Educating Square Pegs in the Foreign Service

Last week, my son graduated from high school. It was awesome.

He was left out of the post newsletter article congratulating the all the new graduates—probably because they got their list from the American school at post. That’s (sort of) OK, because we are used to it by now. Most Community Liaison Office coordinators (CLOs) know little to nothing about schools at post other than the one that “everyone” uses. Sorry, CLOs, but that has been my experience.

That is a shame. Because there really are some great alternatives out there, especially for kids who, for one reason or another, are a little different.

We first discovered this in El Salvador. Our daughter, who has a November birthday, was reading at age four. She was also a good size for her age, and very independent and extraverted. She clearly belonged in kindergarten at age 4 3/4, not in yet another year of preschool. But, the American school at post that “everyone” attended refused to even consider admitting her.

So, we contacted a newer school that said, sure, bring her in for an interview and we’ll see how that goes. She sat down, read “Green Eggs and Ham” to the principal, and unsurprisingly, they said: she is ready for kindergarten. And she was. She continued to be slightly ahead of schedule through college, and is now entering a doctoral program at Stanford.

So, nyah, nyah, American School of El Salvador, you blew it.

Based in part on that early experience, when my son was having major problems at the international school in Prague in first grade, we were open to alternatives. We talked to a British Christian school at post that agreed to admit him on a trial basis. He went from a class of largely non-native English speakers who had to endure mind-numbing Clifford stories every day, to a class of majority native speakers who thoroughly enjoyed a Harry Potter story hour after lunch.

The number of non-native speakers per class was limited at his new school, and they were expected to attend ESL classes, not simply learn the language through osmosis. Now, I’ve got nothing against kids learning English as a second language. But when they totally overwhelm the classroom, that’s a problem for kids who are already speaking English fluently and reading Encyclopedia Brown and Horrible Histories books on their own.

Being able to speak and read your own language well should be a good thing, not a “special need.”

It gets better. His new teacher immediately recognized that he was bored with some of the regular class activities, decided he should be put on an Individual Education Plan (IEP) for gifted behavior and arranged more challenging activities for him. Because, you know, that is actually what you are supposed to do to “accommodate” gifted children. (I think it’s in the teacher book somewhere.)

Even better, we discovered that British schools actually encourage the kind of healthy competition that American schools are now terrified to provide.They had spelling bees! My smart kid, who was used to being considered to be a major inconvenience at his previous school, was now proudly telling me that he won a competition for knowing stuff. This was huge!

I so wish that I had sent him to that school in the first place, instead of putting him through the awful experience that the American school eventually became.

The icing on the cake was that at this new school, boys were allowed to be boys. Or, to be more accurate, kids were allowed to be kids.There were three recesses a day, rain or shine. My son came home filthy and happy every day. Rough-and-tumble boy-play was allowed. Snowball fights were not a problem. Some girls were fussing about being hit with snowballs, and instead of shutting the whole recess down and calling a lawyer, the primary school director made a line down the center of the playground and said: snowball fights on this side, no snowballs on the other, and if you cross the line and get hit with a snowball, no whingeing about it! I loved this woman.

Meanwhile, at the American school, my daughter told me that the kids were sent out for recess in the cold but not allowed to pick up the snow. Sigh.

Of course, it hasn’t always been quite that easy. Aside from being all boy, my son has a not-unusual combination of high IQ and a dash of autism. The labels diagnoses have ranged from Sensory Integration Disorder to “non-hyperactive ADHD” to mild Asperger’s. The short version is that he is a bit different. Not enough to require true special education, but enough so that he has some trouble understanding rules, getting with the program and meeting the organizational demands of school.

This was not a major problem in the earlier grades, but it definitely has been from middle school onward. In fact, as documented extensively on this blog, we almost curtailed from Vienna before arrival because the American school here backed out on accepting him due to his grades. Once again, I cast about for an alternative, and was pleased to discover that there was a British international school at post.They did accept him, and offered learning support services, which in his case meant math tutoring and organizational help. He was, without question, better off at this school than he would have been at the American school. (Even parents at the American school told me so, lol.)

I won’t pretend that this has been an easy three years, for any of us, but it was made much easier by the British curriculum, which is very clearly outlined and acknowledges that not everyone can be good at everything. (Note to Gifted and Talented programs: not every gifted kid is a math whiz!) Whereas my daughter felt pressured to take Physics senior year to impress colleges, even though she had no intention whatsoever of becoming a physicist or anything in the math/science field, there was no talk of that at this school. My son took higher level (in IB terms–equivalent to AP courses) English, History and Art, along with basic “Maths” and German. He had a great teachers in his higher level courses who pushed him to explore his real talents. And you know, I think he’ll do just fine in life without calculus or physics.

After these two experiences with British schools, I can say that I really appreciate how they are not always after you to “fix” your kid. They deal with the kid directly, as an individual package. Maybe this has something to do with the legendary British tolerance for eccentricity. I especially liked how, for a change, there were no parent-teacher conferences requested for the sole purpose of informing me for the 957th time that my kid was disorganized. (Really? You don’t say. Have you actually read his 504 plan/IEP/evaluation?)

Teachers and administrators were clearly exasperated with my son on many occasions, and I don’t blame them. But no one at this school thought for a second that I was unaware of his issues or expected him to change overnight. In contrast, most American teachers and administrators seemed to believe that I could wave a magic wand (or give him a magic pill) if they just told me about the problems often enough. I am sure it would be more convenient for them if I did, but raising and educating kids isn’t about convenience. Some kids are going to be more difficult than others. Heck, some adults are more difficult than others. That’s life.

