Drs. Douglas W Ota writes about the aquarium behind admissions, the importance of developing a strong transition program, and his own experiences as a parent navigating unfamiliar school waters.

His home was in the hallways. When the lunch bell rang, the other kids hovered at tables and benches, joking and jockeying for position. He had no position. He drifted. His yearning for the group hurt, like a fish’s flopping on the floor.

Sometimes he got near enough to try to join. On bad days, his chair would be yanked from beneath him the moment he sat. On good days, he sat at the fringe, trying to laugh at the right times. But he’d always wonder the same thing: what the hell am I doing at this school?

We’re talking here about my son.

How ironic. For twenty years I’ve specialized in turning schools into sanctuaries, and in helping lost souls swim to safety. Yet my own son felt like fodder for sharks. Floating on our backs off a Cretan coast this summer, my wife and I pondered his plight and saw the light.

We needed a school that felt small and safe, a place sheltered from tuna and sharks, so our son’s minnowhood could grow into manlihood. We started contacting private schools.

“You have to say a clear ‘goodbye’ in order to say a clear ‘hello.’ ”

Sitting in the seats for prospective parents at “School W,” we vicariously felt our son’s vulnerability. Did we dare entrust him to the care of the people on the other side of the desk?  Once in a while, we should all sit where prospective parents sit. It’s like peering into a dim aquarium.

What happens behind the glass? How would our son feel if he went here?  What is important to this place? With questions like these, the rational mind can only take one so far. We knew the decision would have to come from our guts. As the school gurgled warmly, like a family fish bowl, our guts whispered that School W was the right setting for our son.

What if we had visited your school? What if you were the admissions professional on the other end of the line? Did you ever realize that prospective parents experience a new school as an unfathomable aquarium, the staff as occult personnel, and that the foremost question on their minds is how their fry will fare in your waters?

This article is directed first at admissions staff, but its themes pertain to all members of staff. All staff have an implicit responsibility to help people transition smoothly; for admissions staff, this responsibility is simply explicit.

At a small school, the admissions office is the portal to a small aquarium, where children swim in simple systems. At increasingly larger schools, the community behind the admissions portal grows deeper and more complex, making pressure on aquarium glass grow.  Admissions staff are generally naturals at putting people at ease and helping them feel welcome, but adjustment requires months—and sometimes more than a year—making it essential that welcoming processes be well articulated with ongoing processes in the school, long after enrollment. At a large school, no admissions professional, however dedicated, can realistically accompany every lonely student to the appropriate lunch table, or play tennis with every trailing spouse.

So how is the admissions professional supposed to deliver on his or her responsibility to help people transition into the community?  The answer resides in the formation of a comprehensive transitions program. What does that mean?

Sometimes the best explanations are demonstrations.

Consider the following dream scenario, which only a comprehensive transitions program could ever deliver. Swedish parents contact a school. The moment they are accepted, admissions emails both the Student Ambassadors, as well as the Parent Welcomers. Ambassador groups use the new students’ online interest surveys to connect them with compatible Ambassadors in each respective grade. Parent Welcomers connect the new parents with a Swedish Parent Welcomer. Ambassadors and Welcomers are in touch with the new parents and students within a week of acceptance. And it’s only February.

Welcoming correspondence between Ambassadors, Welcomers, and the new family continues through spring and summer. Relationships are built and meetings planned long before orientation. When August arrives, the school orientation process is excellent.  A hundred Student Ambassadors—under their own leadership—have prepared this week for months, welcoming and integrating a legion of new members into the community like adept social surgeons. Parent Welcomers from all over the world offer a parallel orientation for the new parents, orienting them to school norms and the wider culture.  After orientation, parents are encouraged to attend Monday Morning Networking’s weekly meeting, to socialize over coffee while learning about the week’s theme—be that banking, the butcher, or the baker. By the time school starts, new students and parents hardly feel new at all.

Thanks to the comprehensive transitions program that integrates and delivers the above activities, an ideal basis for a successful school year gets laid. By being involved in the transitions team, the truly effective admissions professional channels her energies towards creating processes whereby students and parents can find their own friendships, lunch mates, and tennis partners—rather than trying to deliver these services herself.

There’s another reason why a comprehensive transitions program is your best friend. It might surprise you. The main requirement for being effective at the front door involves being effective at the back door. In my book Safe Passage, the First Law of Transitions is, “You have to say a clear ‘goodbye’ in order to say a clear ‘hello.’”

“Without ‘stayers’ who are emotionally ready and willing to connect, the ‘arrivers’ have nobody to connect with!”

In your great efforts to make an effective ‘hello’ process, you must keep in mind that the new people are being met by veterans of goodbyes. These veterans will only be fully open to effective hello’s if their own goodbyes have been thoroughly worked through.

Unresolved grief blocks our ability to make new connections and move forward.  Unfortunately, our international schools are rampant with unresolved grief. In their seminal text Third Culture Kid, van Reken and Pollock put these issues on the map by noting that “many TCKs have experienced more loss in their developmental years than most adults experience in a lifetime.” Having to say goodbye year after year to important people places strain on the “attachment system,” our ability and willingness to make deep connections with other people.  After losing three best friends in the last four years, it can seem safer to stop connecting, so as to avoid the pain of losing again.  Note here that we’re not talking only of the movers.  At any school with a significant degree of turnover, those who stay are subject to loss because people keep leaving them, over and over.

