applying for jobs all over the globe because they do not fear the new or different.

The challenges of these students can end up being their strengths.  They become compassionate, multilingual, world citizens who seek to make this world a better place.

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