Nine Orientation Mistakes That International Schools Make – and How to Avoid Them.

by André Double

How to Get the Most Out of Your Orientation Week(s)

Nearly every leader I’ve met wants to start the new school year with a bang, and who can blame them? Embedding expectations, selling (or re-focusing) on the school’s vision and bringing everyone together around a common purpose are what every leader who desires to be successful should be doing. Yet, year after year, detailed planning, preparation and orientation timetables are met with similar reactions around the world. Time slips away, activities can lack coherence and relevance to whole-school goals or – someone wants to make a name for themselves.

The initial orientation in establishing and developing a highly effective international school culture is your opportunity to present your school’s culture to your new staff. It is usually delivered by your HR team, but here there is an opportunity for your school’s HR team and Senior Leaders to collaborate over the message you give to new staff about who you are, what you do and how you do it. Why not bring in former alumni or retired staff to share how the school and its culture have positively impacted their lives?

The manner in which your orientation is presented and staff engagement with it are absolutely vital in getting your school culture off to a good start. The language your staff use, how they communicate stories, artefacts, and ceremonies will all be influential. Do not leave this entirely up to your HR department. There is a shared responsibility between you and the school’s leadership team. This is the time to begin living and representing your culture in what you say and how you act.

Common Mistakes That Schools Make With Orientation – How to Avoid Them.

#1. We still confuse orientation and onboarding. Hence staff often get lost in a hoard of ‘company practices’ that either could or should have been carried out previously. Make sure that your HR team, Senior Leaders and Staff are aware of the difference between the two:

‘Pre-board’ staff with key information where possible.

Separate out distinct areas that are time-consuming. Allow staff to do things on a revolving ‘case by case basis’ instead of hanging around in groups for large periods of time.

Communicate, communicate and communicate what needs to be done on a daily basis.

#2 Purpose.We sit everyone down for 3 days, a week (or even two weeks) and tell them a host of information without relating it back to our core purpose – learning and teaching. Use your stories, activities and planning and preparation to bring back to staff why they are here. Do this by:

Theming your days / weeks.

Dedicating specific time to learning and teaching.

Communicating with intentionality around your core purpose.

#3 We underestimate how long things take.

Going to the bank, visa centers and shops for essential housing items takes time. Be empathetic to your staff and their needs. Remember:

Everyone has good intentions.

Maslow – now matter how much you want your staff to fully engage and be prepared, unless their house is furnished and internet is up and running – they won’t be at their best.

#4 We deliver Child Protection (CP) and Safeguarding in an ‘apologetic’ way. We apologise for the content being dull. NEVER apologise for something that critically underpins your school and its culture. Find ways to better engage people with its message:

Use relevant examples of international schools and their teachers.

Review your existing policies with new staff and get feedback.

Always clearly set out expectations and Do’s and Don’ts.

#5 We Fail to Discuss the Job Description and the role for which individuals were hired. Many staff will still harbour fears about something that is on it – something that was promised or hasn’t appeared yet.

Set aside time to meet people to discuss their JDs.

Allow them to collaborate with each other whose JDs are the same/similar.

Seek advice of whether staff feel they have the necessary tools and resources to carry out the central functions of their role. Address mismatches as soon as you can.

#6 We fail to activate prior learning. Our teachers come from vast educational backgrounds and experiences. The collective power of those experiences is staggering. Use it or lose it. Have them teach each other during your orientation.

Gather information that can propel your orientation and engage staff.

Informally observe your new staff – see what is to come.

Share best practices and significant achievements that might serve to unite people around your schools core aims.

#7 We underestimate the amount of time teachers need to plan. Nothing drains staff confidence in their ability to be successful than the lack of time you are prepared to give them to prepare.

Remember what it was like for you.

Build in significant planning and preparation time.

Observe planning time, attend meetings and begin to see how your staff work, act and represent your culture.

#8 Our Orientation Practices are UNSUSTAINABLE. We shower staff with gifts, souvenirs and branded company products, use incredible amounts of plastic and packaging and allow staff to order countless takeaways. Be explicit with staff – give them choice, but build sustainability into your programme.

Communicate your expectations around sustainability.

Produce a ‘sustainable teacher’ checklist.

Give welcome items that are relevant, purposeful and likely to be used.

Audit your orientation practices.

#9 We miss the opportunity to embed deep collaboration – teachers become the creatures of their habits and cliques can quickly form. Counter this by:

Specifically scheduling time for staff to regularly collaborate from different school departments.

Meet staff in cross-department themes (in carefully considered groups)

Use open meeting spaces and environments to represent your future Professional Learning Communities.

Good luck to everyone starting a new role this year, wherever you are. 

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