At this school, we were only contacted for purposes of reminding him about an assignment or an event, or when there was a serious problem that we could actually do something about, such as a streak of tardy arrivals. Why yes, I will be happy to kick my lazy teenager out of bed in the morning. That, I can do. I can also remind him that he has a paper due on Friday. Happy to stick Post-It notes to his forehead if necessary. Just don’t ask me to organize his homework for him when I didn’t assign it, can’t possibly make sure he brings it home from school or turns it back in when it’s finished, and don’t understand half of it anyway. Thank you for being a member of the reality-based community!

It is interesting that a standard British education actually ends at age 16. About half of these kids go on to “A-level” courses that are preparation for university (the IB diploma is considered to be equivalent). The rest go on to trade schools or directly into the working world. So, 16 marks the onset of adulthood in many ways. This is reflected in secondary school policies, which are more like university rules than American high school rules. 11th and 12th grade students are essentially treated as young adults who happen to live with tuition-paying parents. I am fine with that. It’s good practice for both college—and real life. (It’s also how I grew up. Remember when we weren’t all special flowers requiring constant supervision and enriching activities planned for every minute of the day?)

In the end, my son may not have the most impressive transcript, but he owns it. His grades and diploma are his accomplishments. And he is darn proud of them. He should be. Even though he did not complete the full International Baccalaureate diploma, his courses were plenty challenging. He sank or swam on his own merits. He made a lot of progress in those three years, and he knows it.

He is now intent on going to university in England. This is partly due to a girlfriend, but we still think it is a good plan. He will already be familiar with British academic terminology, and having been the only American in his high school class here and an Anglophile before he even knew what the word meant (see Horrible Histories, above), his culture shock should be pretty minimal. The need to get to class on time and meet deadlines will be a problem, but at least it won’t be a new problem.

Is his success guaranteed? No. But it wouldn’t be at an American university either. Either way, we’re off to Warsaw next year, so I guess he’s just going to have to figure it out, one way or another!

If you have read this far, you may be a Foreign Service parent. So, as an official survivor of parenthood at international schools (as of last Wednesday!) I have one piece of advice that I would like to offer:

Do not rely on the CLO for school information. Do not automatically send your kid to the school that “everyone” attends, especially if they are a square peg in some way. Do not take anyone’s word that a school can handle “mild” special needs until they know about your kid’s actual, documented, needs. Contact the Office of Overseas Schools, use the Google, ask on Foreign Service groups, contact local expat clubs, or just look up a blogger at post and ask for leads, as I did.

A little (or even a lot) of research on the front end can pay off big time in a better education for your kid and a better tour for the whole family!

Did I mention that I never have to do this again? 🙂

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6 comments

  1. Love this piece. And congratulations to your son on his graduation! I’m a strong believer in the fact that there are many ways to learn – there are some basic skills we should all have, yes; and some basic things we can do as parents, yes, but the biggest thing we can do is to support our kids in the environments we know would be good for them (even if it means doing things the harder way). When we arrived here to Copenhagen, we were told that very few people ever did the forest schools as it was so different/so Danish/so non-traditional – whatever. We were invited to look but warned we would probably decide otherwise. And had I gone with a first impression, I probably would have, but in the end, that gut feeling of “this is right for my child” regardless of what others say (though I do know they mean well) is what won out. It’s different what our daughter is getting now – no doubt about it – but it’s different in a way that suits her, and she’s getting a barrel of experiences (and skills) that never would have opened her world in the same way.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Bravo to your son and to your family! When we first arrived to post we were only given information about the “American school” as well. We decided that it just wasn’t the right school for our boys, so we opted to send them to the French school *gasp*! Can you imagine? Americans wanting their kids to learn another language?! Talk about black sheep!! Well, it has not been without it’s challenges, but I agree wholeheartedly with you to see ALL your options, not just the ones the CLO sends out. It’s ok to step out and be different, if it fits your square peg family!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Kelly this was super helpful. Each of my kids has strengths and struggles like most kids. We are starting the bidding process again (inhale, slowly exhale) and this time schools are a big deal and the idea that they will be moving around during high school hard. This helped me a great deal. Thank you!

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  4. We moved our son in the middle of this year from the DoDDS school to the British school here for so many similar reasons. BEST. DECISION. EVER. I agree that they meet the child exactly where they are at and give them the tools to improve and learn and make mistakes and become accountable to their own education without shaming or labeling. I love that they are encourage to become their best – not a cookie cutter version of an invisible perfect child. I would add to any FS family out there that even if they choose a school at post and it ends up not fitting well for whatever reason, there is no shame in changing it up. I figure I am my child’s best advocate whether researching the schools off the CLO grid or arriving and finding that what we started with is not going to cut it for that tour. And congratulations to your graduate! Well earned!

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  5. First, congraulations! That must have been a wonderful day for all of you!

    Second, CLOs suck. And I’m not even FS.

    Third, my daughter is a definitely a square peg. She probably has a dash of Aspergers. She is gifted yet not a math whiz. Thank you!

    Fourth, it is a huge privilege to be able to choose any school you want, which, despite your difficulties with the American school, seems to be the case here. Huge. I am still really struggling with the school choice for my elder daughter because the only private school I can afford is the Lycee (thank you cheapo huge international organisation) — and being told she has to go the Lycee will cause my dd to jump off the balcony. So where? I suppose we’re going to throw her into the local high school and let her swim (mainly because her father thinks she’ll be socially isolated if I homeschool…which she will be). It’s not exactly how I imagined her high school years.

    Fifth, our experience with British school, in Cambridge, was quite different. But then everyone’s experiences are different, aren’t they?

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