Thursday, February 2, 2012

School Growing Pains

The best piece of advice I've received about this whole exchange experience so far has been the fact that just because Americans speak the same language as Australians, the fact remains that the cultures are very different.

Up until now, it hasn't seemed all that different.  All four of the grocery cart wheels swivel, which makes it more difficult to control, and it's impossible to tell whether you're buying heavy cream or sour cream because they call it different names, and tomato sauce is ketchup...or the other way around.  Anyway, minor things that have made this a little adventure.  But school started on Monday, and it is so...different.  And I'm having a hard time with it.
Now, I know it is unfair to compare any school with The Odyssey School, the amazing and beloved charter school that my older boys attend back home.  The dedicated, groundbreaking teachers coupled with the supportive staff and community doesn't happen everywhere--this school exudes warmth and light, and my children and I had the privilege of soaking in it each day for three and a half years.  To go from that to anything would be hard, and again, I know it rationally...but it doesn't make it any easier when I feel it.

In New South Wales (and perhaps in Australia as a whole?), schools only open one day before students begin.  We dutifully showed up the Friday before school started to register the boys, and waited as the secretary thumbed through her 176 (true!) unread emails in an unsuccessful attempt to find the email I had sent from back home with our temporary resident visa information and application.  After first being told that the boys couldn't start school yet, a couple of phone calls later we were told to go ahead and show up.  Other parents were there registering their children, and I couldn't help wonder why the school didn't use a couple of extra days to get their work in order before school started.  But then I chided myself; clearly they were used to this system and it works fine.  Just because we do it that way in America doesn't mean everyone should.

The kids and I were in great spirits the first day of school; the boys excitedly put on their uniforms.  I have always wanted to be able to walk the boys to school, so I was psyched as I headed out the door with my boys in their cute little uniforms, with Kenyon as their eager little mascot.
We gathered with the rest of the school under the covered outdoor area--they have a name for it but I can't quite understand what it is when they say it--and waited, a little unsure because we had no idea what class they would be in (or, in the case of Jackson, even what grade he'd be in).
The principal addressed the school and first pointed out that a) he had no idea where his microphone ran off to during the holiday, so he'd be speaking without it, b) that the first few days would be stressful and chaotic as things got sorted out, and c) that there was a new demountable (portable classroom) but they couldn't find the key to it yet.  Um....I couldn't help thinking again that an extra planning day or so might have helped them sort out these things, making the first day a bit more organized and and run more smoothly.  This school has large numbers of new families at the start of each year, so I know my family couldn't be the only one feeling lost and confused.

The kids were then separated into two large groups where someone began reading names of each student off a list to further separate them into classrooms.  Of course, because we had just come in on Friday (and the secretary had 176 emails to get through), our kids hadn't been designated a classroom and waited with the other new kids until everyone else had gone before being assigned.  Not a great way to welcome the new students, but I saw Jackson chatting with a boy animatedly and comparing each other's watches, so he seemed to be doing just fine.  When two staffmembers began deciding where to put Jackson, I explained to them how Jackson had finished half of third grade back home, and what his teacher back home thought, and how his birthday falls on the cusp between being in third grade or fourth grade least, I tried to convey this information but was brusquely told by a man that he'd handle it.  Ah.  Ok.  I just thought that would be helpful.

**On a side note, it is now Thursday evening, and I still don't know whether Jackson has been placed in third or fourth grade (he's in a 3/4 composite class), whether they plan on assessing him and then deciding...there hasn't been any communication with me.  I have heard that parents aren't as involved in school matters here, so maybe it's just something they take care of and don't pass it along?**

I made sure both boys were successfully placed into a class and then headed to the canteen, where they were firing up the espresso machine to make coffees for the parents.  An espresso machine at the school?  Score one for Wollongong Public School!

Jackson has been jazzed about school and immediately made friends.  He has a cute, young teacher that he says is nice but he said she often tells the class 'SSSSHHHHHHH' very loudly and that his teacher back home would never do that.  He signed himself up for and competed in all 5 events in the swimming carnival; I admire him for jumping right in and having the confidence to put himself out there like that.

Alex, my little Al Pal, is having a rough time.  He doesn't talk to anyone, no one talks to him, and he says they don't really do anything in class.  He always hangs back a bit with new things, but usually that's where he is comfortable so he's happy and then dives in when he's ready.  But he's not comfortable right now; he expresses dislike for school.  I assured him that the first few days were going to be settling in, but I have to admit that the dowdy, middle-aged woman teacher he was assigned to didn't look particularly caring or welcoming.  The bright spot of his day is that he and Jackson have their hour-long recess together, so they are able to play together along with Jackson's new friends.

There is no email communication with teachers here--honestly, in a lot of ways, it reminds me of what education was like 25 years ago when I was in elementary school.  That is fine--I'm at school anyway, so I checked in with Alex's teacher in person this morning about school supplies (Jackson had brought home a list but I hadn't seen one from Alex), and I also told her that Alex was having a hard time getting used to school and making friends, that we were new in the country...she interrupted me and coldly said that a lot of her students are new, and new to the country as well.

Um...well, all the more reason that it might be nice to do some get-to-know-you, icebreaker-type exercises?  A little rapport-building isn't a bad idea...but instead of a reassuring 'Oh, I'll make sure to have so-and-so look after him' (which is exactly how Jackson made his first friend), or saying that she had plans to do some introductions, or ANYTHING kind, that was it.  Discussion over.  My hopes of setting up a pen pal exchange between Alex's class back home at Odyssey and this class dissipated in a dowdy cloud of smoke right then and there.

