Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Foreign Mom

"No one else has ever done that before.  That's not what we do here." 

Those were the words (in Spanish) we were hearing as we tried to explain to the school director that we would not be sending our preschool-aged daughter to school every morning.  We didn't feel like it was necessary or healthy for our little girl to be away from us every morning; they thought that was really strange.  We ended up being the weird foreign parents that year... all year.

"Children aren't supposed to be here.  This was supposed to be a surprise for them." 

I heard giggles from other moms as I blushed after hearing the teacher's words.  I quickly steered my kids back out of the classroom and to our car.  I'm not sure how I misunderstood the note sent home from school.  I thought we were supposed to bring our kids to school in the afternoon to do a special craft with them, and I'd gotten my kids all excited about it.  What I was actually supposed to do is come to school alone to do a craft that would be a surprise gift for them.  Why do I still make mistakes like this in Spanish? 

"Please re-do this.  The syllables need to be organized differently."

I had already cut out hundreds of little squares with letters on them and organized them alphabetically.  Here, at the beginning of the year, we were given sheets full of each possible syllable in Spanish.  It was the parents' job to cut them out and organize them.  The problem?  I had no idea how to organize these many flashcards.  It took several attempts, but finally my little project received the teachers' approval.  For the non-foreign moms?  This was just a rite of passage; every parent of a first grader knows how to do this because it's what their parents did for them.  It's how children learn to read and write here. 

"Your son has gotten behind in Spanish.  Please work with him at home to help him catch up."

I read this note sent home from school, and then look over the 30-something pages of worksheets that we would need to do at home.  I don't even understand this!  What's the future going to be like if I can't even understand first grade homework here!?

All of these interactions take place in Spanish, of course.  I have so many other stories like this.  Being the foreign mom is rough!  And, I'm really still just at the beginning of this adventure of educating kids in a foreign country!  I have so much more to learn, but here are some tips I've learned so far:

1)  It's ok, and understandable, that this is hard.  None of the quotes above were said to me in a mean way.  But, I still have felt guilty and like a bad mom and a bad missionary because of things like this.  But, then I realize, of course this is hard!!!  This is something new and different and unlike anything I can reference from my childhood.  It's ok that it's hard.

2) You need help.  Acknowledge this.  Ask for help.  That day that I misunderstood the note about the craft time at school?  That was a bit of a turning point for me.  The next day, I was at ballet class with my daughter.  Three other moms from her school were there with their daughters as well.  All year, I've been building friendships with these ladies.  I shared with them what had happened the day before, and how being the foreign mom can be hard.  They were sweet, and promised to help me in the future.  After class, one of them took me to a craft shop and showed me what supplies I'd need for the craft, and told me to bring them along on the playdate we had previously arranged for the next day.  While our kids played the next day, she walked me through the craft I was supposed to have made at school.  It was a huge blessing and encouragement to me.  And, it wouldn't have happened if I hadn't opened up to those friends.  Now, they frequently check to make sure I understand announcements sent home from school!

two of the ballet class moms that have helped me through this school year!
3) Consider occasionally recruiting a native speaker to help with homework.  Since finally realizing and accepting that I couldn't do this alone, I've asked one of my friends from our church to help me help my son with his homework.  Sometimes this looks like texting a photo of the worksheet to her so she can help me understand it.  Other times, it looks like actually having a friend sit down with my son at our table to help him one on one.  This has been such a help and relief to me!

4)  Pray.  I have many days where I feel like this is too hard.  I'm sure all of you, no matter what decisions you've made regarding your kids' education, often feel the same way.  I know God uses these times to draw him closer to Him as we realize our dependency on Him.  I know I need to be better at praying specifically for God's help and strength as we educate our kids in Costa Rica.  Just as I can't do it without these native friends, I absolutely can't do it without Him. 

How do you feel as the "foreign mom" where you are?  What tips have you learned through your experiences so far educating your kids overseas? 

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Educational foundations

As we continue our theme of education, I've had a hard time thinking of what to write next. I already wrote some about what school is like in our family so far. While we incorporate parts of public and private school, what I know best is homeschooling. Homeschooling moms seem to be able to discuss curriculum and schedules for hours on end, so I guess I could write some of that... but I don't want to go there.

Instead I decided to go back to the very basics. The foundation. Why are we doing what we're doing in educating, and what do we want for our children at that very important level? Whatever different paths we are on as our children learn and grow, this is the most important part. I think my u verses for education are Proverbs 24:3-4:
Through wisdom a house is built,
And by understanding it is established;
By knowledge the rooms are filled
With all precious and pleasant riches.
Wisdom... understanding... knowledge. Yes!

