by Cynthia Storrs
When we went to Belgium in 1982, our daughter was 4 years old. Like Belgian children that age, she was expected to be in school seven and a half hours a day. So, four days after our arrival on the field, we enrolled our excited little girl, armed with a shiny new book bag, new pencils, and a new eraser.
When we went to Belgium in 1982, our daughter was 4 years old. Like Belgian children that age, she was expected to be in school seven and a half hours a day. So, four days after our arrival on the field, we enrolled our excited little girl, armed with a shiny new book bag, new pencils, and a new eraser. She danced off into a French-speaking classroom on the arm of her teacher, who spoke not one word of English. I felt like I was leading a lamb to the slaughter. She waved happily to say goodbye, but oh! how different she looked when we came that afternoon to pick her up!
One of the first and most difficult decisions a missionary family must make on the field regards the education of their children: What system shall replace that which was left behind in the family’s sending country? Although most parents consider the available options before their arrival on the field, it is often impossible to come to a decision before arrival, without having examined the local options available first hand, particularly if their options include sending their children to a neighborhood, national school. In many areas of the world, this is an excellent and viable option for missionary families, with many benefits for both the children and the entire family. But there are a number of foundational issues which should be considered prior to enrollment: family educational goals; the characteristics of the national schools in general; and the particular distinctives of the individual school the child may attend.
Our daughter was very unhappy at first, and her adjustment was slow. Fortunately, it was an excellent school, a private school. We picked it because we had heard it had an excellent curriculum with progressive teachers, who seemed to really care about their students. Unfortunately, none of them spoke English, which became really critical the first time our daughter needed to use the rest room!
EDUCATIONAL QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER
The first step in beginning any process is often to clearly define the result—what do parents want a child to learn by the end of his educational process, or at least, by the end of a specified time (such as a term on the field)? Specific academic skills aside, does any school system fit the parents’ spiritual goals for their children?
We wanted our girl to attend a French-speaking school because we were in church planting. We were going to be ministering to the national people, and it made sense for her to go to French schools. Our first term was for four years.
Educational goals must also be considered in light of a time continuum. If the family plans to return to the home country at the end of four years, will the education the child receives adequately prepare him or her? If not, can the parent provide supplemental training? If this is not realistic, the national school system may not be appropriate. Also, if the family plans include a furlough, what will happen when the child returns to the field? Will she or he be allowed to reenter at the appropriate grade level, will she or he be expected to repeat the year done elsewhere, or will an alternate educational system be considered?
If a missionary family is planning on a very brief stay in a country, are the benefits a child might receive in language and cultural acquisition going to outweigh the initial discomfort or even trauma, being switched into such a different learning environment? If the stay will be brief, will it be long enough for the child to adapt linguistically? The age of the child needs to be taken into consideration here as well. The younger the child, the better the chances of attaining academic success in a second language situation. A basic conversational ability, for example, generally requires at least one to two years full time in a second language for most school-age children to reap any benefits; a working academic competency requires a stay of five to seven years (see Baker in the bibliography).
Placing a child in a second-language environment for too short a time to acquire a conversational useof the language will probably result in few advantages, either linguistic or academic, and may well be counterproductive educationally. If the parents are not staying long enough, or the child has only a few years of schooling left, the disadvantages may outweigh the advantages. For example, a 13-year-old eighth-grader might need five to seven years to achieve the level necessary to work successfully, but would not have that much time left before he graduated. The result might be that he never graduates at all, being unable to comprehend well enough to pass his classes.
It is generally not advisable to begin a child in a second-language situation after the age of 11 or 12, where she or he will be expected to learn and compete on the level of native speakers. For a child who does begin in the later elementary years, it may be better to repeat a year of school in the second language. Fortunately, repeating a year of school overseas often does not carry the stigma that it does in the U.S.. In Belgium, for example, 40 percent of elementary school-aged children will repeat a year, along with 60 percent of high school students.
Generally, one considers a national school for both academic and linguistic/cultural reasons, but it is possible to have the second without the first. For example, a family might choose to send the above-mentioned eighth-grader to a national school in order to make friends and learn the language (taking non-academic courses such as physical education, music, or art), while not expecting him to graduate from the school, or even receive credit for the classes. In this case, the parents need to be ready with a complementary program in addition to the national school, to provide the academic training necessary to successfully complete the child’s appropriate grade level of schooling.
We quickly noticed some major differences with American schools. The children were not allowed to speak in class, and were not allowed to leave their desks. The person who drew the best in art class was the one who drew a picture which most closely resembled the teacher’s.
LOOKING AT PARTICULAR SCHOOLS
Once the parents have clearly defined educational goals, and if they have accepted the national schools in light of these goals, they should then investigate the distinctives of their particular national school scene. Regardless of the school, they are likely to notice differences in teaching styles, disciplinary procedures, and cultural differences which influence the entire educational process. In Europe, for example, teaching tends to be by rote, rather than by the deductive process. Often content is emphasized at the expense of creativity. Extracurricular activities are extremely curtailed or entirely lacking, in comparison with the U.S. Homework is given daily, in amounts that far surpass most American parents’ expectations, or ability level in the second language! While in-class discipline may be much stricter than U.S. standards, student behavior outside of the classroom may appear chaotic and unsupervised.
