“Transition Takes Time…” Reflections from an International School Counsellor

Globally nomadic students, families and teachers are no strangers to change. Counsellor Steve Ayling reflects on transition and shares an uplifting story from his more than 20 years of working in international schools.


“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it and join the dance.”  – Author and speaker Alan Watts


Transitions are an inescapable reality for students, families and faculty at international schools. Contracts are drawn up or renegotiated, sending millions of individuals and families on new adventures and often life-changing experiences.

One source suggests that there were “169 million international migrant workers globally in 2019 and they constituted 4.9 percent of the global labour force” (ILO, 2021).

Relocations and their transitions bring a whole range of emotions; this can be a time-consuming, emotionally draining and often costly process with a multitude of layers and intricacies for all involved. This process can feel messy and complicated and hard to navigate – like it doesn’t follow the “rules” at all.

A student’s struggles…

Working in international schools for over 20 years in South East Asia and now Central Europe, I have seen hundreds of families come and go (or stay). Donna, as we’ll call her for the purposes of this story, was a 14-year-old American student who arrived in Manila, the Philippines, in around 2011. She was noticeably unsettled and unsure about the relocation, and reluctant to plunge into her new surrounding waters. She demonstrated strong emotions related to the grief over all she had left behind.

Her well-meaning parents had promised at most a three-year placement; that she would return to the States for her senior year and still graduate with all her friends. While this might have felt reassuring at first, it put up an invisible barrier that prevented Donna from making new connections, getting involved in her new school life, and settling in. Our chats and check-ins for the first few months were quite sad, empty, kind of flat. Nothing was really sparking any life in her and as a result I think she had a feeling of being invisible to others… and so it continued for most of her freshman year. There were some small shoots of hope springing but not much, really.

… and her transformation

Summer came and went and Donna had returned ‘home’ to see her friends and familiar places, but perhaps that first summer back, it’s hard to pinpoint what had changed, but something had.

When she returned to school in Manila, there was more of a spark to get involved; the school play auditions were suddenly enticing to Donna, and she became a good support and buddy for others making the same transition she had, just a year earlier. Donna started to embrace her new surroundings, her teachers and various academics; she started to ‘get’ the way things were going in her classes and understand the enquiry approach a little more. I think she even started to live with the terrible traffic and enjoy all, or perhaps most, of the smells that the Manila streets have to offer. Travelling further afield in the country helped her gain a wider perspective of the wonderful Filipino people and the country’s many islands (over 7000). Her visits to my counselling space became a lot more infrequent. Passing each other in a corridor occasionally, I’d see a smile and bright eyes. Donna’s spark was back!

Donna managed to have her family extend the contract for just one more year so that she could graduate from IS Manila, instead of back in the States as originally planned. Her beaming face and proud smile as she walked with purpose and confidence across the stage to accept her certificate in her graduation gown, still brings a tear to the eye.

Donna’s story is a reminder that as we work and try to help families all around the globe, in addition to all of the support, encouragement, patience, expertise and understanding we can offer, sometimes, our most valuable resource is just a little more time.


Feel free to share your international school experience – and any tips for settling in. We love to hear from you!

PHOTO: Anastasiya Gepp