Tuesday, August 14, 2012

OS Teacher Librarian - Pt 1 - Challenges

I recently participated in a conference via video speaking to a number of Teacher Librarians in Sydney about the challenges and rewards of working overseas as a Teacher Librarian. I have adapted what I presented to put in this blog today, it is in two parts Part 1 is Challenges then part 2 is Rewards of Teachng OS

Living and working in the country different to what you call home comes with many challenges and rewards. There are many people that do it and it is not until you leave 'home' that you realise there is a whole population of educators who are global nomads who will move from school to school, country to country as they love the lifestyle and opportunities it offers them. So this brief description of the challenges and rewards also comes with a cautionary tale : - once you leave your home country, you may not want to return until too are too old to work any more. 

Personal Challenges, these are the ones which will make or break you.

The greatest challenge for all OS educators is leaving behind family and the close proximity. Elderly parents, grandchildren, brothers and sisters are left behind possibly for years before you will see them in person again. When there is a sickness or death in the family, this is when the distance hits home the hardest. On the flip side, they may visit you in your new residence, so your contact with them will change.

Leaving friends behind, not as hard as leaving family but certainly a heart wrencher. As you live overseas you will change and you might find your friendships change without constant contact - people lives get busy, jealousy arises, different priorities emerge and loss of contact all contribute to dwindling friendships unless they are built on solid rock.

Taking your own family overseas is also a challenge, different ages present different challenges.They too are leaving behind their family and friends and everything they know because of your decisions. You need to be sensitive about this, and be aware there probably will be hiccups along the way and if you stay for a long time they will become ‘third culture kids’ or international citizens, where they no longer identify with their home country as their home culture. For my children, Hong Kong where they spent their childhood and adolescence is home. They live in Sydney, but Hong Kong is home.

Bureaucracy is another challenge - getting the work visa, trying to communicate with the schools having all your papers in order. To teach in Hong Kong along with other places, I had to supply copies of my university transcripts and prac teaching and reports. The certificates are not enough to prove your worthiness, so have your paper work ready before you apply for a job elsewhere. Having patience with this process is also a challenge.

Your own hangups
about everything - those little things that will drive you nuts if you don’t let go of them. You may find about about these hangups once you leave 'home'.

Cultural Challenges can also be a big hurdle if you are not aware and open minded before you head off. Knowing the expectations of the culture you will be living in will make life a little easier. Understanding that you are a permanent visitor and that you will not change anything about a culture that has survived for thousands of years, and, just because it does not make sense, there is nothing you can do about it. Knowing how to offend someone is the most important thing you can learn before leaving home so you can avoid it. Go gently and  just learn quietly, ask questions to find out why or how.

Every country works differently. This is not wrong, it is just different. Be aware of what needs to happen in the work place for you to fit in. Do you need to bow to the Principal as a sign of respect when you see him? How does one communicate with parents? What is the chain of command? How can you prevent someone from losing face? Does the school need to be paying someone to bring new resources in? What are the hold ups? What are the laws?

Paperwork is another challenge. Buying a car, renting a house, hiring a maid all the necessities of life will require paperwork and money, some will take longer than others, and there will be more questions to answer.

Language in the country you are living. I am not proud of the fact that I have lived in a country 18 years and I still cannot hold a conversation in that language. I have a myriad of excuses and reasons as to why, but the bottom line is that I miss out on the essence of the country and culture without that language.

Challenges of working in a library internationally can sometimes be different to those you may find in your own country.

One of the biggest challenges is the ordering of new resources. In many cases delivery to HK can take months, and new releases may not be new by the time it gets to us. The cost of shipping will also add costs to the price of the resources, eating into the budget. For these reasons we are embracing ebooks and other digital resources. We also have access to some excellent bookstores in HK and of course Book Depository.

In many schools across the world, the libraries do one large order for the entire year in June, the new resources turn up in time for the new school year in August and that it is it for ordering for the year. This saves the school money in shipping but also in taxes, and in some countries bribes. Many of the these librarians who work in these schools will visit other countries with an empty suitcase to visit book shops if their school admin allows them to purchase inside the school year. This can be very challenging.

Along with ordering comes the exchange rates, particularly when economies are in a state of flux. Ordering one day and receiving the invoice a few weeks later can add up to 30 percent or more to the bill simply due to exchange rate fluctuations. It can also work the other way of course.