And the newcomer will likely feel overwhelmed by the number of practices that nationals take for granted, and therefore do not explain to outsiders: flowers for the teachers at the end of the year; learning to write with a fountain pen, instead of printing first with pencils; young children changing clothes for gym or swimming all together, unseparated according to sexes. Again, here it is helpful to have someone to translate for the newly arrived missionary family.
There are many factors to consider. Once having decided on the national school option, a family could have a choice of schools: public, private, or Christian. When choosing among them, the same sort of questions one would ask at “home” would apply: curriculum, class size, philosophy of education, distance from the home, tuition costs, etc. In most cases, should a family opt for the national school, it will be one in the country’s public school system. A family might have a say in the choice of school, if the country has anopen-enrollment policy. In this case, it is certainly worth the effort to investigate several schools thoroughly.
What should you look for when choosing a national school? Look for a school that is child-centered, not curriculum-centered, that is, where the needs of the child are held in higher, or at least in equal, esteem with the course goals. Obviously, the characteristic may not exist at all, but if any of the schools considered appear to be child- rather than curriculum-oriented, this school is likely to provide a better atmosphere for a missionary child’s transition. A school’s orientation might be determined by talking with the school director, and with a child’s teacher. If at all possible, parents should meet with their child’s would-be teacher. It is important to discern how the teacher feels about having a second-language student in his or her class; if the teacher is not in favor of it, or feels it would be too difficult for the child or burdensome for the classroom, the situation will probably not be successful. The parents should have a bilingual translator with them if possible during these interviews. This person can serve as a “bridge” for the new child and missionary family, breaching the gap between their inexperience and the new system. She or he can be an invaluable resource in explaining new customs, school expectations, homework assignments, and those baffling idiomatic expressions!
It is also good to put the child in a school where a few other children or teachers speak the child’s language, if possible, to ease the transition period.
Then, the parents must be ready to do whatever is necessary to ease this transition period as well, to foster their child’s social acceptance: inviting other children home to play; making sure the child is fully involved in all school activities. Volunteering to help in class activities can be reassuring for the child, while giving the parents an opportunity to observe the new educational situation first-hand. (And “brownie points” with a new teacher never hurt!) Above all, cultivate a positive relationship with both the teacher and the head administrator. Having these people “on your side” can make the difference between success and failure.
Once a child enters the new school, parents should assume she or he will need tutoring help in the new language for a year, or possibly two, and make all the arrangements. Parents should not assume that the classroom teacher will be able to provide such service (unless remuneration is offered). If the teacher cannot help, perhaps she or he could suggest a tutor. If finances are a problem for the family, it might be possible to trade for services: English lessons for other students, or even for the teachers, are often in demand.
The success of a second-language experience often rests on the parents’ attitude. One must realize that this experience, like any cross-cultural experience, can be traumatic at first, and it may well take a year before the child feels at ease. During this transition, parents must remain supportive, encouraging, and committed to the school and the child. The parents’ attitude and comments about the country and its people are critical to the child’s attitude. There are a number of challenges involved, but with an equal or greater number of benefits. And whatever choice is made, remember that all options should be regularly reevaluated, for each child, and that each child is different. What is a good option for one child may not be the best one for the next.
Our daughter eventually left the private school and went to a national public school, where she stayed, continuing to study in French. During high school, she worked on her English with a U.S. correspondence course. After finishing the 11th grade in Belgium, she came back to the U.S. and went straight to community college, where she tested out of freshman math, science, and, of course, all foreign-language requirements.
So far, our son has continued in the French system, but now that we are on homeministry assignment, we are looking at the possibility of other options for him once we return to the field. Both children say they benefited greatly from their years in the national schools, and feel they were given a window into another world, one they loved and now miss very much.
Baker, Colin. Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism. Philadelphia, Multilingual Matters, Ltd., 1993.
Brooks, Dr. David F., Ed. Educational Options—Europe and C.I.S., Edition 2. Budapest, Hungary, S.H.A.R.E., August, 1996.
Notes from Elwood, Nancy, in the S.H.A.R.E. notebook from the seminar on National Schools, presented in Budapest, Hungary, September 28-30, 1995.
Cynthia Storrs has served with Greater Europe Mission since 1982. She and her husband, Don, were initally assigned to church planting in Belgium. She completed a M.Ed. in ESL from the University of Sheffield (England) in 1995, and then began work with S.H.A.R.E., and educational consulting group for missionaries, where she focuses on MKs and second language issues.
EMQ, Vol. 35, No. 2, pp. 166-174. Copyright © 1999 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.