This has been a very profound year for me personally and professionally. I feel that I have been forever changed as the result of my experience living and working in China and within an international school. I often joke with my colleagues, friends and family that the genie is out of the bottle and I am not sure how I can put her back in. Through this experience there have been some key learnings for me.
Autonomy: In my current role I have a great deal of autonomy. If we (our leadership team) feel and have evidence and data to support change that will benefit students and staff, then we have the freedom to implement it. We are given the autonomy to make decisions that support growth, change and innovation. I have found this absolutely liberating. We have been able to put some powerful things into action as the result of this autonomy. Suggestions and feedback from staff have been implemented and have changed practice. Things like additional collaboration time, professional learning, report cards, technology, early years etc. All of these changes have occurred because our Head of School and Board of Directors trust our judgement. They have faith that we will make informed decisions based on observation and data that support students and staff. This has allowed me to regain confidence and trust in my own judgement and to take some risks.
Leadership and Culture: Cultural Context plays a HUGE role in leadership. Many of the leadership strategies, experiences and lessons that I have learned can be applied in this context but certainly not all and many require using the information and coming at it from a different approach. Leadership strengths and skills valued in one culture are not always valued in another. For example, as a leader I am always happy to share the spotlight and credit for success. I believe in strength based leadership and when looking at our team finding the best person to carry out a task based on their skills. I am very introverted. I hate the spotlight. I do not mind speaking in public, opening and closing events or being present but I never want it to be about me. I would prefer to let others have the photo opportunities, represent at ceremonies and events, entertain guests. Being the face of the school is not something I feel terribly comfortable with and it can at times cause me some anxiety. I love attending, meeting people and being part of it but I have no desire to be at the center. In my current role I am expected to do this and it is quite frankly it is very uncomfortable for me. I have to really dig deep and prepare. I know that this is valued in my current culture and that I need to find ways and strategies that I can use to connect and make it through these events. I do not want to be perceived in a negative manner by our community because I do not follow the cultural norms of the context. This is an area of growth I have identified for myself for next year.
Living in the moment: Last night over a glass of wine with some of my dear friends here in Beijing. We started philosophizing and trying to put into words the experience of living and working abroad. While I have been away here and working I have had to compartmentalize so many things. Missing my family, events at home, the provincial election, making a decision about what to do next. We are so cut off from Western news, pop culture, social media and our connections there. You have to put these things on the shelf and live in the moment of life here. It is hard to put into words exactly the phenomenon. It is very different for me and something I am thankful to have been able to do. I am not worried about tomorrow, next week or next year. I am just trying to connect here and now and to experience all of the wonderful people and things happening around me.
Self-Reliance and Resilience: Being in a foreign country and on your own means you must figure things out for yourself. Sure there are people that you can ask and who will guide you but ultimately it is up to you. You quickly realize those things you can and can’t do. At times this can be humbling or humiliating and at other times liberating. I am very proud of myself and all the things that I have been able to figure out. The language is definitely a barrier but you can find ways around it and figure out quickly what you need to survive.
Homesickness can be an issue at times. It is hard to be away from you friends and family. This year I have traveled home many times and have been able to attend and experience many of the special events happening. At least the BIG ones. I do miss the everyday interactions and the simple things. It can be lonely at times but the positives far outweigh the negatives. I find that my resilience is tested more personally than professionally. The rewards of the job far exceed the challenges and I also feel more in control but personally at times missing family and friends is what affects me the most. I am different than many of my friends and colleagues here. I have chosen to leave a life and job and try something new. I have a partner, a home, a mortgage and a family for many of my colleagues here they began their lives here. They have found their partners, had their children and established their careers. I have done that elsewhere and chose to walk away to try something else. The perspective is different and the roots I have at home are very different. Regular communication through texts and Facetime does help and keeps me feeling connected.
Relationships: In less than one year I have established some really amazing friendships. I have met some of the MOST brilliant, open minded, kind, passionate, generous and funny people. Working internationally, I have discovered that people are adventurous and open to taking risks. People have pushed my thinking and forced me to live outside of my comfort zone. For this I am grateful. All of these things have forced me to grow. I will be forever changed as the result of the individuals who have come into my life even for just a short time. I will miss some dear friends who have chosen to move on and hope to have them remain as a part of my life moving forward. Although our time together has been short the impact has been significant.
I am not sure what the next year will bring but I am hope that I will continue to push myself and to discover all that this experience has to offer.