Written by Dr. Alex McGregor, Deputy Head of School
Dr. McGregor is Deputy Head of School at UWC ISAK Japan. He also teaches History.
We have reached one of the most challenging, contradictory and bittersweet moments of the school year. If you read this on the day of its publication, our Grade 12 students will have just completed their last ever class of high school. And no doubt they find themselves a kaleidoscope of competing emotions: perhaps they will feel celebratory and grateful. Perhaps they will feel anxious ahead of the looming exams. Perhaps they will feel relief that this phase of their life is finally over. Perhaps they will feel disconcertingly calm, or even numb, about the whole thing and not quite know why. Perhaps they’ll feel a rush of excitement about their upcoming fresh start. My guess is that our Grade 12 students are living in the intersection of all these emotions.
In the immediate future the primary focus will very quickly become the final IB exams. I spoke with the Grade 12 students this week where I highlighted the similarities between students entering a high stakes exam period and high performing athletes on the cusp of the Olympics. In both cases, preparation programmes are designed to help the student/athlete peak on “race day”. In both cases, applying the science of marginal gains will enable the student/athlete to target specific elements of their performance that may require attention. In both cases, habit and routine are essential aspects of readiness. And in both cases, self belief and motivation are non-negotiables for success.
However, the pageantry of the exam period often provides a temporary distraction from the gravitational pressure of a key social and emotional stressor. Right now, our Grade 12 students are in the grip of a profound series of changes. Everything that provided their lives with stability and ballast is shifting or being removed. Let’s break this down. There will be no more timetabled classes for our Grade 12 students: from their earliest memories they will have lived according to a timetable scheduling their lessons and structuring their days. In the blink of an eye it has vanished. Moreover, their friends will disperse across the globe. Those lazy Sundays strolling down to the convenience store with their friends will come to a hard stop. Indeed, our Grade 12 students will no longer be able to think of themselves as children: this psychological comfort blanket that kept them warm against the cold winds of emerging adulthood will be snatched away. In short, they will each have to start again, in a new place, doing different things, with unfamiliar people. If we have done our jobs well, our Grade 12s will be eager to embrace this newness. But nonetheless, this newness is often scary and intimidating.
So what are they supposed to do? Educational psychology has some help. Grade 12s need to build their raft. Of course, this is a metaphorical raft. In educational psychology there is also a process known by the acronym RAFT. It is designed to help students mentally prepare to transition from a familiar, safe environment to their new untested destination. It may also prove a useful tool for all of us who may have to relocate and change our lives.
R stands for Reconciliation
Reconciliation asks us to attend to difficult or fractured relationships before we depart. This does not mean our Grade 12s must submit themselves to a nauseating apology tour. In fact, you may not be able to repair some relationships in disrepair. But here comes the note of wisdom. Just because you leave a place it does not mean that unresolved relationship issues will go away. Don’t carry the weight of interpersonal anger to your new destination. Forgive or ask for forgiveness. Make amends. You’ll be amazed by its power to set you free.
A stands for Affirmation
Affirmation asks us to thank those who have helped and supported us. Letting people know how much you appreciate what they did for you is deeply empowering for both parties. And if it is too awkward to have that conversation face to face, you can write a letter or even record a podcast. Don’t let your future self inherit regrets. Show people now how much they mean to you.
F stands for Farewell
Farewell asks us to ensure we say goodbye. This can be a tough, emotionally wrenching experience. Give yourself time and space to say farewell properly. Don’t wait until the taxi arrives to take you to the airport. Almost of equal importance is taking the time to say farewell to the places and things that helped make UWC ISAK Japan feel like home. Visit that bakery you liked. Hug that tree that made you smile. Top tip for RAFTing success: planning events on a calendar will ensure you don’t forget somewhere or someone special.
T stands for Think Destination (yes, that actually makes it RAFTD, and yes that means its cheating, but I didn’t make the acronym!)
Thinking about your next destination asks us to get excited about the new opportunities awaiting us. You should start to research where you want to visit, live, shop, eat, go to the movies, see a play and so on. It also asks us to think about what part of your new life will be similar to your current, and which aspects will be different. Think Destination asks us to start the process of constructing our new home before we arrive. Top tip for RAFTing success: nerding out on the googlemaps will help you start the process of settling into your new environment.
The above are tools designed to help, but they cannot determine the success of the transition. That said, it is normal that our Grade 12s feel simultaneously excited about their new destination and sad about leaving. Transitions are slow, uncomfortable and contradictory. Rarely do we thrive during them but with patience, acceptance, preparation and support we can develop the adaptability required to manage the process. So my advice to our Grade 12 students is to take some time to build your raft; know that UWC ISAK Japan will always be your home and never hesitate to reach out for support both now and in the future