Government restrictions are another challenge for the Teacher Librarian - in China so many web sites are banned, Google, gmail. blogger, and other media sites are blocked depending on the whim of the government and the political situation going on. Some schools operate a virtual private network (vpn) so they can access these resources, but this is breaking the laws of the land. Right to information is not a right upheld in all countries. This also includes print resources - some schools in the middle east cannot include information on the Holocaust, in China it is the Tiananmen square massacre. One needs to be aware of what resources will end you up in jail.

 Language becomes a challenge again. In many overseas schools the support staff are local residents, in Asia this generally means that you can have more than you would in a country where labour costs are higher, however, it also means that English is not the native language and misunderstandings can occur. It is important in many cultures not to lose face, and so instead of asking questions when something is not understood completely many times a yes will be given. This is not an indication they have understood what you have said, it is simply an acknowledgment that they have heard you. Also when information is given to you, you need to sometimes take the time to ask more questions with simple answers. Asking the right question becomes an art form.

Along with the local customs and language comes the local ways of training, skills and experiences. , You will come into the job with expectations and training that may be vastly different to your host country.  The staff you have working for you may need training beyond their formal qualifications, or they may be highly trained.
This of course depends on the country.  

You may also have the opportunity to work with other expatriates as your support staff, currently our team has a lawyer who is also a librarian as a part time assistant, we have also had a graphic designer, museum curater, an accountant, optomertrist and personal assistant all working on our team. These were mothers who wanted part time work without the stress of their high flying jobs to spend more time with their family. They have all been fantastic.

Along with these fantastic multi talented assistants comes the problem of transience. Over the 4 years we have been open, the library has had 11 staff fill the three positions. We have had 2 consistent assistants through the years, meaning it has been 9 people for one position in 3 years. The families of these amazing women have had to move on, taking with them their previous and newly learned skills.

 Professional Challenges include keeping current with what is happening in the profession. In some instances being far away from your home land cuts off easy access to current developments. It is important to maintain contact and keep in tune with what is happening in your country and internationally to ensure you keep your self up to date. List serves, and twitter help with this along with other PLN tools.

Isolation can be even more of a problem than in your home country, it is important to be in contact with other TL’s around you. If there isn’t a local group, start one up. In HK we have a local group which was started some 16 years ago. People in this group  have left HK to start work in another country and started up their own groups in Ho Chi Minh, Shanghai, this has then led to new groups sprouting up in Beijing, Nanjing and other places. These support groups are invaluable for finding sources, resources and bouncing ideas off each other. The group in HK meets once a month to discuss hot topics, learn new skills and eat cake and drink tea. Professional development opportunities can be arranged with larger groups, spreading news of author visits. Some associations hold their own book awards. Without these local associations, life as a TL can lonely and unsupported.

Sometimes working in a school overseas can be just as or even more challenging as at home. The TL position may be a new position and so will need much advocacy to implement what you believe to be the best program for your school. You are working with educators from all over the world who come with different backgrounds and education. In some places librarians are untrained keepers of books, so to gain the trust and the confidence of the educators you are working with may take a lot of work, and a lot of time. After 4 years in the role at Discovery College, I feel I have finally convinced almost all the staff that I can help them and that they really should work with me. 4 years of pushing that boulder up hill! There is no time for coasting though as we have just received another 22 new staff! The transience in international education keeps us on our toes.

If you are an international educator, what some other challenges you found?   Rewards will be covered next week.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


I worked as a TL in an international school in Dubai and I completely concur with all of the comments above and can add a few extra. In Dubai we had to be very sensitive to local customs and conservative opinions on many topics. A previous librarian had spent many hours blacking out genitals in pictures of artworks such as the Sistine Chapel (it didn't look the same!), she also completely blacked out mention of Israel or Judaism in the encyclopaedias. I found these limitations very challenging at times, although it was not my place to fight against them. Also the differing attitudes towards the library and TLs amongst the staff can be disconcerting. Depending on where the teaching staff came from, they could be welcoming or dismissive about the place of the library in the teaching process.
However it is a great experience to work overseas and an excellent way to acquaint yourself with children's literature from other countries and to generally broaden your cultural horizons.


Katherine Stevens