Also, there's a verse that might not usually be considered in an educational context, but my desire for my children is that they will be able to say "Thou hast set my feet in a large room," because of the education that they end up with.

Do you have favourite verses for education? What is your inspiration as you navigate all this with your family?

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Mommy's Lesson on the First Day

When we moved to Costa Rica, our firstborn was only three months old.  I was not thinking very specifically yet about what we would do for education (although that was a question our families asked us a lot!).  Then, we moved to our small town, where there are really only four schooling options: the public school, a private Spanish-only school, a private bilingual school, and homeschooling (which has some very strict legal limitations here).  When thinking about the various options back in that baby/toddler stage, I was pretty convinced that the one option we would not choose would be the private bilingual school.  And, where do our kids go now?  Yep, the private bilingual school!  The decision was made basically by a process of elimination; none of the other options were a good fit for us here and at this timeMy dream situation here would be a Christian school where parents can be really involved, much like the one that I attended... however, that option does not exist where we are.

When that 3-month old firstborn became an almost 6 year old ready for kindergarten, we were in the States on a home assignment.  I homeschooled him for that first part of kindergarten, which was a great fit for us as we traveled.  I loved it!  But, when we returned to Costa Rica, we made the decision to enroll our son in kindergarten and our daughter in pre-kinder at the bilingual school.  On the first day of school, I was so worried about how the kids would react to going to school after being homeschooled and with us constantly during our time in the States.  But, it turned out that Mommy was the only one who cried that day.

It also turned out that I had the biggest lesson to learn that day.

walking into school on the first day, when I started to tear up
I have to admit -- I did more than just a little crying after dropping the kids off.  I did a.lot.of.crying.  Like go home and completely lose it and sob and sob and sob while pouring out my confused little heart to my most likely very overwhelmed husband.  Looking back, I'm bit surprised by my strong reaction, but I also understand that the emotions had as much to do with all of the emotions of returning to life in Costa Rica as it did with the kids going to school.  Sending them to school was just a reminder of how our decision to live and minister in Costa Rica changes so many of our life's decisions.  I really loved homeschooling, and I think it's likely we would homeschool if we lived in the States.  Here, though, we feel strongly that our kids need to gain fluency in Spanish to be able to be fully part of our community and that the best way to do that, for now and for our family, is for them to attend a local school.    Homeschooling or a Christian school may still be in our future, but, for now, (which is really all I need to know right now!), they are attending this school to learn Spanish.  We are grateful to have such a great school to send them to here.  But, still, it was hard for me as I wrestled with how our decision to live here affects our decision on how to educate our kids.  And, it was hard to feel like while the bilingual school was a good option, it was several items down on my list of ideal options.

As I calmed down on that first day of school, I was reminded of something I've had to learn over and over again as a missionary wife and mom... I cannot compare my life here to what I think my life would be if we lived in the States.  That's not our life.  This - living and working in Costa Rica - is our life, for now and for as long as God wants us here.  So, we make the decisions that work best for our family and for the life and ministry God has placed us in.  Comparing and contrasting with what life in States looks like (or, really, what I think it might look like!) does nothing but make me lose the joy that I can have in this amazing life God has given us in Costa Rica.  And, I love this life!  How cool is it that our kids get to grow up learning a second language and being part of this beautiful culture?  Now, more than a year from that first day of school, I daily see the benefits the kids have gained as I hear them speaking Spanish more confidently, and, as our local friends tell us, with a perfect Costa Rican accent!  I also have been blessed with many friendships with moms at the school, providing opportunities to share my life and testimony with a group of women I never would have known if our kids were not at that school.

The kids may have learned some new Spanish words and some new letters on the first day of school, but it was Mommy who learned the most important lesson of the day.

We're thankful how this school has allowed our whole family to learn more about Costa Rican culture.

Do you struggle with imagining what your life could look like if you were still in your passport country?  Has a lack of education options in the place you serve led you to choose something less than your ideal for your kids' schooling?  We'd love to hear your thoughts and experiences!

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Enigma of Educating our TCKs


As a relatively large family (eight children spanning 13 years) that’s been on the mission field essentially since the turn of the century (15 years - long enough to be considered career), we’ve tried several different education options: homeschool, local language schools, private school, public school, online school… We’ve not yet used the boarding option at a boarding school (unless you count our university aged kiddos living in a dorm, but that’s still a whole different ballgame). And, in fact, when we first left for the field, I would have told anyone who asked that home school was the plan, but also that boarding school was the only option NOT on the table. 


