So Now What?
Cue David Bowie.
This past summer, much like the last 2 years of life, was anything but normal. I spent a lot of time by myself. A lot of time at home. A lot of time in reflection. A lot of time with my big thoughts and even bigger feelings. And I've been consumed with the concept of change, particularly with my role in it. And because this space is meant to be where I house and share things, it felt appropriate to write down some of the things I'm grappling with in an effort to connect with others that either, a) are going through something similar and want to feel seen/heard/understood, or b) have insights, advice or considerations to share. So, here we go...
The life of an international educator is transient in many ways. Life with a non-teaching spouse who travels internationally for work, even more so. When we moved to Guangzhou in 2019, we felt like we'd finally landed somewhere we'd want and be able to stay for a while. Jeff had a small project just north of here and a couple of short-term jobs in Saudi. I'd stepped into the perfect role at an established school, and we breathed a collective sigh of relief to feel like we could settle down a bit. We didn't see the plot twist of a global pandemic around the corner. Nobody did. We made it through 9+ months of being displaced, living off our relatives, working remotely across time zones, and thought we'd seen the worst of it. Oh how foolishly optimistic we were.
I was allowed back into China but my husband was waiting for his new passport to arrive after a months-long backlog in the US. By the time it arrived, China stopped issuing dependent visas and tightened its already-closed borders. Meanwhile, all of Jeff's projects had halted and he headed to his parent's house in Georgia to wait things out. The weeks turned into months. I'd already re-signed my contract for another school year and the realization was setting in; we aren't going to see each other for a long time. My options were to break my contract or wait it out. The penalties seemed too great to break my contract and besides, at least one of us was working. The days have become harder now and the 1-year mark is coming up this week with no sign of a reunion on the horizon. Jeff finally made it out of his parent's basement and back to work in Saudi where we wait for good news to come our way.
Job Hunting... Again
Contracts and re-signing talks have already started here as China faces a huge year of turnover in their international schools with lots of people unwilling to stay inside closed borders. I'm one of them, obviously, so that means it's time for me to start putting myself out there and looking for my next move. I'm sad. I feel like I've just hit my stride at work. There's a momentum and synergy that's building at our school this year, and I'm gutted to not be able to see it through another year or more. I've developed some great coaching relationships, had some tremendous wins with PLC teams, and see so much potential for greatness here, but I can't sustain with my personal life in limbo. There's too much at stake. I'm not even sure how I'll make it through the rest of the school year, to be honest.
So the job hunt begins. I've updated and re-worked my resume. I've renewed my subscription to Search Associates, a global recruitment site for matching international schools and educators. I'm practicing positive self-talk to neutralize the imposter syndrome that creeps up on me in moments of heightened stress and uncertainty. I'm putting feelers out to my PLN on Twitter and with past and present colleagues. And I'm trying to remain positive and open-minded as new opportunities present themselves.
My role in change
Given all the time I have right now to spend with my big thoughts and feelings, it would be a waste to not invest at least some of this energy in being an active participant in the change I'm facing. Sometimes I do this well, lately, not so much. I think this is because so many things feel like they're out of my control right now. I can't change border restrictions. I can't change my current employment contract. I can't get my husband here or myself there. I can't just flip an internal switch and decide to not fret. I can't get rid of the depression that I've had since adolescence and is amplified because of the current circumstances. I can't continue to compartmentalize and perform at work like everything's fine. I just don't have it in me.
But there are things I CAN do, and I desperately want to keep these in focus. One thing that's been helping me right now is allowing myself the time and space to contemplate, reflect, and process. I'm showing myself some grace and giving myself permission to go slow in some areas, and that's okay. This has been happening mostly on the weekends when I head off to the Starbucks across the street (the only coffee shop that opens before noon!) with my journal and laptop but has extended into my evenings and most of my waking hours during October break. Here are some of the things I CAN and have been doing to activate positive change:
A few weeks ago, I received the following text message from the trainer who signed me up for my gym membership. The gym is located directly across the street, just above the Starbucks mentioned above, and the trainer is often on the corner handing out flyers to recruit new members. I occasionally see him and actively avoid walking in that direction so I won't be confronted by his judgment. But he found me. And it turns out all I needed was a little shaming to get me back in the groove. I've been going about 3-4 times a week pretty consistently now for the last month, and I feel like this is a reasonable change to maintain. I CAN make time for exercise because it helps me feel better and is good for me.
Work keeps my brain pretty fit, but I've been looking for topics outside of my profession to take up for a change. I entertained the thought of starting Chinese lessons with some colleagues but the class schedule didn't really work for me and I'm not motivated given that I'll be leaving at the end of the school year. Instead, I decided to start using Duolingo to learn more Greek. It seemed a more valuable endeavor given that I spend time there each year (except in a pandemic, obviously) and have recently been granted my Greek citizenship. So, I started practicing 15-20 minutes each day on my way to work and before bed, and I'm already 75 days in! Admittedly, I know a bit of the Greek language already because of my family and all the time I spend there, but it's helping me feel a greater connection to my roots and I can see my progress growing with each passing week. Plus, it's a great way to spend my morning commute to work. I CAN learn a language with continued practice.
One of the areas with the greatest return on time and effort investments is the development of social-emotional wellness. However, it happens to be the most intimidating and challenging for me. This is a sure sign it's most important and should be prioritized. I can't say that I'm making huge strides in this area yet, but I've been doing some deliberate things to move the needle. One of these is gratitude journaling. Each week, I spend time reflecting on things that inspired and challenged me. Things I did for myself and others. And of course, the people and things for which I am grateful. I'm now on week 40, and I feel like it's helped me become more active in my processing of emotions.
Another thing I've been doing to foster positive change in this area is joining a women's leadership group with fellow educators. I went to a couple of these meetings last school year, but they've just started up again, and I'm really loving the way it's feeding my soul to share ideas and strategies with fellow women educators. Some of the topics we've been diving into include DEIJ, imposter syndrome, and relationships at work. I plan to revisit each of these in future posts soon but there's no way I could do any of them justice right now. But I'm coming to realize that these small yet intentional steps are helping me get through this challenging time. I CAN continue to develop my capacity for understanding, expressing and managing my emotions so I can have greater relationships with others.
Although not totally related, I feel like there's a connection here to my overall health and wellbeing with the time I set aside for fostering creativity. Lately, that has come in the form of teaching myself to sew. I purchased a friend's sewing machine back in June before she moved away from China, and since then, I've been putting it to good use. With a little help from printable PDF patterns and some YouTube tutorials, I managed to make a handful of clothes that I actually wear. I especially like that I can see progress in my skills with each new garment I make. Here's a look at a couple of dresses I whipped up over the fall break this week:
I CAN express my creativity in many ways.