Dealing With Schooling

A lot of things have happened here since I last wrote. We are still waiting for our stuff to arrive. In the meantime, schools have started. Our son Maithreya is five and a half. He finished preschool at the Santa Clara and Sunnyvale parent participation schools (it was a thrice-a-week program so with the one day overlap, he was busy all five days!) We loved the atmosphere and the nurturing education he received there. On one of his trips prior to our move, Aravind visited some Bangalore schools and inquired about others.

Our bias against Convents ruled out Bishop Cottons. "Sardine" philosophy schools were also immediately ruled out. (I spent several years in anonymity, dreaming at the bench behind the tall girls in a class of 60!!) We wanted a small class size and a nurturing environment, extra curricular activities, and a good mix of children. We figured that moving away from home was traumatic enough, without subjecting the kid to a totally different school and peer culture.

The choice of schools varies from the ultra traditional to the laissez faire. Admissions are also extremely competitive. If we were to move anywhere else, transferring him will be a totally different challenge, one that we have to start exploring right away. A recent newspaper insert had an article, "Sleepless at the School: Parents get stressed out over admission forms." It seems that parent’s camp overnight outside educational institutions of choice in a desperate attempt to access the limited admission forms issued. Until recently, parents faced a similar situation at the Challenger schools in California. Some schools blatantly ask for a donation. Others just do not compromise on their maximum capacity policy.

Aditi, Canadian International, and Bangalore International (BIS) were the three we considered seriously. Of these, BIS had the advantage of proximity. It was also much more reasonable than Canadian International (figure 1 lakh odd rupees p/a versus 40K for kindergarten!) BIS’s small class sizes (approximately 15 kids per class) and a fabulous new facility were extremely attractive to us. The principal was welcoming and the admission process very easygoing. The school is run by parents. The parents do not participate in the classroom but work on the board, PTA, and raise funds. They appoint the principal, fix pay scales, and make other necessary macro decisions. The drawback lies in the dependence on a few enthusiastic and involved parents.

Maithreya has always been the "observe before jumping in" kind. Initially we ran into trouble in school as he was perceived as not enthusiastic. A teacher compared him to some other children who moved in to their new environs like fish to water. He just needed more time. One could not rush the process.

I will always treasure the recollection of one of Maithreya’s preschool teachers. During parent resource time, she confessed that her son was a watch-and-wait kid. Much to her distress, the first semester he was at school, he stayed away from all activities and watched from a corner. At the end, his teacher commented that she was glad the child had found a safe place in the school. I find such an outlook remarkable. She could have very easily branded the child as anti-social, non-participatory, sullen … The child could have been labeled, but instead, was understood with compassion.

Unused to hours of repetitive writing, Maithryea was initially very bored. He also felt listless and disconnected without a friend. The other kids had been together since lower kindergarten and were already comfortable with each other. Things improved when a young girl, very much like him in temperament, became his friend. Both are very loyal to each other—mild, well mannered and adore each other. The "unnnnnnh" expression turns to a smile when Echiez is mentioned, and from what I hear from her parents, who have become good friends of ours, the same is true at their house.

Considering the longer hours spent at school, (2 hours, 40 minutes more than the preschool) the kids do fewer things. They have music and craft and outside time but spend more time at letters and number work. Fine motor skills are greatly appreciated. Maithreya, like most kids from the U.S., does not print neat and small. His hand movements are still rather free, and coloring within lines, not his cup of tea. He is improving, but remains unconventional.

I was called to school one day to find him in a puddle of tears. He had obviously been crying for some time and was hic-coughing with tears by the time I got to the scene. A very distraught child managed to tell me that the kids were shooting at him and he tried to tell them not to do that because it was bad to point a gun at others. They would not listen. The teacher had brushed is concerns aside, telling him not to worry about it. Feeling totally cornered but aware that he was right, he broke down.