I would tell you that any possible option that presents itself makes its way to the table as a topic of discussion…

People have asked us before about our education plan/philosophy, and I used to think I had it pretty well figured out – actually, mapped out – before our first reached third grade. A special educator with several years of experience in the classroom… a professional trained to look at the individual skills, abilities and needs of an individual student – and one who was fairly good at what I did… I figured those skills would naturally transfer to figuring out an exceptional and best educational plan for each one of my own children. Since I was the professional educator, my husband – although always an active contributor to the many conversations – essentially followed my lead regarding what was best, educationally, for our children, although there have been compromises. 

I’ve discovered that it HAS NOT come naturally – because my own desires and dreams for my children often interferes with… even disguises… what might actually be best for them… educationally, emotionally, physically, socially… spiritually. Those best choices that I could see easily for someone else’s child weren’t nearly so obvious when it came to my own.  Sometimes, best choices actually got in the way of good decisions. Sometimes, we make what appear to be best decisions – only to discover down the road aways that we didn’t have all of the facts or experience necessary to know, actually know, what we were deciding…

We’ve I’ve made so many mistakes. 

I’m thankful for God’s grace and merciful children. 

Key questions we’ve started asking when it comes to making those educational decisions:
  1. What is available?
  2. What is affordable?
  3. What is advantageous? (Or… What is the absolute best for this one child?)
  4. What is acceptable? (Or… What is a practical and adequate reality for our entire family?)
  5. What is the actual child’s input?

The first two questions are obvious. If there is no English language day school option in country and your children are too young to go to an out-of-country boarding school, then homeschool (parent teaching or engaging a teacher) or online are probably the two primary possibilities - if English language schooling is a priority. And, of course, whatever option must paid for - often putting the private, international schools out of reach for many missionary families.The third question is an ideal – If not limited by anything, what would I choose for my child. The fourth question is more one of workability: Which choices are both doable and good - not just the individual child, but for our family as a whole. This last one is always a hard one for me, because my perfectionist side has a hard time settling for the good if there is a best alternative. Doing so is, in my mind, equivalent to failure. The final question has much to do with what the child wants – or thinks s/he needs.

These questions are not listed in a hard and fast order of priority – because priorities can change based on present realities. They also change based on the individual needs of each specific child.

Sometimes, it feels like we’re trapped in a high stakes poker game where we’re dealt a hand of cards, we try to read the nuances of the situation all around us and then make decisions that are educationally sound and profitable for our children. Sometimes we make the very best decision we can – only to watch as our child struggles, hurts, or worse… learning as more information comes to light that perhaps we didn’t actually make a very good choice – or that we need to make a change. 

There are so many “stories” I could tell – but there are two I think are particularly relevant.

While in W. Africa, we choose to enroll our children in a local, French language primary school. It felt like we got to have our cake and eat it too… to use a cliché! We met so many people outside the missionary community (the school was run by Baha’i missionaries). Our children were learning French and making local friends - outside of  church. The teachers and staff at the school worked very hard to meet the educational needs of our children and our children learned that the standard “American” perspective wasn’t necessarily the only way. It certainly was not the way the rest of the world saw things. 

They children grew from experiencing life as a visible minority where they didn’t have all of the prerequisite skills that typically give majority culture students an advantage. They learned independence, hard work, how to memorize, obedience without question and how to make friends with people who were drastically different from them. We were all home for lunch together every day – and for a rest time during the afternoon heat - before the children returned to school. Academically, we found that even though the educational system and priorities were different, our children were well taught and well prepared to eventually transition to an international, English language school as bilingual students. The only disadvantage was that our children were spread across three different school campuses in town.

Life was cruising along; we were following this educational plan for our family. Then our mission unexpectedly became insolvent. Resulting financial difficulties as well security challenges due to increasing terrorist activity in our region led us to make a radical change - several weeks after the beginning of a new school year. We moved our children into an English language, international mission school. 

I had to let go of my dream of genuinely bilingual children and being a part of that school community we had enjoyed for several years. I also had to accept that this was a decision that had nothing to do with an educational best choice, but a real life, real time choice of what was best for our family. Additionally, I was surprised to discover just how difficult this change was for our children who had to make the switch – suddenly, unexpectedly and mid-year. They immediately had to learn 1) a new school, 2) new classroom/teacher systems, 3) a new academic language, 4) to live day in and day out with those who had, before, only been weekend friends, 5) to walk through perceived injustices/prejudices as a result of the previous educational choices we’d made for our family, and 6) to be just like all of the other TCKs who filled their classes. Others of our children who'd already transitioned to the international school had made that transition. But, we’d taken a year of homeschooling to help each adjust to the radical differences.

