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The Grass is Always Greener… lessons from a year abroad.

January 17, 2012

The grass is always greener…

We just returned to CISD after spending a year abroad. Our children (aged 11 and 6) both went to a top-notch school, a prestigious International (American curriculum) school with a wonderful state-of-the-art campus and a great reputation. Both my children, but especially my 11 year old, learned what it was like to be removed from their comfort zones and adjust to a completely new environment and culture. They became more confident, and able to handle change more effectively. They began to learn another language in a totally different script. By its very nature, attending an international school meant that they had friends from all over the world.

These experiences of living abroad and being immersed in another culture cannot be marginalized in any way. These are learnings for life, which we cannot get from a book or the Internet, which we can only understand from experience.

And yes, it was an enriching and rewarding experience, an exciting journey, a thrilling chapter in our book of life. Yet there was something that made us look back at every turn, and compare. Perhaps if we had moved there from any place other than Coppell and CISD, we might have felt differently, but that we can only speculate on. There was something that kept us from saying, yes, this is where we see ourselves ten or fifteen years from now, that this is the school we want our children to graduate from.

We were quick to compare everything at the international school with our experience here at CISD. And my conclusion was, that in a way, CISD spoils you. The teacher-student-parent involvement spoils you. The sense of community spoils you. We are quick to assume that our school will work with us to figure out what is best for our children. We assume and we take for granted, because that is what we know, that is what we have experienced here in Coppell. And when we step away, we realize, that what we have here in Coppell is really quite special. Only when we look in from the outside do we realize just how green the grass is in Coppell.

So I have put down my observations, and let me add a disclaimer here. These are my observations based on one year abroad, at one international school and in one country. Perhaps my opinion might have changed had we been there longer. Perhaps my opinion might be different had we gone to a different school in either place. Perhaps I’d have had a different viewpoint in another country. They are in no way a generalization, and this is in no way an expert opinion. It is just my viewpoint, as a parent, and it may not necessarily be correct. With that out of the way, here are my thoughts-

It is hard to build a sense of community in an international school when there is high teacher turnover. Teachers typically come in on a contract, moving on to the next best country when their contract is over. For some teachers (and certainly not all), it is just an exciting way to see the world, which is fine for them but not so great for my child. Call me selfish but I want the teacher to be there, not because its base camp to see Egypt or Jordan or Bhutan but because she wants to teach, to enrich, to be involved and to participate, in the overall growth of my child.

It is hard to build a community when there is high student turnover. International postings are typically transient and students are used to kids coming and going. It just becomes a part of daily life, like a train station or an airport. There is one set of core students, and another set of students that come and go. Families extend their winter and summer breaks because they have to travel home, pulling students out of class early. All this results in a disruption of the normalcy, a change in the class dynamic and rhythm of teaching.

Many of the students in the school are seasoned expats even at age 10. New students are just one of many that will enter the class in a given year and they have to learn very quick how to fit in, and adapt to their new environment. They become very resilient to change and that can be both good and not so good. Good, because they learn very early on to adapt. Great, because they learn networking skills at a very young age. Not so good, because friendships tend to be fleeting, many knowing they will not last more than 2 or 3 years.

There was no concept of differentiation or ability based instruction. There was no concept of GT. There was no pull out, push in, clustering or acceleration for gifted children. None of the terms that we have grown so used to hearing, none of the terms that we take for granted here in Coppell. You cannot take a CBE exam at any stage. There is some differentiation beginning in grade 7 or 8, but nothing before that. All students were equal. However it was very apparent that all students were not equal. Not because I think my daughter is all that, but because each classroom was a melting pot of students that came from different countries and schools, with major differences in curriculum. Unfortunately, in a subject like math, they catered to the average, the middle, and sometimes even the lowest common denominator. Any concept of “challenge” work meant “more” work, instead of “more challenging or enriching” work

While at CISD, Town Center Elementary gave my daughter a solid grounding in the fundamentals of math. She was kept challenged at school, given individualized instruction, and mostly given the opportunity to learn at her pace. As a result, at the international school she attended, she was way ahead of her peers, and gained the respect of her teachers and classmates in the short time she was there. But she was bored. It was almost too easy for her and she had nothing to keep her interested or motivated. She was not exposed or given the opportunity to learn out of syllabus concepts, she was not given the opportunity to advance beyond the curriculum in any way. Going forward into middle school too, there would have been no opportunity for her to take a GT or pre-AP class, putting her at an immediate disadvantage, if we were to move back to the U.S in Grade 7 or Grade 8.

Going to a fancy private school has its plus points. The specials were naturally very well funded. The PE program was amazing; at an elementary level, the students were rotated through swimming, lacrosse, baseball, basketball, tennis, flag football, soccer and I’m probably leaving something out. The art program was intense, supplies were abundant and the output of the students was really top caliber. In older grades, international field trips to places like Greece and Tanzania, and opportunities for service learning through projects like Habitat for Humanity added excitement, enrichment and experience to their lives. And I’m sure you all would agree that small class sizes and paraprofessionals at every grade level in elementary school is a huge plus.

So if I were given the decision today, to do it all over, would I still want to spend a year abroad? Would I still travel with my family halfway across the world to live in a strange country? Absolutely, without doubt. Change is always good. Change shakes you up from complacency and forces you to adapt. It forces you to reboot. And with every change, with every decision you will have pros and cons, and you will find the balance. The undeniably biggest plus in this case, is the experience that living in another country offers, and the opportunities of networking in future.

Our year abroad was undeniably a wonderful experience, but its great to be back home in Coppell.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 30, 2012 12:05 pm

    Very interesting and well written – just wondered why the author is being so mysterious about the “country” in which her child went to this international school (since there is no mention of any place other than Coppell in this article)??

  2. Zarin Pathan permalink
    February 1, 2012 8:35 am

    I wasn’t planning on it being this big mystery- I just did not think it was that important or relevant to the points I was making. It was in Dubai.

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