Rules had changed. We had not anticipated it. He was unprepared. His Californian schools were very strict about guns (toy and constructed) and forbade pointing at others even in play. We ourselves never encouraged weapon play in the house. Once he calmed down, I assured him he was right. Guns were not good, but in India, since most people couldn’t access weapons, it was not an issue. It took a while for him to digest this. We went to the extent of buying him a gun and some fancy swords to mock fight, and practiced at home. While everything in sight was getting shot at, we reminded him that guns were tools that are very harmful if used inappropriately.

Barely did we take a breath when we found him returning with mud in his hair and arms hurting from being twisted by a class bully. He had "used his words" and approached the teacher when the problem persisted. ("Always get an adult when your words do not work"). I tried talking to the teacher and the feedback we received shocked us. His concern was perceived as "complaining."

We changed tactics. We reminded him to use his "loud voice" and his words first. If that did not work, we gave him permission to use his fists. We enrolled him in a Tae Kwon-Do class after school, which he loves. He has advanced to a Green Belt and we tell him to use his skills against the bullies. At the most recent PT meeting, the teacher, all smiles, informed us, that Maithreya stopped "complaining." We smiled. We had taught him to defend himself.

This led us to do a lot of soul-searching. We believed in being kind and gentle. Our child was so by nature. What sort of values were we teaching him? We had come to a crossroad and realized that kindness and compassion were perceived as weaknesses. If our child were to survive, no matter where he is in the world, he has to defend himself alone. He should possess the skills to fight back and not be a soft target. Were we wrong in telling him not to? Were we raising a "softie?" The issue resolved when we figured that raising a good person must not conflict with his survival skills. He had to be tough. We had to teach him when to show it.

For parents and teachers in the new century, little has changed by way of attitude and relationship. An open dialogue and mutual cooperation as partners in child development has yet to take root in most places. I find many Indian parents, irrespective of the level of their worldliness and exposure, extremely diffident. They perceive teachers and the principal as "authority" and not as "partner." They accept negative situations, comments, and back down too easily. They would rather not face a potentially uncomfortable situation. They apologize for their child rather than partner to correct the situation. In many schools, parents believe, however misinformed or incorrect it may be, that approaching or correcting a teacher will have negative repercussions for their kid in the classroom.

In newer, "modern" or westernized schools here, most teachers are kinder and use gentle words. However, old habits die hard. Without the proper training, teachers continue to blame children and corner them with negative accusations at times. ("Why haven’t you … you don’t want to be a part of the class or what?"). Many are not even aware of how they sound. To me, a teacher is a surrogate parent for the younger children. The teacher must be firm, stick to rules and be aware of body language and words at this impressionable age when their word is held at highest esteem. It is a learned skill that few teachers in the world have. An education researcher in the U.S. tells me that most teachers both here and in the U.S. could do with greater sensitivity training. Fortunately this is something that can be effected in a parent run school.

Given the mild and very sensitive personality of our child, we possibly would have faced these and additional problems in any other school. Bangalore International gave us a controlled and small environment to deal with. People were amenable to listening and in general all the teachers we have interacted with are kind to the children. This is one school where the children are never hit. His Tae Kwan-Do teacher is a lady with excellent observation skills. As she works with the children I find her constantly watching for their needs and moods.

Having equipped Maithreya to deal with things better, we find school very pleasant. The mood is really upbeat on all fronts after school moved from an old colonial building it outgrew to a new premises full of light, fresh air, and play space. The teachers, children and parents seem happier. I volunteer whatever help I can and ran an art workshop for the teachers. The children celebrated Diwali together. Every child is given a chance to come on stage and participate in the planned programs. The parents and teachers coordinated the events together to make the evening a success.

There is a lot that can be done. BIS is planning to accommodate an hour of extra curricular activities for the children without detaining them too long. The Riding school in Bangalore is open to enrollment and we enjoy that as a family sport with Echiez and her family. This school looks like it is growing in the right direction. BIS has given us a "home" of like-minded parents, involved in their child’s development. Their attitude and care is starkly different to another breed of other parents we see here.

Soumya Sitaraman returned to India after living in the SF Bay Area for ten years. She writes an ongoing column about her experiences in adjusting to her new home.




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