Choosing a school - for a period & for life
The headache for all expat parents: Which school do we choose as our children's new learning environment abroad? Which school system is the most suitable and which language should this system be taught in, if possible?
Some aspects of expat life in a new country are naturally given, such as the surrounding language, the geographical location etc. But the choice of school system is a more complex one.
Choosing a school for your expat children
The hard part for those of us, who are parents of young school children, is that the school choice has to be made by us on behalf of our children. Quite often, we are to choose among several good options, typically without any previous experience with these school systems.
So what are the criteria to base our decision upon? Before anything else: Where and how do we find suitable schools to choose from in the first place? Then, how do we know if our own children would fit well into this particular school or that particular school system? And last, but not least, we are confronted with the fact that our choice of school will almost unavoidably influence, maybe help or even limit our children's future opportunities.
Local or international schooling?
The choice between local, native-speaking schools and international schools, typically English-speaking schools is one that is often encountered by expat families.
During our daughter's elementary school years, we went for the local choice, which in our case meant Spanish-speaking schools in Spanish-speaking countries. Her first school experience abroad, as a 3-year-old, was a local village pre-school in the Canary Islands.
All in all, this pre-school contained around a dozen children in the age 3-6, all being taught together by the same "maestra" (teacher). For an expat child like our daughter, who came speaking no Spanish, this school setting was close to perfect: she only had to get accustomed to a small group of children plus one adult.
We had been introduced to the school through colleagues. It was not the school closest to where we lived, nor the most logical choice, but we visited and fell completely in love. By the both experienced, yet motherly caring teacher as well as by the school's safe, family-like atmosphere.
Not that we did not have other options, including English-speaking schools nearby, specifically targeted at expat children.
But we had made up our minds, and the advantages of that choice fortunately showed themselves: rapid adaptation into the local community besides maximum exposure to the Spanish language within a secure, native-speaker environment. For a 3-year-old pre-school student, academics are not what matter the most.
Conventional or alternative school system?
The second school experience abroad for our daughter was a Montessori school in Chile. Now, this was certainly not the most common choice for expat parents in our new, Latin American hometown. And not only once, but many times were we asked why on earth we had made it?
We did not know anything about Montessori schools beforehand. I had simply stumbled upon the school while flipping through the local phone book at the hotel bed upon our arrival. I was feeling close to panic and despair, trying to entertain a 6-year-old longing to find friends and a 2-year-old depending on his naps and nappies.
Most expat children, we knew of in this city, went to English-speaking schools as the logical choice. However, our daughter had no English. The local, public school system, on the other hand, was said to be very conservative and strict - in short, no viable road for free-spirited Danes like us. So we visited this Montessori school of which we had a very positive, albeit a rather vague impression. Luckily, we once again fell in love, not only with the school, but also with the staff.
Choosing with your heart
Now, looking back, we feel extremely grateful for having been able to give our children a chance to develop within such a creative, individualized, caring and yet demanding school as this Montessori school turned out to be. We feel strongly confident that our children's mixed and rich school luggage will stay with them and strengthen them in their future encounters with the world and its people. Both children later went into an English-speaking school in an English-speaking country.
You might ask if it would not have been wiser to put them into a conventional, English-speaking, international school system from the beginning? Maybe so... however, choosing with your heart is not an unwise choice either!
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