That was the word a student used to describe their globally mobile life: one of privilege, multiple international schools, multilingual, with friends all over the world. Yet each experience required them to adapt and portray a version of themselves that others expected them to be. What might appear as bravado was a desire for a sense of belonging in the classroom. Against these diverse cultural backgrounds, the complex teenage question of ‘Who am I?’ can be draining. The students were grateful for the incredible opportunities provided by a privileged international education, but the feeling of being an outsider had left them exhausted and feeling ‘empty’.

As they sat across the classroom from me, that word lingered in the air. Meanwhile, my protective teacher’s mind desperately searched for ways to ‘solve’ this. Words of reassurance and comments about global citizenship began to form, but I realised how inadequate and hollow they would sound to a student with far more international experience than me. As I scrambled for a solution, I encountered a harsh reality.

It was my second year as an international school teacher and my seventh year as a teacher overall. I have been fortunate to always have a good rapport with students. However, this conversation struck me because I was part of the issue. I was a literal embodiment of it: a British expat fresh from the UK, monolingual, and certainly not a third culture kid (TCK). If someone asked me at 18, “Where are you from?” I could answer in one word. Now working in international education, I realised the vast gap in my understanding. This conversation – and that one word ‘empty’ – had stripped away the surface of what I thought I knew, revealing a deep void underneath.

We often say that young people need to be seen, but they also need to be understood. Searching for connection and belonging in a globally mobile world is difficult, and it becomes even more challenging when you’re a teenager trying to figure out ‘Who am I?’

Are you “enough’?

International education has two distinct yet interlinked sides of the same coin that affect students’ sense of belonging. On the one hand, it champions diversity and international mindedness, with noble global goals. On the reverse side, international education sets itself apart from the host culture, creating a premium brand by attracting Western-centric expat staff with the promise of better working conditions. The result? Schools that promote UN’s Sustainable Development Goal ten ‘reduced inequalities’ while simultaneously paying local staff significantly less. These environments revere intercultural competencies and respect for other cultures, yet the recruitment of teaching staff tends to be Western-centric and to focus on native English speakers.

Being ‘international’ can sometimes feel like a cover for acquiring Western cultural capital. In a strange twist, students who are nationals of the country but attend international schools are often not seen as ‘international enough’. Despite English being their primary language and their educational system being vastly different from their parents’, they do not fully belong to their passport country either. How does this affect the students and their sense of belonging in schools? Simply put: in every way.

The big question facing any young person – especially teenagers – is a simple one, but the answer is long, complex, and convoluted: ‘Who am I?’ Belonging is a fundamental aspect of a student’s experience, particularly during their teenage years when they grapple with questions like this. Belonging encompasses a sense of security and support that fosters their overall development. Feeling a sense of belonging is not only about knowing where you fit in but also about understanding how to be and finding acceptance, inclusion, and a solid identity within a community. Schools play a crucial role in providing this sense of identity by offering a framework of values and a collective purpose.

In our diverse educational settings, we strive to prioritise inclusion, recognising that every student possesses unique potential. By embracing and celebrating diversity, we create an environment where students feel understood and valued. The desire to be understood becomes a powerful motivator for students, driving them to become effective communicators and fostering their ability to empathise with others.

belonging in international schools

Creating a sense of belonging in schools matters

When students genuinely feel a sense of belonging, it positively impacts their overall well-being and academic success. It creates a supportive foundation for their personal growth and enables them to fully engage in their educational journey. By fostering a culture of belonging, schools empower students to explore their identities, embrace their differences, and contribute meaningfully to their communities.

According to ISC Research, creating a sense of belonging in schools matters because it:

  • Impacts performance
  • Enhances connectedness
  • Motivates students to challenge themselves
  • Promotes high levels of engagement
  • Encourages collaboration, problem-solving, and improved decision-making
  • Unlocks the power and value of diversity

There are several actions teachers can take to promote inclusivity. Asking thoughtful questions is one approach:

Leaders can also create ‘upstream’ interventions to promote inclusion in their schools:

weird culture kids poster

Additionally, teachers can educate their students about the concept of ‘identity’ or the experience of being a third culture kid (TCK). Helping students understand the host culture better can also aid in their orientation and provide valuable reference points. It’s important to encourage TCKs to share their stories, as many may hesitate due to fear of appearing arrogant, misunderstood, or different.

Excellent further reading for leaders and teachers is Danau Tanu’s book GROWING UP IN TRANSIT: The Politics of Belonging at an International School, which is the first book to address structural racism in international schools. Additionally, Ngoc (Bi) Nguyen’s memoir Weird Culture Kids examines her and her peers’ experience of growing up in international schools. You can click here to watch Ngoc talk further about the intersections of national cultures and identities. 

Belonging and safeguarding

The International Baccalaureate (IB) has also initiated research into safeguarding specific to international schools. Preventing harm in international schools necessitates a shift from reactive measures to proactive approaches, addressing various challenges such as affluent neglect, online harm, and the need for whole-school involvement. It has been acknowledged that the international school community must collaboratively come together to effectively tackle these issues.

Leila Holmyward has been researching how international schools meet and maintain child safeguarding standards. Key findings indicate that perceptions of harm differ between adults and students, particularly regarding identity-based harm and the challenges faced by globally mobile individuals. Furthermore, online harm blurs the boundaries of time and space within school contexts. To address these complexities, culturally-responsive strategies for physical discipline are crucial. While safeguarding structures and a team approach support overall safeguarding efforts, it is important to note that students may not fully comprehend or appreciate this approach.

Therefore, ongoing education and communication are necessary to ensure students understand the importance of these safeguarding measures and actively participate in maintaining a safe and inclusive school environment.

Schools are diverse, but are they inclusive?

School cultures are the result of numerous relationships that embody specific standards and values. When one of my students expressed feeling empty inside, it became evident that as educators, our relationships with our students did not fully acknowledge the complexities of their experiences. Schools are diverse environments, encompassing teachers, students, stakeholders, and more, each with their own diverse experiences, opinions, histories, and languages. However, diversity alone cannot address the problem. We need inclusion as a tool to harness the power of diversity.

Teachers can ask the aforementioned questions to students, base units of work around topics like migration, global mobility, and belonging, share their own experiences, and challenge their colleagues’ preconceived ideas. Even small gestures such as learning how to greet students in their home languages and allowing students to test them can make a difference. By intentionally cultivating cultures of belonging in schools, including student voices in safeguarding policies, and encouraging students to share their stories in a manner that demonstrates a willingness to learn, we can foster cultures of belonging in education and beyond.

photo of author
Written by Sophie Peters
Sophie is an educator with nine years of classroom-based experience as a History and Politics teacher, including five years in an international school in Vietnam. She has also worked in training teachers in circumstances with limited resources in both Cambodia and Vietnam. As a former middle leader with experience in both IB and A-level, she has found a particular purpose in working on equity, diversity, and inclusion within education.
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