Gráinne, what should I do? #9


Leading Your International School today shares our first Monthly Q&A for international school leaders and teachers in 2024. Questions are answered by Gráinne O’Reilly – founder of 13 schools around the world. Today we share Jennifer’s question. 

Jennifer: Dear Gránne,

 I’ve often heard other principals talk about the post-Christmas blues of returning staff.  What do I need to be aware of and what might help me to deal with this?

Gráinne: Dear Jennifer, 

Thank you for your question; yours is one of many that I have received over the last month or so. I was not surprised to hear from a number of Heads and Principals who, whilst at home, enjoying time with families and friends- were still worrying about their staff.

The Christmas or Winter Holiday Blues fall into a number of categories. The first is fairly simple and is not unique to international schools. 

All educational staff working on an academic timetable can feel less than enthusiastic about the January return to school. By December most educators are utterly exhausted and those final few weeks can feel like the last few miles of running a marathon! A busy Christmas with (or without!) family and friends, whilst greatly cherished, is usually very tiring and most people feel sluggish as if their battery has run low or even run out completely. In addition, Christmas and other major festive times are not always times of enjoyment. They can be times of great sadness, perhaps missing those no longer with us, and many are overwhelmed by complex relationships or expectations at play. All too often I hear tell of people finding the high pressure of celebration and festivity just too much to deal with, leaving them disappointed, dissatisfied and questioning relationships and lifestyles. Add  New Year’s Resolutions and ‘Dry January’ to that and many feel miserable about the January return- often saying they need another holiday to get over the Christmas break!

This is annual, and something about which we are all aware. Throughout January, as Heads, we will all be checking in on our staff, celebrating achievements, encouraging them in their new health regimes and providing lots of coffee as they settle back in! Making sure that you speak to everyone, to catch up, is an absolute must at this time of year. It’s amazing how much a listening ear and an empathetic heart can help to calm the nerves of the returning staff, to reassure them of their worth and to offer them encouragement for the months to come.

It is not that simple for everyone, however, and international schools, in particular, do suffer at this time of year. Some schools are even hit by staff simply not returning in January. Thankfully this sort of behaviour is relatively rare, but I have seen it. In most incidents that I have seen it was not a particular surprise, but a bolting staff member wreaks havoc not only on the pupils they abandon but colleague staff and indeed, the reputation and sustainability of the school. 

In these instances, the Head must be honest with parents and of course, present a fulsome plan that allows for the least possible disruption to the pupils. Being proactive, honest, being open with parents, staff and stakeholders is of utmost importance. Parents may not welcome what you have to say- colleagues and the Board may not be happy about the amount of work or cost involved in dealing with the situation, but they will appreciate your assertive and practical handling of the matter.

There is a recognised pattern amongst expatriates with regard to settling. Occasionally, ex-pats ( in whatever field) do not settle and issues arise almost immediately. This is not common, but I’m sure we’ve all seen it- and had to deal with it. The common pattern, however, is that the first 5 or 6 months are the honeymoon period. The excitement and challenge presented in those first months carry most people through the difficulties, and the joy of new experiences and discoveries is seen to be positive overall. That point at which there is a dip and where challenges may start to be seen as overwhelming or minor irritations become cumulative falls round about the same time as the Christmas break for educators. This compounds the usual, every day returning to school blues. 

For staff in their first year, this time can be pivotal in whether staff will settle and thrive or whether they will leave at the end of their first year. It is also the time of year when international schools expect their staff, whether new or established, to sign their new contracts.

Giving staff professional interviews ( not appraisals!) and an opportunity to speak openly about their experiences, their goals and their worries at this time of year really helps to calm their anxieties, make practical plans for moving forward and feel recognised. Knowing that one is seen and valued is of immense importance to us all and using January to do just that for your staff makes all the difference. 

Some staff may have made the hard decision that international education is not for them, or that whilst their time overseas has been great it is now time for them to return home, or move on. Knowing this and being able to openly discuss it can support staff in making the most of the remaining year, leaving with good experiences behind them, feeling excited about the next stage of their career and doing their absolute best in the months before their departure.

Out of the blues, or the slump, may come deep self-reflection and key questions of oneself, our colleagues or the leaders who should be supporting and guiding us. Using this time proactively and effectively- recognising that it is a time, every year, for reflection, growth and new directions will be of such value to your team and the school. And ultimately, the point of it to all – to our pupils.

Good luck with your return to school and in supporting your staff. I know you will do brilliantly in making these next few weeks really count- not only in bringing everyone through what can be a trying time but in setting your team up for the rest of the academic year in a really outstanding and positive manner.

As ever, my best and fondest wishes to you and of course- Happy New Year!

Thank you for reading, if you have any questions for Gráinne to answer about Leading Your International School, email them to: 

If you are considering becoming an International School Principal, then why not sign up for our course in January – ‘Becoming an International School Principal’.

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