In other words, in terms of our aquarium analogy, the emotional environment into which new “fish” are being introduced is dependent upon the emotional health of the school ecosystem at the end of the school year. Fish, plants, nutrients, water—the aquarium’s entire contents—drain from the old school year and flow into the new.

As an admissions professional, you may think you have little direct influence on the domain of “leave-taking.” People expect you to be helping people with admission and arrival, not to be focusing on what happens when people leave. Yet consider this. Without “stayers” who are emotionally ready and willing to connect, the “arrivers” have nobody to connect with! Safe Passage calls the Second Law of Transitions the fact that, “For every connection, there is an equal and opposite connection.”

I can hear your objections. You already have a demanding job, and now you’re being asked to do something about the quality of the “emotional water” at your school’s “aquarium”?

Bear with me. The answer, as you may have guessed, is again to be found in the comprehensive transitions program, and in either helping to form, join, or improve such a program. Just imagine the fictitious Swedish family mentioned earlier. As they focused on their own relocation in the spring prior to their move, an annual “exodus” was underway at their future school. In the very waters they were preparing to enter, people were navigating the painful process of leaving and losing those they loved.

But this fictitious school took goodbyes seriously. Before those Swedes set foot on campus, the transitions program was chanting that “the academic school year begins in August, but the emotional school year begins in April.” So in April the Student Ambassadors began preparing the Goodbye Ceremonies, giving their classmates occasions to write notes that would be deposited into large wooden clogs (let’s locate our hypothetical school in Holland) for each departing student.  Students signed clogs, and at the actual Goodbye Ceremonies, the Student Ambassadors orchestrated a beautiful process whereby different groups of friends stood up and spoke about the person they were losing. Clogs-stuffed-with-letters were presented to each departee, amidst laughter, applause—and tears. Accompanied by friends, departees walked to the school’s permanent signature boards, where they left their mark on the walls. Literally.

The transitions program also hosted a “Surviving the Annual Exodus” workshop for parents, and recognition ceremonies for departing staff. Extra special was the Backbone Award, bestowed on anyone in the community who had been there ten years or longer—be they student, staff, or parent. This school appreciated those who held the community upright through transitions. Long before our fictitious Swedes arrived, this community took a collective deep breath and felt its feelings, helping those left behind to become ready to receive new members.

Funerals, they say, are for those left behind. Such ceremonies help those who stay to move on, because hurt and loss gets validated. If hurt gets empathically seen, it hurts less and heals.

Effective goodbye programs might seem to exceed the letter of your job description. But if you dare to step back for a more holistic view of your community’s well-being, an effective transitions program fits appropriately on your radar.

Skeptics could argue that the experience of a positive and sheltering transitions program only prepares people for failure in the real world, by not readying them for how the real ocean works. Hasn’t mankind survived the millennia by maintaining the safety of close-knit groups? Does any water dwelling species prefer the wide open ocean to a more sheltered space—besides tuna and sharks and other top predators?

The strongest will grow through these most severe of relocation circumstances. The question, however, is whether we want to contribute to school climates with “survival of the fittest” mentalities. I would argue that schools with any degree of turnover have a moral obligation to do better. Schools can be safe havens where students acquire the abilities to eventually cope with a “survival of the fittest” world. But the key word is “eventually.” In the meantime, can’t we aspire to a “thriving for all” approach, where a commitment is nurtured in each student to make the world a better place, each in his or her own way, contribution by contribution, drop by drop?

Instilling that commitment starts with a community caring for itself. If we disregard the importance of this care, we tacitly model for our students that some fish are fodder.  This strikes me as a toxic message, one that any real educator would not wish to send.

Each of us affects the tone and feel of the communities we inhabit. Essentially, we each define our communities: how they feel, how they operate, what the norms are, what is acceptable—and not. Whatever role you play at your school, you are an influential member of aquarium staff.

Because of a look in the director’s eyes and a sense in our deepest marrow, we took a deep breath and lifted the lid on School W’s tank.  We deposit our youngest son—the third of our fry—into his new aquarium tomorrow. The director of this tiny school is the comprehensive transitions program leader, rolled into one.  Small schools like hers can get away with such an approach.  But larger schools need more.

Like our bodies, every well-functioning aquarium has a pump.  If your school has a transitions program, join it. If it doesn’t, make one exist. By doing so, you’re putting yourself near the heart of what matters most. Remember that challenges to the community—like mobility—require solutions from the community. And know that, as word gets out about how well your school handles mobility, positive PR will distinguish your school from the competition, leading parents to make decisions about where to relocate because of the quality of your school’s approach to transitions—and the clarity of your school’s waters.

About Drs. Douglas W. Ota

Doug Ota was raised in La Jolla, California, the son of a Japanese father and an English mother. Their separation when he was three showed Ota how to grow up between worlds. The death of his brother and step father trained Ota in grief. He has made a career out of wondering where he—and others—belong.

Ota migrated east to study philosophy of religion at Princeton University, then further east to study Clinical Child Psychology at the University of Leiden in The Netherlands, going on to become a registered child psychologist with the Dutch Psychological Association. For many years, he worked as a High School counselor at the American School of The Hague. He now works in private practice.

Half of Ota’s professional activities are devoted to counseling with children and adolescents, individuals, couples, and families. The other half is devoted to consulting with international schools and organizations on how to build programs to address the challenges and opportunities of mobility—programs that guarantee safe passage (www.dougota.nl).

He lives in The Hague, in the Netherlands, with his wife and three children. For fun, he runs marathons.

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