Searching for a better way

by Richelle Wright on June 27, 2016

My husband and I have literally raised (more accurately, are still raising) our family “internationally.” I’m typing as we drive through the night, returning our third to the States. She graduated last week and now is beginning a gap year where she will work and earn money for college. She’s pretty sure she wants to be a teacher someday – maybe even teach at an international school in some far off corner of the world.


In our years as expats, we’ve met many other families doing this very same international, expat life. Some move overseas to work for a few years, always planning to return to their home countries after that sojourn. Others move to another country planning, like us, to spend most – if not all – of the rest of their lives engaged in some form of international (missions, development, diplomatic, military, etc.) work.

I’ve also met several families who’ve come to a fork in the road, a conundrum where they felt they had no other responsible choice but to change that long term plan for a reason that I find hard to accept.

They “head home,” usually feeling defeated, depleted and as though they’ve failed… leaving their adopted home not because they wanted to, but because they were unable to find adequate educational resources to meet the specific and sometimes challenging needs of one or more of their children, in particular a child with some type of disability.

This is a subject near and dear to my heart, for I am a special educator by trade. I’ve taught individuals with severe physical disabilities how to swim. I’ve worked with incarcerated teens. I’ve privately tutored TCKs struggling to pass classes they need to graduate. I’ve helped develop and adapt educational programs, writing plans for children of almost every age and with widely ranging ability levels – academically, behaviorally and socially. I’ve collaborated and consulted with classroom teachers, giving suggestions and ideas to try to help struggling students learn. My specific specialty is teaching reading and comprehension strategies (a field of study which easily adapted to adult literacy work in tribal/local languages), but I also love helping kids who find math an impossibility learn to navigate that world of numbers and word problems.

My educational background has also come in handy with my own children: two struggle with articulation disorders (and while speech and language pathology is NOT something I know much about, I do have skills in my repertoire that have helped me to better help my kids in this area); another battles dyslexia and dysgraphia – in two languages.

I’m thankful for my educational background.  The skills I have developed aren’t “exclusive,” and much of what I do, professionally, simply requires patience, careful observation and creative thinking. But my training gave me the confidence to go ahead and try…

My story isn’t the story most expat parents who find themselves overseas with little or no resources for a child who struggles to learn.

Had I not had this background in special education… if I hadn’t had that training (and sometimes the letters behind my name) which prepared me to advocate for students who struggled when teachers taught the status quo, we could have very well been one of those families heading back to our passport country, feeling like we’d failed – not only in work and/or ministry, but perhaps even more significantly, in properly caring for our family.

If you don’t believe this is a problem, take a quick glance at the staffing needs, or “wish lists,” for international schools servicing TCKs around the world. Every spring, these lists are posted and circulated. Almost every single one that I’ve checked is requesting help in the special education domain.

While still in W. Africa, I was blessed to be a part of a school that was developing a special education “department” to help address the needs of children who, in the United States, would have had an Individualized Education Plan that targeted specific learning goals and objectives. That plan would include detailed educational setting accommodations which would better allow the student to either access information being presented in their classrooms or to better demonstrate his/her comprehension and application of that information. It was exciting to be part of a program that allowed some students to achieve and succeed where they never had before. However, one of the hardest things I had to do during my time at that school was write up a report delineating the necessary parameters to be met before a student with disabilities could be considered for enrollment. Sadly, the reality was that the burden of responsibility fell on the parents because the school had neither the necessary personnel nor resources to address the student’s particular needs. That family left a fruitful ministry and returned to their home country.

I don’t mean to imply that there is a clear right and wrong given these circumstances. The school wanted to help, but didn’t have the necessary “tools.” The parents wanted to enroll their child in the school, but couldn’t meet the required contingencies.

Just recently, we were walking on a terrace that overlooks the St. Lawrence River, and looked out to watch a mini drama unfold. A tugboat had raced up to the sailboat (the little one in the middle, between the much larger boats), sat there for a minute and then went back to escorting the barge. That sailboat sat motionless as the two big boats passed on either side, heading in opposite directions, remaining in that same spot, even many minutes after the larger boats had moved on.


Parents facing this situation often feel a whole lot like I imagine the folks sailing that the sailboat must have felt: trapped, paralyzed and afraid that even a small move in the wrong direction could result in catastrophe.

