Searching for a better way

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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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. ||

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