‘International.’ The word brings to mind many ideas: diversity, co-operation, communication, respect. As an alumnus of an international school, and now an educator myself, I have found myself consistently gravitating towards international environments, both social and professional. Having worked in a number of educational contexts across various countries, I am often given reason to draw from or reflect on my own experiences of international schools.
Looking back, I find a number of things to cherish about my experience – but I also find much to question.
Whose cultural norms inform the ‘international’ environment?
In schools that celebrate that someone wears a different dress, or brings different foods on a special day of the year – to what extent did cultural differences make up the daily experience of students?
I recall students from many different nationalities attending my school from a young age, and observed an interesting phenomenon. The longer a student remained in school, the more their accent in English was likely to change and differ from the accent of their parents. Except, of course, for students from Western Anglophone countries. With some accents taking precedence over others, students with non-Western names would get used to their teachers’ mispronunciations, effectively being called a different name in their ears.
It extended beyond just the accent and affected cultural practices as well. South Asian students who were used to eating rice with their hands at home would be too embarrassed to do so at school. Traditional home-packed lunches became less common as students age.
One could say that these are minor issues and indeed, they did appear minor. The propagation of some cultural norms while others were invalidated was a subtle process, so much so that it was unspoken – invisible – and as such could not easily be confronted.
What support do students need from us?
Students from many nationalities find themselves facing these unspoken questions as they grow up in international schools – long before they have the tools to reflect on and unpack all that surrounds them. When many of these pressures act invisibly and go unspoken, what tools do students have to confront them?
The first step is awareness. Not just awareness that others look different, or that they are of a different nationality, but that they may do things differently. It is the responsibility of both teachers and parents to show that difference is sometimes uncomfortable but discomfort is not a bad thing.
The second step is respect. Building awareness means more than experiencing food, or songs and dance performances. It also means learning about those practices that make others uncomfortable, and putting an end to jokes at their expense. This might be in accepting that someone’s lunch smells unfamiliar, learning there is an etiquette to eating with chopsticks or eating with one’s hands, or understanding what a certain type of ‘head-shake’ means.
Parents, teachers, and students themselves are all responsible for the environment they create. It pays to be extra-careful when speaking about groups of people. By speaking about people, groups, and cultures with understanding and compassion, we can establish the means to create a healthy diversity in communities.
What ultimately counters cultural pressure?
In order to navigate a diverse community, it is important to instil a sense of self-respect. The students who are most sensitive to other cultures are often those who are brought up with an extra effort to value where they come from, and where others might come from as well. It can mean absorbing a nostalgia for their roots, frequent trips back home, ties to their extended families, and a grounding in core values.
It is ultimately not necessary to try to push away influences from other cultures - but it is important to understand what it means to live alongside other cultures. It means recognising that some discomfort in difference and disagreement is not something to ignore.
These are uncomfortable conversations to have, and they deserve a follow-up question: if such topics are awkward for adults to speak about and navigate, what about for children who are still shaping their own identity and self-perception? Throughout my career as an educator, I have noticed that the places where such discussions happen among all members of the community are those that truly benefit from their diversity in a healthy, respectful way.