5 Essentials to Being a Great TCK Teacher

Teaching Third Culture Kids
Educators can make a big difference in the lives of Third Culture Kids. Here are 5 essentials that will help you as a teacher build trust and impact these kids for a lifetime.

5 Minute Read

By Kelly LaPiana

As a former North Carolina public school teacher, I’m often asked “How is teaching at an international school different?” I usually go on to explain the contrasts in standardized testing, administrative and parental involvement, and available resources. People generally don’t seem too surprised, and then our conversations veer elsewhere.

However, one friend went on to ask, “How are the children different?” I was tempted to simply say the cliché phrase I’d heard before: “Children will be children no matter what classroom they’re in.”

Then I stopped to really consider my students. My classroom is full of students from countries all over the world who are growing up in the Taiwanese culture, being raised in a home culture reflecting their parents’ native country, but studying in an American school environment. Talk about a complicated childhood! While I do think all children have some things in common, my Third Culture Kids (TCK’S) face distinct challenges which can lead them to have specific characteristics and needs.

The Struggle of Language Learning

Language learning is one of the most common and apparent difficulties my third culture kids face. One of my students speaks Korean at home, Chinese at church, and English at school. This kind of language ability is not uncommon in my classroom and, as a beginner Chinese language learner, actually makes me very jealous!

Even still, this diverse language usage, while immensely valuable, can lead students to struggle for proficiency in all of the languages. Trouble communicating can be incredibly frustrating and disheartening! Trust me, I have stared like a deer in headlights many times during an attempted conversation with a Taiwanese local.

The Emotional Struggles of Being a TCK

However arduous language acquisition can be, I think the true challenge that TCKs face is not as obvious – it lies below the surface. The uncertainty of how to relate to others, the struggles of identifying with more than one culture, and the emotional stress of living in a constant cycle of “hellos” and “goodbyes” are just a few of the many obstacles my students are up against.

With all of the transitions and changes my TCK’s walkthrough, I believe that the best way to care for them is to build relationships that will last through time and distance.

How can educators and other influential adults do this? By laying the cornerstone of every good relationship: TRUST

Trust opens doors, tears down walls, and builds foundations for lifelong relationships. However, gaining the trust of most TCKs takes time, patience, and persistence.

Below are 5 essentials that will help you as a teacher build trust that will impact these kids for a lifetime.

1) LISTEN to them! Most of my students have traveled and experienced more than many of my adult friends. They have such interesting and colorful stories to tell!

Let them share their written personal narratives during an “author’s tea.” Have a time of discussion after a read-aloud to see if anyone can make a connection. Strike up a conversation with a student during recess or lunchtime.

When you listen, even to the most simple thing they have to say, you are affirming that they are worth your time and energy. This builds a trusting and loving atmosphere in your classroom.

2) ENGAGE them. Sometimes it is hard for TCKs to reach out to others. They have probably said goodbye to many good friends in the past and might have an emotional wall built to guard against this kind of pain.

Be conscious of this, and reach out to your more reserved students. Eat lunch with them, play games with them, and ask them about their favorite hobbies. Give them opportunities to interact with you and others in meaningful ways.

3) SHARE your story. I can’t encourage this enough. Students, especially your TCKs, need to get the chance to know you. Any time I can incorporate an experience or memory from my childhood into my teaching, I do.

I always see eyes light up and gather focus from even my most distracted kids. Why? Students love to relate to you!

The connection you make when sharing your story will open the door for your students to do the same. Trust them with your story, and they will trust you with theirs!

4) LEARN from them. As I mentioned earlier, my students are more cultured than many people I know.

They have a wealth of knowledge about many things I don’t understand. Take the time to learn about their culture, language, and families. Learn about their interests and hobbies. Then, encourage them to learn about others!

5) STAY connected. A reality of being a TCK is that they usually don’t stay in one place for long. They move to other countries or cities or transfer to different schools sometimes very suddenly.

One of the most meaningful things you can do is stay connected to those students. Reach out to their new teacher and set up a skype call with their class for a neat cultural experience! Send them a card from you and the class letting them know how much they are missed. Take advantage of our globally connected world to keep in touch with former students.

Teachers Make a Difference

Educators can make such a difference in the lives of TCKs by spending the time and effort to do these things. If you are an educator, would you explore opportunities to teach Third Culture Kids? Would you research the needs in schools around the world? More importantly, would you be willing to reach out to students who need someone to walk through the ups and downs of life as a TCK?

If there’s anything I’ve learned over the past couple of years teaching these students it’s this:

It’s worth it.

Meet the Author: Kelly LaPiana moved to Taiwan with her husband in 2017 as an OMF missionary and 2nd-grade teacher at Morrison Academy Kaohsiung. She is from North Carolina, where she graduated college and taught for two years as a 1st-grade public school teacher. She now has a beautiful little boy and lives with her family in Taiwan long-term. Her favorite food is fried curry dumplings and her favorite place in Taiwan is the pebble beach of Hualien.

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