Over the last few weeks we have been involved in some difficult conversations with parents about their child’s academic or social/emotional progress. At our school we have very limited resources to support our students with exceptional needs. We are very transparent with our families about the services we are able to provide. We depend on parents to be open and honest with us upon admission regarding any challenges that their children may have so that we can make an informed decision about admission at the time but unfortunately that does not always happen.
During these conversations I have been struck by a few things:
1. Parents do not always choose schools for the right reason.
A few of our conversations have revolved around the struggles of students in such an open, student centered environment. In an IB school the focus is on inquiry. That inquiry may be structured, guided or independent. Children are expected to be free and critical thinkers, to ask questions, to be open minded and to guide their own learning. This can be challenging for many students who have joined us from a school in which the learning is VERY structured, teacher centered, controlled and uniform. We find that these students struggle with the openness of our curriculum and the independence required in the classroom. In these meetings when I have asked why they choose I school they often say they have done so because it is on the recommendation of another parent, embassy or friend. They also want their child to go to a good school and because CISB has such a great reputation they choose us. This however does not always mean we are the right fit.
2. Our parents school experience is NOTHING like ours.
At home as a principal for the most part I could count on the fact that when we talked about school and what occurred day in and day out that our parent had a clear understanding. Although schools have changed, the basic structure, expectations, routines etc have remained the same. Some of our parents even attended the same school as their children. Some of my former parents did not have the most positive school experience which is a whole other challenge but when we talked about school we were speaking about common experiences for the most part. In an international context you have many many parents that are coming to you with varied school experiences. What was school like for the parent who attended in Angola in the 1970s? What about traditional Chinese schools? What was school like for the parent from Venezuela in the 1980s? We have a wide age range of parents from a wide variety of experiences which makes it tricky to find common ground when talking about a shared school experience.
3. Cultural Values about children, parenting and education have an impact.
Each culture has very different values about parenting. Some have a free range parenting kind of view, some are very laissez faire, some are content with others raising their children, some are very strict some expect perfection and drive their children to be the best, some use physical punishment, and some have a holistic view of the child in which they value education as much as the social/emotional development of the child. When we are meeting with parents and discussing the next steps to support their child, we often impose our Western philosophy and beliefs about parenting and our view of a child. This can come into contrast and conflict with the parents and their perspective. It can make conversations difficult and create misunderstandings. Parents can and do agree to do things that they do not necessarily agree with so that they can stay enrolled. They also tend to avoid or not follow through with recommendations if they are not convinced it is the right things. This causes tension and strain on relationships between the school and the parents.
4. Cultural Values about seeking help and support have an impact.
As Westerners we are very open with our problems and challenges. It is nothing for us to let our friends, families and colleagues know if we are going to therapy, started a medication, have problems in our personal life etc. That is not to say that there is not stigma attached but for the most part we know what supports are available, how to access the supports, use insurance to offset the cost of the supports and have the support of others to seek help. It is not taboo or abnormal for someone to require some help and support along the way. That is not the case everywhere. In some international contexts seeking outside support is frowned upon and considered taboo. It can also be a tremendous expense to parents. This makes it tricky to navigate as a school. Often times we run into road blocks. It is our professional opinion that a student would benefit from testing. We make a recommendation. Parents are embarrassed, ashamed, or in denial. We insist. They may or may not comply. If they comply they often have to seek help and support from organizations at great expense or they may avoid and decide on another school some as far away as America. It can be a difficult balance trying to meet the needs of the student within the parameters of the school and community support system.
As a leader in an international setting the cultural background of the parents has a tremendous impact on their view of the child. This can at times come into conflict with our personal beliefs and the values and beliefs of our school. Finding a balance can be very tricky at times!