What's the moral of the story? When you realize that a current educational situation is really not working, either because of a change, new information, or whatever – make the necessary changes. I shed many tears, crying for my lost vision of the future, but also with my kids as they dealt with their own losses and frustrations. I had to create time to be available and drop other obligations and commitments in my already full ministry schedule to emotionally and academically support them through the change. It was hard.

My second story is one that is taking place, literally, right now. We’ve transitioned to a new place of ministry. Those among our children who are not attending college back in the States are presently enrolled in a French language, private, evangelical school. It’s a great school. But it is already clear that it is not the best educational decision for at least one of our children, one for whom learning does not come easily, one who is an extreme extrovert - not being able to talk with friends is driving said child crazy. This child was already identified as having an articulation disorder, has an individualized education plan and was receiving speech and language services in English. For this one, languages do not come easily. Yet, because of immigration/visa requirements – our children must be actively engaged in French language education. 

Are there other avenues we could choose? Probably, but we aren’t familiar enough yet to know what those options might be. So we spend hours on homework every night. We memorize verb conjugations even though the children may not have any idea what said verb means and will not likely be using the conditional form of the verb any time in the near future. We reread and translate much of the work that was done during the day. It's like a second school day once home when what they really want is a break because they are exhausted. I easily perceive that exhaustion as “laziness.” A good friend recently reminded me of something I should know very well - as a language learner myself and as a teacher of English as a second language… Language learning is draining; learning content material in the new language is beyond grueling. Sometimes what looks like lazy is simple self-preservation from information overload. Once again, for this season – different ministry ideas I might have need to take a back seat to supporting my children as we walk through this season together and learn to thank God for His Presence when life (school) is unrelentingly hard.

The moral of this second story? Sometimes the cards we are dealt just don’t leave a particular child with any good hand, educationally. That isn’t necessarily a failure. It is a reality of life in a fallen, broken world. What may not turn out to be an academically profitable year might actually reap more real life skills and an opportunity to lean on the Lord in ways we just don’t when we don’t desperately need Him. But as parents, we can't leave our kids to just fend for themselves in the challenging seasons our life choices, our callings, have thrust upon them.

Do I believe God called me to this place, at this time, with this family? I absolutely do. He also gave me this family and called me to a responsibility to serve them. More important than making perfect educational decisions for each child each school year is a lifestyle lived, walking humbly with our God through those decisions (and others). It is climbing educational mountaintops together and holding close through the academic valleys, all the while ultimately recognizing His Sovereignty and His amazing grace in all circumstances. TCKs don't need to be coddled and protected from life's realities and hardships because their parents are following a lifestyle that denies them of much of what is valued and expected of parents in today's western/developed world. Life isn't all about our kids. But they are also not to be ignored or expected to fend for themselves. They need to be discipled in looking to God for strength and hope in the midst of our decisions.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

The Education Question

Oh the education question!

It's a tricky one isn't it?  So many options or none at all depending on where in the world you live. For us, living in close proximity to the capital city of our country, we have a lot of choices.  Not all good choices, but choices none the less.  US schedule expat school, US schedule bilingual school, US schedule Costa Rican school, Costa Rican schedule bilingual school, Costa Rican Spanish only school, Costa Rican public school, Homeschool.  Yikes!

I think when were were trying to decide what to do three years ago, we looked at 6 or 8 different options.  And frankly none were "just right". They all had issues.  From cost, to location, to philosophy.  I ended up talking with another missionary mom who is a little further down the education road with her kids than we were and she gave me some good advice. She said "no option here is perfect and what works one year for one kid, might not work the next year or for any of the other kids." Ok then.

In the end we landed at a bilingual school that runs on the US schedule.  We are one of just a handful of North American families there.  Most of the kids are Costa Rican, but there is a big group of kids from Asia too.

 We picked it for a couple of reasons.  We felt like for our family, it was important to be on the same school calendar so that when we are on Home Assignment, our kids can attend the local public schools (which indeed worked out well this last time!).  This particular school also has a Spanish as a Second Language program, which was a big thing for us!  Both our big boys have been in that program and it's given the boost they need to be up to speed with the Spanish.

It is a private school and so there is the cost.  Sigh.  That gets to me.  But I fall back on the fact that God led us to this school and He will provide.  And He has.  Three years in, while it doesn't look like it should work out on paper, it does, every month.

There are still hard moments.  I often remind myself that since God called our whole family here, that includes our boys.  Part of His plan for their lives is to be bi-cultural.  He is preparing them for what's ahead in their lives and that's exciting!!

What's been the hardest part of the Education Question for your family?  What helped you make your decision?