I don’t have statistics, but based on my own personal experience, I do know that this type of reality happens more than it should. We’ve encountered several families forced to make a difficult choice: leave the place they felt God had called them to be to address challenging educational needs of a child that were not being otherwise met.

They often do so without the support or understanding from either their expat or the home/sending communities.

I dream and pray for a better way…

Do you know someone who had to/is having to leave the field to address the challenging academic needs of one or more of their children?

How can we support those who are walking this path?

What is in place to help families and children with disabilities in your present place of service?

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About Richelle Wright

Disciple of Jesus, lover of God's Word, wife to one great guy, and mama of eight, Richelle has spent the past 13 years in Niger, West Africa. She and her family are currently in the throes of transition as they begin life and ministry (teaching, audio-visual production) in the Canadian province of Québec. ||
  • amy medina

    I sure wish I knew an answer! I’ve spent 12 years serving at an MK/TCK school, and now I’m on the school board. We haven’t had a special needs teacher for about 3 years now. We keep wracking our brains for ideas. We now are trying to train a local Tanzanian woman to help with special needs and she is doing a great job with what resources she has, but there’s not even much training available here. I would love more ideas!

    • Amy, I’ve been working in Tanzania as well, and we have similar problems but slightly different. I trained in special education, so it’s near to my heart, especially with TCKs. I’m actually looking to do my graduate research in the area of access to services in East Africa. I would love to chat with you….. I met some teachers from your school (HOPAC, right?) … anyway, please please please let’s try to connect. I won’t be teaching this year, because I’m doing this research so my schedule should be a bit more flexible. My email is (I can send you my TZ number through email if Whats App is easier)

      • amy medina

        wow! emailing you right now!

    • Richelle Wright

      It seems that no matter where we are in the world, there is a need for special needs teachers – even back in home countries. Love that you are working with a local woman. I think that is a great possibility!

      As I’m always trying to keep my knowledge up-to-date, without spending a whole lot of extra money – I’ve found some good sources of information/on-line courses simply using google. No credit – but that wasn’t my goal:

      One of the strategies I’ve suggested and seen applied with success is that the parents of the child with special needs always include “recruiting” as they communicate with their partners back home. People who are already invested in that family will see the need as more pressing and help get the news out. Additionally, if you have one “qualified” person who is willing to oversea student teachers, that might be a possible stop-gap measure – and a potential recruitment tool.

      • amy medina

        thanks, Richelle!

  • Anna Wegner

    I have seen people move fields or leave the field because of educational issues. I have homeschooled our three, and I’ve been grateful that they didn’t have any educational/learning issues. We were in an isolated setting, and I have no educational background or training in teaching. It most likely would have meant leaving the field for us. Even if there was a boarding school able to handle those issues, it would have been practically impossible to do the travel. (We could have dropped kids off at the boarding school at the end of the summer, picked them up in the spring, and maybe or maybe not been able to do Christmas together.) Now were are in a less isolated place, but there are still no recourses for special ed or learning disabilities. Travel is easy, so boarding school could be an option. I don’t know a lot about the boarding schools or what they offer for extra help or support. Personally, I would leave the field if I had a kid with special needs, and boarding school was my only option.

    Basically, I don’t have any answers, but I agree that it is a problem. Thanks for bringing this to people’s attention.

    • Richelle Wright

      I think you express what I’ve heard so many say: trying to meet the educational needs of a child with significant learning issues (special education can be defined as addressing needs of students who have difficulty learning, communicating, and managing their own emotions and behavior or who have physical disabilities, sensory impairments and other health issues) is one of those overwhelming challenges that makes it hard to see past the overwhelming. Therefore the only option is to go and find someone who has the expertise to help – and that simply is not often available for TCKs in overseas/international school settings. Additionally, a big part of special education is a continual trying to find what works, and that is very hard to do if you feel alone, with no or limited access to someone with whom you can collaborate. As I mentioned above, I am not a speech and language pathologist – trying to figure out how to help my children struggling that domain was completely overwhelming – and I did already have what I felt were tools I could use.

      During the season I was home schooling my children, I used Sonlight Curriculum and they had online forums. I found the forum dedicated to special needs education particularly helpful – ideas from other moms who’d ran into similar issues with one or more of their children. It at least got me thinking about different things to try, which sometimes unblocked my own creativity and intuitive responses which then enabled me to help my children.

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