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PTAs at international schools

Joining the PTA in your home country can be a great way to support your child’s school, but for parents at international schools it can provide a vital lifeline when you’re a long way from home.

 

The first day at a new school, particularly a new international school, can be daunting for children…and just as daunting for their parents. The organisational feat of moving a family overseas can be exhausting, and keeping your children’s feelings on an even keel is an additional challenge. By the time you’ve found somewhere to live and the right school for your children, you’ll probably be in need of a bit of support yourself. Fortunately most international schools have thriving PTAs (Parent Teacher Associations, sometimes also known as PSAs, Parent Staff Associations) and they are often an invaluable resource.

PTAs at international schools around the world serve as many functions as you can imagine. Some put the emphasis firmly on fundraising, others act primarily as a link between parents and teaching staff, while others exist mostly to organise social functions for the families at their school. One thing you can be sure of, however, is a warm welcome from the PTA. What the vast majority of parents at international schools have in common is that, at some point, they have arrived in an entirely new country with the difficult task of setting up family life there.

PTAs at international schools therefore go beyond their usual remit and offer indispensable help to new families. At Stockholm International School, for example, the PTA hosted a talk called ‘Life as an Expat - Attitude, Expectations and Identity’ at the beginning of the most recent academic year, addressing some of the issues parents encounter in a new city.

"The PTA is about community-building and the connection between the parents and the school..."

At the International School of Amsterdam the PTA offers activities and workshops throughout the year to introduce families to local customs, culture, and to discuss local healthcare, for example. They also organise local walking tours for new parents at peak arrival times in the year; a simple, practical way to get to know your new neighbourhood and neighbours. Similarly, at the International School of Koje in Geoje, Korea, the PTA has produced an expat guide book to the city which is given to new parents.

Joining the PTA can help give you an insight into your children's life at school. Image: Winter's

Joining the PTA can help give you an insight into your children's life at school. Image: Winter's

Bridging the gaps

This kind of help is typical of PTAs all around the world. Stuart Cumming, who heads up the PTA at the British International School in Phuket, Thailand, explains how their organisation contributes: “We've recently implemented an ‘international buddy’ system where parents of a particular nationality offer to help new parents arriving at the school with advice. New parents are sent an email advising who to contact, along with a welcome brochure offering tips about Phuket and what to do, where to go, and so forth.

“We also have a very active Facebook group, which was initially a buy/sell/swap marketplace, but has turned into more of an information source for parents and staff alike. As our school is on a small island, the expatriate community is very close-knit. Whereas in many schools teachers, either by choice or school rules, keep their distance from parents, here teachers are in daily contact with parents from the school. The headmaster actively encourages teachers and parents to mix and is a big advocate of the PTA social functions to enable this,” he says.

"We've recently implemented an ‘international buddy’ system..."

Emma Zigan is currently a parent at the International School of Curitiba in Brazil and is heavily involved in the PTA there. “Previously the PTA worked at fundraising,” says Emma, “but for the last two years we’ve had an Advancement Office taking care of that, so the PTA is more about community-building and the connection between the parents and the school.”

Having been a parent at five different schools, four of them international, Emma has seen the huge variety and impact of work done by PTAs around the world. “Some have worked closely with admissions departments, putting together buddy families for new foreign families entering the schools, and holding regular coffee mornings to provide opportunities for new parents to meet each other. Some have invited speakers to come and talk to parents about hot topics in parenting, others will run workshops introducing parents to technology used in school, while others offer language classes to parents at no charge. Frequently in international schools, as well, PTAs will hold cultural events to highlight the different festivals and celebrations enjoyed by different families at the school.” Parents get involved at these events, providing food, music and entertainment from their native countries for everyone to enjoy.

Getting involved

For so-called ‘trailing spouses’ who may not be able to take employment in their new host country, getting stuck into PTA events can be a great way to stay busy and stimulated, as well as to meet new people. Usually you automatically become a member of the PTA simply by joining the school; only rarely do you have to go through a sign-up process. Then you can take on a role as large or as small as you like, from helper at an event to chairperson or treasurer. Your input is likely to be gratefully received in an environment where families are frequently moving on, and with an often large and always diverse community, the fundraising and event organisation can be challenging and incredibly satisfying work.

"It’s a fantastic way to meet the parents of your children’s friends..."

Parents helping out on International Day. Image: Gems Cambridge International School, Abu Dhabi

Parents helping out on International Day. Image: Gems Cambridge International School, Abu Dhabi

The other benefit to joining the PTA and working with other parents, is the insight it will give you into your children’s life at the school. When you’re far from home and the community bonds you might have built up over time have suddenly disappeared due to an international move, it’s easy to feel ‘out of the loop’.

Sarah Spencer, whose three boys were at international schools in Mumbai, agrees: “We were really close to a lot of families in the area where we’d lived in the UK when the boys were small. When we moved overseas I missed that sense of trust I’d had in parents I’d known for a long time. I wouldn’t normally gravitate towards PTA social events, but in an international school setting they’re a fantastic way to meet the parents of your children’s friends. Especially with older children and teenagers who are desperate for a bit of independence, it can really help to feel that you've met the other parents so you can relax a bit when they all want to socialise together at each other’s houses.”

So, for information, support, and possibly a new social life, don’t overlook the PTA at your new international school.

Image: Winter's

Image: Winter's

"Especially with older children and teenagers... it can really help to feel that you've met the other parents..."

Case study

International School of Paris

My husband and I moved to Paris in August 2014 with our three sons from the United States. Although we had travelled to France many times, nothing had prepared me for the shock of actually living here. During the first six months, I was befuddled and confused time and time again. Even simple things, like buying a postage stamp or finding ingredients at the grocery store, gave me trouble. If I had not been part of an International School community, I don't think I would have adapted. Even though I had studied French years earlier in high school, my language skills were not up to the task of managing daily life on my own.

I joined the PTA's Executive Committee after only being in Paris three weeks. It turned out to be a great way for me to quickly become part of the school community. I was thrust into the middle of planning activities with a supportive and interesting team of people from various countries. We had a wonderful time working together, and my new friends made me feel much more at home in Paris. 

The PTA manages to produce wonderful events, such as evening speakers for parents, the first-ever prom for the high school, holiday festivals, books sales, crêpe sales, teacher appreciation week, and a high school talent show. It is a good feeling to be part of the International School, and my personal life has been greatly enriched by making friends from around the world.

British International School in Phuket

Gems Cambridge International School, Abu Dhabi

Top image: The PTA Chatterbox Cafe For Charity, at The British School of Beijing, Shunyi.

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