Recently, we reached out to newly-placed international school leaders who found their positions through our platform to ask them if they would like to write a guest blog for us. Here Teresa Fry, Primary Principal at Sekolah Buin Batu in Indonesia, gives her advice for how to make a successful start as a new leader.

Moving from one country to another can be exciting, but also stressful and highly emotional. It can involve a lot of planning, from making lists of things to bring from your home country that will make life more comfortable, to getting medical checks and updating immunizations. 

As a leader, moving to a new school can be nerve-racking. Not knowing how you will fit in, if you will truly be walking into a good fit professionally, or who you can confide in can all feel a bit overwhelming in the first few weeks and months in any school. You may sometimes experience imposter syndrome, wondering if you can really do all that is expected of you. Now add in the unknown of working in a foreign country with different cultural norms and having a teaching faculty that may come from all over the world with vast experiences, skills and knowledge. 

From my experiences over the past ten years, I have learned that a school leader working in international schools requires a high level of personal resiliency, cultural competencies, and personal reflection.   

By taking time months before the position begins to build relationships and forge a clearer understanding of your new position and the expectations of the job, you may save yourself much anxiety and make sure you set off on the best footing once you commence the new school year.  

Internal politics and struggles you are unaware of may also add challenges to navigating your new role. By being proactive and starting to build a rapport with your new colleagues, you may be able to avoid, or at least mitigate, any potential issues once you arrive. 

A few things may help contribute to a positive leadership start. Be prepared to invest time; it’s worth it!

Talk. Three months before you start, make plans to meet online via video call to start building relationships with the current senior leadership and faculty coordinators to better understand the position and expectations you will be walking into. Create and share an agenda and a list of questions before meeting. This will give the current team time to consider what you are asking and why, and avoid catching them off guard; putting someone in an awkward position is not a great way to start your new job.

Listen. Look through the school website, or any documents shared with you, and see what is generating questions. Keep it positive: be careful not to interrogate or question the school’s decisions but rather seek to understand the positive strides they have made, the direction they want to move in, and the successes they have had. Listen during these times. Remember you are not at the school yet and you don’t know the context, so remain neutral and pay attention to what your new colleagues are saying.

Connect. If possible, connect with the person from whom you’re taking over. Don’t ask them to talk about individuals and their strengths or weaknesses; this isn’t an excellent way to start any position. Instead, ask about the contributions that staff have made to any new initiatives. Ask about how faculty meeting time is used, and ask about stakeholder surveys and if they can be shared with you.  

Join. Ask to sit in a couple of senior leadership team meetings via video to listen to how the leadership meetings flow and are planned. Be prepared to contribute if asked; otherwise, just listen. 

Strategise. See if the director has time to meet with you to discuss the current strategic plan and what your priorities will be when you start. Ask questions about past or current accreditations and any progress made. Ask about current successes that the school has felt they have made and how they celebrate them? 

Ask the current leadership team what their goals would be for the school and their team if they were staying and how they would achieve them (they know their teachers and staff best and may be able to provide some valuable insights so take notes!).

Discuss how faculty meetings are conducted and ask to sit in one via video. Try to meet with divisional teams and coordinators separately before arriving to understand their needs and what they expect from you.

Pause. Don’t over plan for what you want to change once you are in the position. Go in with an open mind and listen to everyone. Look with optimism. And again, spend time just listening. Relationships are key.

Make friends with those you work with and stay in contact; you WILL come across each other again; international education is a small world. If you need help, ask for it. Reach out to other international school leaders, join Facebook groups, LinkedIn or international educational websites such as Teacher Horizons Leadership groups and be willing to share your ideas to support each other. 

Good luck!

Teresa Fry has worked in education for over thirty years now. Education is her passion and she loves all aspects of teaching and learning. She has worked in seven countries and has grown tremendously as a person and a professional from each of her experiences. She is currently nearing the completion of a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership with a focus on Women in International School Leadership. She hopes to contribute new knowledge in order to support more women moving into school leadership in the future. 

photo of author
Written by Camilla Cook
Camilla has been working in education for the past sixteen years, teaching English in the UK, El Salvador, Thailand, and Tanzania. She participated in the Teach First Programme in 2005, and went on to support another Teach First teacher in her efforts to set up The Literacy Pirates, an education charity working to develop the literacy, confidence, and perseverance of young people referred for extra support by their teachers. As their first Director of Learning, she was responsible for planning, leading, and evaluating the learning programmes. She has worked as the Head of Language and Literature in international schools for the past five years, and is now living in Brighton with her husband and two children, attempting to reacclimatise to the weather by cycling around as much as possible and eating lots of ice cream.
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