Using the National Schools Successfully, Part 1

Posted by on Mar 26, 2013 in Blog | 0 comments

The following is from an article in Fitted Pieces by SHARE. The panel focuses on national schools as an educational option for expatriate families. It includes Cynthia Storrs (a teacher and parent whose children attended national schools and who holds a master’s degree in TESL from Sheffield University in England), Matt Neigh (who grew up in Austria and attended national schools) and Janet Blomberg (who provides educational help to families preparing for work overseas or already serving overseas).

What do you think parents don’t understand or underestimate about using the national schools?

Cynthia: I think the issues of time and commitment involved in using national schools are major sources of misunderstanding for parents. Many parents assume that going to a national school in a second language will be just as easy as going to the local school in America or elsewhere. They are unaware of the cultural and linguistic demands being placed on their child. Succeeding academically in a second language is far more difficult and demanding than the conversational fluency they may be trying to achieve themselves.

Janet: I couldn’t agree more. Many parents I’ve talked to and worked with underestimate the language issues. I’ve heard parents say, “We are leaving this July with an eleven-year-old daughter and nine-year-old son. We will work on language a little over the summer, and then they’ll be ready to start in the national school this fall.” They have very unrealistic expectations of what it will take, and unfortunately it is the child who pays the price for this misunderstanding.

Even if parents are considering sending a child to a local pre-school to prepare him for entering national schools later, they need to make sure he or she has the needed basic language skills. It can be very frightening for a young child to be in a completely new environment and have no ability to communicate with his or her caregivers. They need to know how to make their basic requests known in the national language.

Cynthia: A thorough knowledge of the second language is crucial for the child’s success, which may take several years to achieve. Generally it takes a young child (under age six) one or two years to reach native speaking competency. However, it will take him five to seven years to develop native academic competency. During this lag time, a child needs to be supported with outside help, such as a weekly tutor, to help fill in the gaps. Therefore, if a family is staying only two or three years, it may not be a wise idea to put a child in a national school situation, unless the family is concerned only with “learning the language” and is unconcerned about academics. This is particularly true in the later grades where it will be very difficult for a child to succeed both linguistically and academically during the first year or so in a national school.

Parents may also “forget” that a child must be on level, or near level, in English reading and writing, until furlough looms several months away! Then they try to catch up and cram three or four years of study into two hectic months, which are also filled with packing, farewells and deputation. That is an insurmountable task.

Matt: While I think some parents are very aware that there are language issues, I think they are often not always aware of the cultural issues. My parents, who are wonderful people, would be the first to admit that they really didn’t know much about the cultural issues of putting me in the Austrian school system. Their expectations for my school experience were based on what they had known in the States. They knew that learning in German would be a struggle, but they had no idea about the shame-based education values of the Austrian schools. They did not know what it was like to be made fun of because I was a foreigner.

I can still remember the first and only time my parents went to the principal’s office to complain about how I was being treated. I will never forget his words, “If you don’t like the way we educate your son, go back to the US!” It was such a helpless feeling, knowing that my parents weren’t about to leave the field because their son was struggling in a public school.

I think that for both the parents and children to have a successful experience, there needs to be first and foremost an open line of communication. Children need to feel that they are able to share everything and anything about school, without fearing that their parents will take it the wrong way. I’ve had conversations with TCKs who have told me, “My parents have said that if I have any problems, they will go back to our passport culture.” I’ve had parents tell me, “We’ve let our children know that if they are struggling we will leave and return to our home country.” That, however, is an awful lot of pressure for a child. Pressure that I personally believe God never intended for any child to carry. That was part of the reason I never shared any of my difficulties at school with my parents. They never told me, “We will leave.” But it was my perception that I would cause them to leave if I told them about my problems. So I chose to keep my mouth shut. Something I wish now I hadn’t done.

Second, I think parents must decide if they really want to send their kids to a national school and if it’s right for their children. Let me explain. When I was growing up, I was sent to a national school. There were no other options, so I knew I had to “tough” it out. Today, with more schooling options available, parents will often say to their children: “We want you to try the national school. If you don’t like it, we will try something else.” Let me ask frankly, “What child is going to hang in there when it’s tough, if he or she knows that there is always a way out?” Now, let me defend that by saying that this does not mean you don’t regularly reevaluate your choices. But, I don’t believe a child should be given the power to choose his or her education.

Used with permission from SHARE Education Services.

What other misconceptions might parents have regarding the use of national schools for their children’s education?

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