I thought dropping off my kids for their first day of kindergarten was scary. It was nothing compared to parenting them through their first day as American expats going to school in Spain.
The curriculum at the Colegio San Francisco de Paula in Seville is completely bilingual. Half the core classes are taught in English, the other half in Spanish. Awesome. It would give our kids the Spanish immersion we wanted, yet still maintain some English education during our time here. At the primary level, kids also receive two hours each week in both French and German. Even more foreign language exposure for our younger son, Kaden, entering school in Spain as a fourth grader. Double awesome.
Or so we thought. This recap of our conversation upon picking up our little expat from his first day of school in Spain opened our eyes to the reality we’d created.
Foreign Language Onslaught
Me: So, how’d it go with the Spanish today?
Kaden: I could barely understand a word she was saying.
Me: Ok, well, it was just your first day of school in Spain. And the accent is really different here than the Spanish you hear in the US. It’ll come. What’s your teacher’s name?
Kaden: I couldn’t even get that. I just called her “Maestra” all day.
Me: Sounds like a good strategy. What else happened?
Kaden: We had art class.
Me: You love art class!
Kaden: Yeah, but this art class is taught in French. I’m not sure exactly what happened. I think I’m supposed to buy clay.
Me: Clay?!? That wasn’t on the supply list! I don’t know where to buy clay in Seville! I don’t even know how to say “clay” in Spanish. What kind of clay? I specifically paid the extra money to the school for them to buy all the supplies for us precisely to avoid this kind of situation!!!
Kaden (looking a little frightened now): I don’t know.
[Deep breath. I remind myself I’m supposed to be the calm one in this conversation. I smile and try to act casual.]
Me: Never mind. We’ll figure it out. And then?
Kaden: I think we had German next.
Me: Cool. How was German?
Kaden: Mom! It was German! I don’t. Speak a word. Of German! I’m not even sure what class it was. Music? Maybe?
I dig deep to find that encouraging, it’ll all work out, supportive voice…
Me: Ok. Well, then. Were any of your classes taught in English today?
Kaden: Yeah, the last part of the day was in English. I think.
Me: Great. Bet that was a relief. What’s your English teacher’s name?
Kaden: I have no idea. By the time that happened, I couldn’t even understand what the English teacher was saying.
School in Spain — Challenges and Trade-offs
Those initial weeks had their moments of tension. (Okay… initial months.) And the difficulties didn’t limit themselves linguistic matters. Differences in curriculum, student expectations, procedures governing how to contact our kids teachers… It seemed as if nothing was the same at our school in Spain compared to the States. As if that weren’t enough, the English used is British English, giving even the kids’ native language a foreign element to it.
That conversation opened our eyes to some inherent realities of this expat parenting thing, especially with respect to the boys’ education. Our time here demanded accepting both challenges and trade-offs. What did we need to do to strike a balance between the new competencies our kids would gain living in Spain with the losses we valued in the education they’d get at home?
Expat Education Management
Managing those trade-offs has become like an ongoing ride on a metaphorical teeter-totter. On one side, our big picture vision for living abroad as a family. On the other side, the day to day details of curriculum, content and structure of the academic expectations being asked of them as students in Spain. Pan out, zoom in. Step back to give them the chance to navigate their new experiences. Step in when those challenges cross a threshold harmful to their self confidence and learning.
Giving our kids the opportunity to acquire a second language as a key feature in that bigger picture. We were willing to accept a reasonable amount of content loss in service of that. And we we’re also aware that not only might “reasonable” change over time, but it would be defined differently for our 13 year old compared to our 9 year old. More importantly, we regularly reminded ourselves of an intrinsic belief that an education comprises far more than what a kid is taught in a classroom.
Nonetheless, we learned to keep a close eye on the mechanics of their classroom and overall school environment, and sometimes that means being the squeaky wheel. When it comes to my kids, I’m pretty good at squeaking. Need homework instructions written down for you ’til your Spanish comes up to speed, instead of strictly spoken directions? Need math tutoring in English, even though math class is taught in Spanish? I’m gonna email the school and make sure they get that. (Well, actually, I’m gonna call the school, because they don’t allow parent/teacher communications by email.)
School in Spain — Then and Now
We eventually got leave for Kaden to drop German, though he muddled his way through French for fourth and fifth grade. He peppers me with stories about the differences between British English and American English, which he finds rather humorous. His Spanish overtook my own and he has no problem correcting my mistakes. Rather snidely, I might add. My Sevilliano friends swear that if they didn’t know he was American, they’d assume by listening to him he’d been born and raised here. That initial foreign language onslaught that, at the time, almost sent us into a panic has now become one of those humorous family anecdotes.
In grade 6, multiple language exposure gets left behind as kids choose one language to study more in depth. The options are French, German or Arabic. I took another expat mom’s advice and steered him towards Arabic. Since none of the kids have previously studied Arabic, he could start off on equal footing as his peers. Our conversation when I picked him up at the end of his first day of school this year? A smiling face greeted me with wonder. “Mom! Did you know that in Arabic they read from right to left?”
Setting Priorities as an Expat Parent
What about your family? What are your biggest concerns managing your kids education in a foreign country? Has your vision changed over time?
Got any wild first day of school stories? Share your comments with me here.