Confessions of an International School Psychologist:
How Burn Out at a Single School Led me to Help Schools Everywhere Instead
Once upon a time, I was a school psychologist at a fantastic international establishment. This school had it all: amazing teachers, experienced and progressive leaders, incredible PE facilities, wonderful families, and a super engaged and knowledgeable curriculum coordinator. What more could a school psychologist ask for? And it got even better! Not long before I was appointed Head of Student Support and was given the chance to build a team of experts to support our 700 inquisitive multicultural students. We became a of lighthouse of Student Support for other international schools.
It seemed like the perfect setup. In many ways it was, but after a few years I found myself hitting wall after wall as we put together support plans that we just couldn’t implement. Even with the best possible set up for an international school, resources were scarce. We just couldn’t give all the students what they needed to reach their potential. We ran out of staff as new hires were usually allocated to core teaching posts. We ran out of rooms in the school building. We ran out of funding. We ran out of time in the timetable. We were constantly competing for meeting times. And my least favorite: the oft-spoken, whispered, or unstated sentiment, This student just doesn’t belong here, they would be better off in a special school. My team and I would shake our heads when we had to pull support from one student to another. “Robbing Peter to pay Paul” we used to say, seeing ourselves as the Little Dutch Boy hopelessly trying to plug holes in a dam with our fingers.
Together with colleagues from other schools, I spent hours compiling and updating the ever-changing lists of outside referrals to help us support the kids: psychologists, dyslexia specialists, speech therapists, occupational therapists, psychiatrists, tutors, counselors, family therapists. As time-consuming as that was, it was an enormous relief to get a child external help from someone who could offer what we could not from 8am to 3pm in the hectic confines of day-to-day school life.
After 9 years of jumping hurdles, swimming against the tide, breaking down walls, fighting for every room, begging for every hour of staffing, and advocating daily for the rights of different learners to stay in an academically rigorous school like ours, I was TIRED and desperate. After a late night of reviewing ad nauseum the impossible support maps and timetables, I went to my director AGAIN with a new staffing proposal in my hand. With sympathy, my director gave me a polite “no”, explaining, “Tina, Student Support Services is a bottomless barrel. You will never truly have enough support.” Deep down, I knew he was right, but that just couldn’t be the final answer. How could it be? These kids had so much to give, so much to learn, and why shouldn’t they be able to attend an international school and thrive like any other student? We knew how to design and implement paths to success–we had a great track record of doing just that.
Of course, it is not that these problems are specific to international schools. There are challenges, however, that international schools uniquely face. First, international students deal with different types of stress than those in a typical school. Moving countries is unsettling. Changing school systems is taxing. Watching your parents (especially the trailing spouses) struggle to find footing in their new country is hard. International students learn resilience, but it is a rocky journey. Second, traditional schools in most developed countries are part of a system of educational and care services. When a school doesn’t have its own speech therapist, the school district or the healthcare system must provide one. When a school does not have its own school psychologist, students can access one who provides assessments or support. This is not the case in most international schools. International schools serve as hubs for the school community, but most simply cannot offer what an entire school district or community mental health system can. Services are often available in the host community, but without speaking the local language and thoroughly understanding how that system works, international families are left lost and confused. Third, multilingualism tends to be a confusing factor in supporting children with learning difficulties. The classic question remains, “Is it a learning disability or a language acquisition issue?” Time and time again, this slows the support process. Finally, not every country approaches student support in the same way. Some countries do not have a developed system for training child psychologists; others do not have any kind of occupational therapy. Moving from place to place, globally transient families do not know what they will be able to access in their new countries. Furthermore, frequent moves may confuse a learning difficulty or mental health problem that would have been identified and addressed had the family remained in one place. The additional stresses of international school life along with the well-accepted fact that 10-13% of all school age children require some type of learning support during their school careers–this meant to me that international schools should offer more student support than typical schools, not less.
I sat back in my chair at the end of another long day and wondered, what if I broke out of the restrictions of the 8:00 to 3:00 timetable, geography, staffing budgets, and room shortages? What if there was another way?
I would say it hit me like a truck, but it was more like a shooting star. The answer to not being able to support the 700 students in my one school well enough was to support 700,000 more! Within a year, I left the school and began building a new team with every specialist I had wished for as a school psychologist. Soon enough, we were ready–no borders, no timetables, no staffing limits. Our solution was to make amazing student support specialists available to any international school in the world by way of an online platform.
Over the past three years, our team has increased to nearly 30 academic, mental health, and inclusion specialists, and we are growing every month. Our team members are are dynamic, highly qualified, resourceful, and energized by the vision of helping international schools around the world. We are not experts in every school community or culture, but we are experts in helping to identify resources in teachers, students, and institutions. Any school in need of a bit more inclusion help can get just the support they need, even if it is just a few hours each month. Each day we learn more about what works, how online support can look, and how to best serve our schools. It is often a mix of visiting and doing some professional development with the school before moving online. We have already reached hundreds of students in dozens of schools across Europe, on site and online. The world is wide. Our team is poised. We are ready for more.