Do Americans baby their kids or something? Should a 7-year old that is new to a country not expect to have a little help getting integrated into a classroom?  Please tell me if I'm being a wimp.  I can't tell if it's part of Australian culture to just tough it out and suck it up, and learn to adapt (which I'll admit can be a good trait), or if I shouldn't generalize about a whole culture from one dowdy, grumpy woman.  But I am terribly bummed that this one grumpy woman is going to be in charge of my sensitive son's educational experience for the year, especially when he's coming off of having a year and a half with his teacher back home, the incredibly warm teacher with high standards but who has the ability to see the best in each child and stretch their thinking in wonderful ways.

When I picked Alex up this afternoon, he said the day went better than yesterday.  I asked why, and happily waited to hear how he made a new friend or learned something cool, but he only told me that he colored a dinosaur and pasted it on a piece of paper.  Shortly thereafter, in incredibly poor timing for my fragile state, I read that his class back in Denver had gone on an outing to the nature preserve and had conversations about how and why animals migrate, hibernate, etc.  They watched as a peregrine falcon hunted its prey.  Sigh.

I hear you, my Al Pal--I don't like this school much either so far.  A bath, a cup of hot cocoa, and homemade potato, cheese and leek soup to warm me up from the two days of rain (and 2.5 hours standing in it while timing races at the swimming carnival) offered some perspective.  We're only here for a year, so we (currently, Alex and I) need to focus on all the millions of wonderful benefits of being here, and be more patient with the hard things.  I am hoping Alex is able to find his niche at school, and if for some reason he doesn't I hope it won't taint his experience with all the other truly awesome things about this year.
one of the amazing benefits--seeing cockatoos right up in the trees on the walk to school!
But for now, after these first 4 days of school?  Odyssey teachers, staff, and community, you are deeply missed.


  1. Annie, I hear you. We are having a similar experience in Saudia Arabia. There are plenty of things we don't like but we remind ourselves everyday they we are experiencing things that no one else is back home. So keep that in mind. Your kids are experiencing and learning things they will never learn back at Odyssey. My kids are not the same people who left Denver 2 months ago. Their world view has changed dramatically. Penny

    1. Penny, I'm sure it's amplified by a million being in Saudi, and I appreciate your words of wisdom. I'm feeling better today just getting it off my chest and being validated a little at school. Despite hating school, Alex loves being here and has never once said "I want to go back to Colorado". On all accounts, this is a valuable experience and 98% positive.

  2. Al Pal!!! Oh I just want to hug him so bad. Surely it will get better. He'll make a friend. Hopefully these new students from other countries and him can form a bond. Any thoughts of maybe discussing this with the principal? Man I hate dowdy old teachers. I had so many growing up.

    1. Summer, I met the principal at the swimming carnival and told him we were here for the year, that two of my boys were at the school. When I offered up that one boy was doing great but that the younger one was having a hard time, it was like terribly awkward birds chirping. Nothing.
      This morning was the third consecutive day of rainy weather dropoffs where no one (including the teachers and principal) had a cohesive idea of where the kids were supposed to go before class started. I had another awkward interaction with the principal, who insisted everyone goes under the 'cola' or whatever the covered area is called, and I was trying to tell him that no one was there and we were told to go to another area. Not getting a good feeling from that guy. One kid was having a full meltdown because his mom had left and he had no idea where to go--it has been chaos these mornings.
      An Australian dad told me he was really unhappy with a lot of these things, that it wasn't like this last year and he was going to be talking to the principal (good luck!). Somehow it makes me feel better knowing that the school is terribly disorganized, and that it's not just the crazy uptight American.
      Hopefully with time everyone will settle into a routine and the school will get its act together--I offered to help with reading groups in Alex's class once the kids are assessed, and the teacher appreciated it. She taught 5/6 grades last year, so she's in survival mode as well, which explains a lot. It will get better from here (and as I type this, the rain is FINALLY letting up!).

  3. Annie- you're right it's COLA- it stands for Covered Outdoor Learning Area (I just googled cause I heard it often at uni here but had no idea what it meant).

    I did a 4 year degree here to be an elementary school teacher and then didn't do anything with it because I found my time on internship so different and off putting from what I had grown up with.

    At uni here though they teach all about inclusion and making sure all learning styles are catered for and it seemed like a really nice, big idea. Sounds like Alex is unlucky though and has just gotten an old school teacher that hasn't gotten the memo that things are changing. I hope things get easier for him!

    1. Aha, thanks for clarifying! That's interesting about how you decided to not go into teaching after doing the internship. Alex is doing better; even though he doesn't LOVE school right now, he's not actively hating it, either.

  4. Hi, sorry to hear your son has got the grumpy, jaded teacher. It will definitely improve once the classes and teachers settle down. You should make sure to go along to the P+C meetings and any other parent event to meet other parents; and waiting for the kids at the end of the day hopefully will give you opportunities to chat with other parents. Being in Wollongong, there probably is a big group of new migrant kids, many of whom won't speak English, so that's pretty stressful on the teaching staff. Mary in Sydney

    1. Thanks, Mary--it has already improved, and the teacher isn't seeming as grumpy, either. I am going to start volunteering with reading groups once a week as well, so it will be nice to get a feel for how the classroom runs.
      The diversity of the school is wonderful--although most of the kids have Australian accents, the school's website states that 48% of the students come from families that speak a language other than English at home!