Truth be told, I’m not actually interested in finding my way through the wilderness with a compass and a map. I am, however, interested in helping others to navigate the cultural wilderness that is Kuwait, which is why I’ve spent the last few months managing the transition of my school’s new hires as one of two Orientation Coordinators. It has been a remarkably smooth process, as measured by three metrics: first, all new hires got their visas before their scheduled departure date (this has NEVER happened before due to the myriad and Byzantine bureaucratic procedures required); second, we have yet to have a runner (the phenomenon of overwhelmed teachers shirking their commitments and breaking contract to return home; third, we’ve received numerous compliments and thanks throughout the process. With only a few short days until school starts, I attribute our success to several principles we’ve adhered to in the planning process.
1. Keep them too busy to be shocked.
The biggest challenge to new hires is the sense of displacement and isolation upon arriving in a new place. Kuwait’s infrastructure exacerbates this problem. Our teacher housing is located in an “up and coming” neighborhood that lacks paved roads and shops within walking distance (at least not in 40+ degree heat). When our new teachers look out the window on their first morning, they see barren dirt fields and ramshackle buildings out their window. This physical isolation is compounded by emotional isolation; Kuwait’s telecom regulations are such that they can’t just walk into a 7-11 and get a SIM card like you could in, say, Thailand.
We try to keep our new hires too busy in the first week for these realities to set in. Their first morning, we host a breakfast for them in one of our apartments, then they go off to school for all-day meetings followed by a long trip to a Lulu Hypermaket (similar to Carrefour or Tesco). They don’t arrive home until 5 or 6pm. The next day is similarly filled with meetings and a dinner hosted by the superintendent. Friday sees them at the Friday Market, and Saturday at the Avenues Mall.
We also try to keep the new hires connected to their families by providing free wifi in the lobby of the apartments until they get set up with phone and internet connections four days into orientation. Being able to speak with loved ones goes a long way towards settling our new arrivals’ minds.
2. Anticipate their needs to help them be independent…
While new hires want to feel supported, they also want to feel like they can be independent. To equip them with as much information as possible, we took the experience of my co-coordinator (a veteran of last year’s orientation) and distilled it into a compendium of a teacher’s life in Kuwait. The resulting Welcome Booklet includes such diverse information as a map of our neighborhood, how to light the stoves and turn on the water heaters in the apartments, descriptions of the malls, where to buy common items, a map with directions to the nearest emergency room, a dozen delivery menus, pictures of all the admin, contact information for common activities groups (sailing, service organizations, music, theater, etc.) and the health benefits package. We also print up credit-card sized emergency cards with important phone numbers and directions to teacher housing in case they get lost.
3. …but hold their hands tight
“Handholding” sounds patronizing, but it’s simply the best way to be supportive when Kuwait is the first overseas working experience of the majority of our new hires. We contact them a few days after they sign their contracts and promptly set them up with school email and Moodle accounts. We use Moodle to post information (such as photos of the apartments and links to websites about life in Kuwait) and to answer questions (we encourage our new hires to post questions in a forum instead of emailing so that everyone can benefit from the answers). Moodle also connects the new hires to each other so that they already have name recognition when they arrive in Kuwait.
Once the new hires arrive, we encourage them to drop by our apartment with any questions or concerns. Being accessible – even at 7 or 8 at night – gives them further assurance that they are in a supportive environment. I also try to make housecalls for every issue, whether it’s a computer problem or a gas stove that refuses to light. Follow-up is also key: if we’ve submitted a work request for someone’s AC, we make sure to ask the next day if there’s been any improvement so that we can take further action as appropriate.
3. Smile, smile, smile.
Enthusiasm is infectious. My co-coordinator waxes ebullient about her job (she’s going into her fifth year here) and I can’t help but feel that it rubs off other their new hires and makes them excited to be working at our school, as well. It inspires confidence about the types of people they’ll be working with.
Orientation cuts my summer break down by about two weeks – but it’s worth it to feel like I’m helping make the faculty stronger and more committed. It’s also energized me for my third year of teaching in Kuwait. I also think the strength of international schools lies in the sense of community that they build among expatriates, and I’m happy to be a part of that process.