What’s in a Good School?


The Harbour School since 2010. My background is in both regular and special education, but rather than my university and graduate degrees and my teaching and administrative experience, what best qualifies me to speak here today is the fact that I am what some of you might already know as a Third Culture Kid.

According to Vicki Labiri, referencing Dr. Ruth Hill Useem, “mother” of the term TCK, and her work from the 1960s, a TCK is an expatriated individual who has grown up “rooted in the home culture, lived out in the host culture, but in the end, neither fully one nor the other.”

My father worked in finance which meant we moved every 3-4 years. I moved five times from four to eighteen, and attended different international schools, one of them a “top tier” school here in HK. So, I’ve been in the shoes of many of our students or your clients‘ children and I’m here to talk to you about what matters to us in terms of school.

For sure, I’m grateful to be a TCK: Statistically, we’re four times more likely to be awarded a Bachelor’s degree. We’re usually born in Hong Kong and move an average of four times between the ages of 5 and 18. We speak two or more languages. We’re known to be excellent observers because we’re perceptive, and sensitive and we’re generally more open-minded and less prejudiced. We’re typically high achievers and we’re used to bridging between cultures because we have multiple frames of reference. United States President Obama is a TCK and I’ve read that his administration also has many TCKs. There are a wealth of advantages and opportunities, but there are difficulties too.

The question “Where’s home for you?” confounds us. We belong everywhere and yet nowhere. Transience makes it difficult for us to commit emotionally to people, schools, experiences. We can feel powerless and out of control because people that you love and connect with can be taken away that January or the very next June. We struggle with who we are wherever we are. Whether it’s summer with cousins in your birth country or off with friends traveling in your host country, there’s that perpetual feeling you’re an outsider. You don’t know the same TV shows, the same music; you don’t even speak the same lingo. But most interesting is that we experience what David Pollock, author of “Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds” calls “unresolved grief” about the people and places we’ve lost along the way, whether they be favourite teachers, best friends, first loves, “Ayihs” or “Aunties”.

My brother and I always knew when we were going to move because my parents would take us out to a fancy dinner and right between allowing us to order dessert and a second Shirley Temple, it would drop. “We’re moving to (a new country),” There’d be a silence and then a sharp inhale, followed quickly by a “But don’t worry you’ll have a bigger room, a better allowance (because of the exchange rate), we’ll be flying first class, get a new car, a club membership…and once, my personal favorite, you can finally get a dog!” So as a seven or ten or twelve year old processing this, your emotions are redirected- because, let’s be honest, a new dog, a bigger room? Whose wouldn’t be? The exciting prospect of new experiences followed by the flurry of moving boxes and lengthy hotel stays for new school or flat hunting are all amazing experiences that distract from appreciating that you’re about to lose everything that has been your world in the last three years.

I didn’t realize how true it was that I had unresolved grief until I was back here in Hong Kong, decades later, this time as a parent. It was my first year working at The Harbour School. At the time I was a teacher. I felt reasonably settled about three of my four children (at the time ages 8, 7, 5 and 3) and I was particularly ecstatic when Maya, my 7 year old befriended a girl named Catherine in her class. Catherine was sweet, imaginative, generous, kind, and best of all for someone without a car, she lived right across the street from us. Despite the unpacked boxes, the lack of a helper for six months, her mother starting a full time job again, it seemed all was right in Maya’s world because of Catherine th