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Dr. Zilber: Growing in the Third Culture

September, 2009
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  Since her very first encounter many years ago with an international school Dr. Ettie Zilber, the new Head of School of Beijing BISS International School (BISS), has been fascinated by everything she saw and experienced at international schools. She says:

  “I have worked in Israel, Singapore, Spain and Guatemala and now I am in China. It is very fascinating that every single school is different. And in each school I was in a different position. I learned different things. My career was evolving during the process and I was growing at the same time too.”

  She is also a firm believer in the importance of understanding culture in every place she lives in.

  Having arrived in Beijing for only a few weeks, she is already studying Chinese and reading all sorts of books about China - historical books, fictions and biographies to understand the culture of this country. She has decided to live downtown, which is close to the school and gives her a better feel of the city.

  “I am very impressed with Beijing,” she said. “I am determined to learn at least some conversational Chinese as I hope to understand people around me in this exciting community. Learning other languages opens your mind, and then you are able to really communicate with another culture.”

  Her first impression of BISS is the school offers a warm, welcoming and loving environment. She feels very warmly received and she sees the teachers are very committed to the school and close to the students.

  “The atmosphere here is very nice. Teachers know all the other teachers by name, and they know every student’s name, which is the advantage of a small school,” said the new Head of School. “My last school was almost 1500 students, and you cannot possibly know everybody’s name. I tried to know all the employee’s names, that was difficult too because we had more than 300 employees at the school. A small and tight environment truly allows you to know people better and let people know you better.”

  So far, she is very pleased with what she has learned about her new school: BISS is the first school to run all IB programs; the atmosphere between the students and teachers and between teachers and teachers is very nice; the students are very respectful and disciplined. What’s more BISS has just undergone joint accreditations…

  “The accreditation process is really important as it forces you to look at yourself: What is going on very well and where to improve. That is the sign of a great school,” said the Head of School. “A great school is always looking at improving itself, identifying the weaknesses and starting to improve on it. This is what we are going to do here.”

  In fact, BISS has adopted many changes for the new school year, one of which is technology. According to Dr. Zilber, an IT expert has joined the school to introduce E-learning and the concept of the “Flat Classroom” to the whole school community. In a “Flat Classroom”, the walls of the classroom come undone and everyone is able to interact through technology.

  Coming up is the annual activity week, during which BISS students will go out to explore in different places in China. Dr. Zilber likes this project because it provides the opportunity for “the students to have hands-on experience as a result of their living in China.”

  She finds sometimes international schools become “a little expatriate bubble” in the city, without any interaction with the host country or host city and the local people.

  “Think about what a huge waste it is to come and live in Beijing as a family, as a child, as a student or as an adult, and then leave after 3 or 5 years not knowing the people, not knowing the language, not knowing the country… That is a terrible waste in life!”

  So, here at BISS with the advantage of a downtown campus, she hopes to continue the interactions between BISS children and the host community, and at the same time strengthen it through Chinese language studies.

  This very busy lady is presently in the final stages of publishing a book about raising Third Culture Kids (TCK) from her perspective as an educator in international schools. The book will hopefully be published in November and she hopes the book will help families.

  Dr. Zilber began to observe this group of children who move around the world along with their parents since she started working in an international school and she raised her own kids in the international school environment. Her idea of writing a book on TCK began when she went to a conference and heard the speaker talking about the TCK; that speaker was David Pollock.

  “That was what I am actually observing,” She said to herself, and started reading as much as she could about TCK.

  Since she realized how important the issue is in teaching kids who they are, Dr. Zilber started doing workshops for children and their parents on campus as well as giving talks on TCK at conferences.

  She also decided to focus on TCK as her research for her doctorate. In her research, she specially focused on the children of educators at international schools, who are just like her own children. These students are a unique group that nobody has ever researched.

  “For my research I focused on this particular group, and I named them ‘Edkids’,” said Dr. Zilber. What she has found out about “Edkids” is that educators’ children tend to have academic success, are more actively involved in extra-curricular activities, and they tend to go into the career of education and even become teachers. 

  “You don’t usually see this kind of following in the footsteps in the other professions. That is truly the greatest compliment to our profession that our children actually love and follow in our profession like we do.”

  Her own three children have graduated from universities in the US and now work in the areas of hotel management and hospitality, health and fitness, and political analysis and writing.

  “My own children also grew up as TCK and I think they are very happy and successful,” she said. “They are all very proud of their life experiences.”

  Being a TCK and being mobile has the positive side as well as the negatives, Dr. Zilber believes. Negatives are quite similar: the kids will tell you it is painful to say goodbye to friends, and it is also difficult to gain an identity as you move around all the time. “It is important to explain to the kids why they are different and how they are different. There is not something wrong with them, there is just something different about them. Being different is not equal to being negative. Once they understand that, they are more relaxed with the situation and they can deal with it better.

  “This is what I am going to do at BISS to promote this understanding. This is about cultural understanding. These kids belong to a different culture, called the Third Culture.”

  In fact, her first presentation on TCK – “Delights and Difficulties, Pleasures and Pitfalls of Raising Your Children Internationally and Inter-culturally” is arranged on BISS campus for the evening of September 24th.

By Xing Yangjian

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