Back to the conversation with my friend. As we shared our own mistakes, we wondered about our colleagues around the world: had they reached the same conclusions that their mistakes had led to important lessons? We randomly asked acquaintances about their experiences, and quickly came to the conclusion that our reflections were not at all unique: virtually all of us are aware that we make mistakes, and that we can learn from those mistakes. We may be afraid of the mistakes – especially when we are younger – but they are such an important tool for growth and becoming better professionals and people.
That led me to broaden my question and initiate this research, which asked international educators to identify key mistakes they had made professionally, and the lessons they learned from them. Approximately 40 participants told me their “mistake stories,” through interviews and surveys. In general, they had been in the field for some time: over 60% of survey respondents and 80% of interview participants had been working in international education for more than ten years.
The lessons-from-mistakes tended to fall into six overlapping categories:
- It is important to take care of yourself, to seek and maintain balance. (As one respondent wrote, “Put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others.”). International education is a field that can demand much of an individual, if one lets it. Students have significant needs and an open and caring attitude can ignite one’s empathy and caring – not necessarily a bad thing. But if you constantly respond to student’s requests, you may find you have little or no time for yourself and you will be denying the student an opportunity to learn and grow. In the end, a burnt out international educator is of little good to others.
- Culture is powerful and important. Have respect for it and consider it in every aspect of your work. We are constantly working across borders with people who bring different perspectives and worldviews to the interaction. We write social media postings, articles, letters and emails to people across the world and need to consider the variety of interpretations and responses our words can elicit. We counsel and advise students who are in cultures not their own and we must help them see beyond the limits of their own “lenses,” not to mention modeling this openness in our own behavior with others. Even after a lifetime of traveling and living abroad, we may continue to experience culture shock, which we should humbly honor.
- Trust your gut and be careful about assumptions. Pay attention to “red flags.” Investigate thoroughly. Just as culture can blind us to a broader understanding, our assumptions (culturally based or otherwise) can close us to a fuller (and more accurate) interpretation of the circumstances we’re encountering at the moment. We may “misread” our boss, colleagues or students out of our own predispositions, and so it’s important to dig more deeply. At the same time, our gut may reveal truths that the logic-of-the-moment doesn’t see. Whether we lead with our gut or not, we should investigate fully and openly.
- Take the time and effort to build and maintain positive relationships. Our work as international educators is highly relational; it takes work to build relationships with students, partners, colleagues and others, but it is time well invested. Be wary of the temptation to succumb to the all-too-frequent mountains of work and the temptation to not take this time for positive connections. Don’t be afraid of conflict. Hear and consider everyone’s voices at all times, but especially in times of conflict or distress. And if your organization is not a good fit, cut your losses and leave.
- Design strong student-centered programs that take advantage of the location, are holistic, reflective and experiential. Work with students “where they’re at,” setting aside rigid expectations and approaches. Be flexible and able to respond to situations as they present themselves. In study abroad, remember that the location is the primary text and balance your responsibility to the students and the community in a reciprocally respectful way. In any educational situation, have alternate plans, be flexible, and communicate changes carefully.
- Pay attention to procedures and operations. Have policies, communicate them clearly, and follow them; work scrupulously; attend to details; and know when to be flexible. Plan scrupulously, take a long-term perspective, and attend to the variety of countries and systems with which one interacts.
Of course, the same experience could yield lessons in more than one category. A difficult student, for example, could be best handled with a well-designed program, a balanced and flexible leader, and careful and positive attention to the variety of relationships. And the difficulties they are bringing up could have been signaled by a “red flag” last week or month. A stressed-out colleague might be supported by careful policies and procedures and some time to reflect and regain his balance.
A question I have not yet addressed is whether the awareness of lessons from mistakes grows as one matures. One might be more afraid of mistakes at the beginning of one’s career, while establishing professional credentials and reputation. The preponderance of respondents who had been working in international education for over ten years suggests that conclusion, but more work needs to be done. What I can say personally is that I have become more open to my own mistakes as I have grown, but whether that’s true for others remains to be seen.
These brief comments are only a hint of a more fully developed article to come. Stay tuned.