Sunday, October 18, 2009

A School Update

Our children have attended school here in Colombia for almost 10 weeks now. It has been a very long and somewhat difficult transition for all of them, and we continue to make adjustments as we go.

I have always had concerns about school. First of all, I have high expectations for how learning should happen. I want my children to be in a nurturing environment that encourages cooperation, independent and collaborative problem solving, and encourages self-efficacy, creativity, and hope for a brighter future. I want them to be excited about school, enthused about being lifelong learners, and involved in healthy relationships with classmates and teachers. Unfortunately, after 8 years as a public school employee I have come to understand that it doesn’t always work that way.

I realize that it is common for some children to have difficulties with school adjustment. Lydia cried every day for nine weeks in a row during first grade. Andy had to have twelve kisses from his Dad in specific places all over the Kindergarten room before saying goodbye every day. My Mother tells me that when I was a second grader I told her I could not go to school because my hair hurt too badly.

It is difficult to know as a parent when these woes are a normal part of adjustment/separation and when these woes are calling for a dramatic change. Any of them call for some kind of intervention, and I must admit I have spend a lot of time in my life, either as a school social worker or as a parent finding the ones that work best.

Here in Colombia there are some things that we struggle with that are simply cultural. It is common for families from middle or upper classes to send their children to some kind of formal schooling from the time they are 2 years old. This does not mean a part time play group or preschool but often an all-day program with transportation, Little ones as young as 2 leave our building alone on a bus every day.

Teachers are much more direct and “strict” here. We have always had very glowing reviews at parent teacher conferences in the states, but here we were somewhat surprised to hear comments like “their handwriting is terrible.” When Lydia said she lost her water bottle and wanted help to find it, her teacher said “Why did you lose it? Go find it yourself.” While we can interpret those examples as harsh or unsympathetic, we know that their motivation here is to encourage them to be responsible, thorough, tidy, and accountable.

It is not uncommon for one of our children to “get in trouble” because they don’t have the right book, or wore the wrong article of clothing for their uniform, or they missed a homework assignment, which was given in Spanish with no translation, or they did not bring the correct money or supplies or whatever because they did not understand. We definitely understand why children from other countries can be considered “irresponsible” in the US. We are missing all kinds of things ourselves!

Thankfully, soon our children will have their SSL (Spanish as a Second Language) classes daily and will hopefully improve.

We are moving Lydia up a grade to see if the curriculum is a better fit for her. She initially started in 5th grade, which is a bit below the level in the US, and she is now shifting to 6th grade, which is a big above. We shall see. The main issue with this is that she has to leave the house at 5:15 to get there for her first class at 6:15.

Andy is doing well socially. He has made a lot of connections, and chats in Spanish with his friends. The workload is hard for him, especially homework, which is heavy and tedious, but he is doing it, and learning quickly. He is grateful for long breaks during the day for soccer, and for a math teacher that allows them to run to the board and play capture the flag.

Abby struggles the most with school. I don’t think she understands how to navigate it as well as her older siblings. She hates Spanish class, and do not know all the reasons why. However, tonight we found out that because of Spanish she is late to Art (her favorite) and when she gets there the door is locked and she can’t get in, so she sits outside the door and cries until someone notices her. (Well, I would not like that either.) However, Andy informed her that the door is not locked, just hard to open, and I told her she should think about knocking on the door (which had not occurred to her). However, since she is still adjusting to the whole concept of school, and even of being away from us at all, she is a bit traumatized. Here she is in a school that is far away from her parents and she does not understand most of what is said to her during the day. She also has long recesses, but is by herself for most of the time. I worry about her, but am grateful for a teacher that adores her and gushes over her. We met with her last week to discuss ways to encourage Abby to integrate, and I am hopeful things will improve.

I know there are things that happen to them during the school day that are unpleasant, and sometimes unkind. I also know that they are learning so much, more than just the basic content of their courses.

They are learning about human relationships, how to interact with people they love, people that annoy them, people they don’t understand.

They are learning how to rely on their instincts, how to “check” on each other, how to order their lunch and snack foods in Spanish.

They are learning how to live separately from us, and while in so many ways this is still painful, it is part of what needs to happen, right? It is part of “the plan” that leads them to be capable, brilliant, and loving adults.

So we move forward, one day at a time, searching for ways to make it go smoothly, and hoping that joy can find them soon.


  1. Oh Jen, you have such courage, and such wisdom (as do your children!).

  2. Great posts Jen. Thanks for recording this for us. Soon, things will be quite different, I am sure, and we may not recall things so clearly.

  3. I love these updates on your kids. I love these updates on you and Aaron. And while this adjustment must be harder than I can possibly imagine, think of how it will be to look back on this entire journey and think - "Wow! We did this!!" To echo Rachel, what courage.

  4. For many years you gave all of your kids the security of being at home with a parents' love and attention, and so much more. Now you're giving them the security of knowing they can go out into a new world, face the adventure, and learn to dance in it. Seems to me like a pretty good formula for confident, well-adjusted adults in the future : ).

  5. And what a beautiful thing to learn -- to check on each other. What a gift, going both directions -- to check on and to be checked on. This looking out for will be with them for the rest of their lives, enhancing the lives of everyone they come in contact with.

  6. Abby outside of art class breaks my heart, but someday it will come abundantly clear how important your documenting all of this is. These recorded memories are treasures.

  7. I have tears as I read this, Jen. It feels so familiar - so much is similar here, though we are physically much closer to the school - I'm sure that your adjustments feel monumental, and you are thinking through them with such wisdom and compassion for your kids. Poor little Abby. Eric had a first today. He understood everything that his teacher wanted him to do (it was a more straight-forward day) and she didn't yell at him. Usually he's making wild guesses and hoping he's not going to make her mad by guessing the wrong way...oh, our hearts ache for them. But they will stretch in beautiful ways, serving them down the road. Keep breathing, m friend, and so will I.