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planning for big-kid school: the good, bad, and ugly

Hello friends!
It is so refreshing to be with family on a trip. Now that school’s out, we are officially in summer mode, with lots of flip flops and sundresses and sticky peaches. But soon enough, we’ll be back in school mode, and I’ll have a big kid in pre-K. Know what that means? This time next year I’ll have a rising kindergartner! Oh my goodness, y’all. I swear it was just yesterday that I was years away from having to think about all this stuff. Public or private? Montessori, Waldorf, or traditional? Pack lunch or buy it? Walk or drive?

There are so many things for parents of young children to think about, and I dunno about you, but it is daunting for me. I had a wonderful, idyllic elementary school experience on a farm, and I want so much for my girls to have a similarly laid-back and fantastic introduction to learning (p.s. As I type the word “farm,” my teenage brother and sister sit nearby, heads-down playing an iPhone game called “Zombie Farm.” I’m not sure if there’s something deep that could be said about that, but it gave me a chuckle).

In preparation for the upcoming school season, I’ve got a great post to share with you today. I interviewed an elementary school teacher and great college friend who has been on an adventure to Malaysia for the past few years. She comes home to the states in a month, but in the meantime she graciously agreed to let me pester her with questions about what it’s like to be a teacher for tomorrow’s leaders, and what I can expect as a future member of the PTA.


Q: Why did you decide to become a teacher? 

A: As cheesy as is sounds, I wanted to make a difference. I have a degree in journalism, but through a change of random events, our family was lucky enough to have an experience where a little 6-year-old boy and his mother that were in a bit of a sticky situation came to live with us for a while. It was during that time that I decided to head back to school to study education.

Q: You’re in Kuala Lumpur (KL), Malaysia now. How did that come about?

A: After church one Sunday my husband and I were chowing down on some BBQ sandwiches (oh-how-I-miss-pork!), and I tentatively brought up the idea of living abroad for a year or two to experience another culture and see the world. My husband was all for it, and we started the job search that day. Knowing what I know now, I realize how little I knew about the international teaching circuit, but with a little luck, effort and a lot of hours on the Internet, I did several skype interviews with different schools and got a job offer from my favorite one. After securing a job in KL, we put our house on the market, sold our cars, had a huge garage sale and packed everything else into a storage unit, except our dog Henry, who we (sadly) left with my family. We each brought three suitcases and started our two year adventure in Southeast Asia.


Q: You’ve written wonderful accounts of your time overseas, but can you sum up your recommendations for teachers or others thinking of an international move?

A: I would highly recommend an international move to anyone! Admittedly, there have been bouts of homesickness that go way beyond that week at summer camp, but overall it has been a positive life-changing experience. We have seen places that we probably would never have traveled to and if we did, it would have taken us about 20 years to get to them all and cost 20 times as much coming from the states. We now know amazing people from all over the globe that aren’t exactly like us, and we have been exposed to things that we would have never seen at home, like riding elephants, eating durian, and visiting a mosque. As someone who really doesn’t like change, (yeah, yeah, I know, it doesn’t make much sense to move across the world when you don’t like change!) it has sometimes been uncomfortable and even jarring to have had this adventure. But, on the other side of that coin, I feel like being this far out of my comfort zone has not only made us stronger and more capable, but also allowed what we truly value and what we honestly love to bubble to the surface and become clear.

Q: Besides Malaysia, where else have you taught and for how long?

A: While at the University of Pennsylvania getting my masters, I did student teaching at a West Philadelphia public school as well as a Quaker school. After that, I taught for 4 years in a public school in Georgia and then switched to a private Christian school for two years. Currently, I am finishing up my second year at an International School in KL. I have taught first, second and third grade and I can spot a nose picker, beam out an encouraging smile, and give the evil eye all at the same time. I have also coached rowing for 9 years at the junior and university level.

Q: I hear you’re thinking of a career change when you come home. That can be both exciting and a little scary! What are you thinking of doing? Why are you considering a transfer now?

A: I am super excited and super scared, but after teaching for almost a decade, it is time for a change! I am one of those people that usually has a plan A, B, and C, so not knowing what exactly is coming next is terrifying to say the least. I have been hyper-aware the last year or so of really taking the time to think about what I am passionate about and what makes me get up in the morning and do a little happy dance knowing that I get to participate in “X” today. I’m a nerd at heart so I would love to do something at a university or a private school, but in a different capacity than being in the classroom. There is also the old pull back to do something in writing/publishing/photography, which I have always been naturally drawn to and loved since I was a kid. Of course, if I was designing the perfect life, I would love to throw in rowing in some capacity, so it’s safe to say I’m all over the map with this one!

Over the last ten years, I have changed my definition of what it means to make a difference in the world, and it isn’t as limited as it once was. I think you can make a difference by making money for your company or by being a mom or running a fruit stand on the side of the road. I used to think that I would be one of those people that settled into a career for life, but I feel a definite pull to do something else now. Oh, the things we “thought” we would never do! Next thing you know I’ll be buying a mini van! Whatever I finally decide to do, I really want to be around people that are smart, excited about what they are doing and who support each other. Oh, and have a great sense of humor. Gotta have a little fun.

Q: Did you ever consider working in a private school or at an alternate environment like a Waldorf or Montessori school?

A: I actually did work in a private school for two years, and it was my favorite place I’ve ever worked. I loved that it was a smaller environment where you could really get to know the kids and their families. There was a real sense of community and feeling that everyone mattered. In education (as with many things in life), bigger and fancier and newer isn’t always better. Part of what I liked is that we, the people that knew the children best, could make decisions based on what was best for them, not a huge board of education 50 miles away setting rules and regulations that didn’t make any sense for the children or teachers. And, because it was a private school, if somebody was acting a fool, there was always the option to go somewhere else, and sometimes that is the best choice for all parties involved. As for Waldorf or Montessori schools, I agree with some of their educational philosophies, but I don’t think it is what is next on my schedule.

imageQ: What do you think about the homeschool movement? If/when you have kids, would you consider homeschooling them?

A: First of all, I’m a big fan of you being able to do what you think is best for your kids and family, and as long as no one gets hurt, then do your thing. That being said, I used to think that homeschool families were totally weird! But, as I’ve gotten older and some might say a smidgen wiser, I have done a lot of reading about the homeschool movement and have become somewhat of a fan. I think that homeschoolers today have worked out some of the downfalls of the system that existed twenty years ago, such as lack of socialization. I love that with homeschooling, you can do so many educational things with your kids, or even a small group of kids, that you could never do in a public school just due to logistics; you can also cater a lot of how you teach as well as evaluate your child’s progress in ways that keep them engaged and interested, not just what is mandated. Kids learn by doing, plain and simple. I think by picking up any newspaper we could agree that there are some crazy things that can go on at schools across the world and wanting to keep your kids protected from that is understandable.

My two main objections to homeschooling are: In dealing with only your family and its set of values, beliefs and culture, I do think it is sometimes difficult for kids to interact with people that are outside of that culture. For example, we all remember having a difficult teacher or a difficult student come through our lives at some point. It isn’t pleasant, but I think we can all agree that dealing with difficult people is part of life, and for most of us, unless you have the patience of Job or the mind of Kenneth from 30 Rock, it isn’t usually easy. As a parent, I think the natural inclination is to want to protect your child from these situations, but in the end, i risks handicapping them for the future. For example, in my classroom right now, there are children from 13 different countries that all come to school each day with a different schema. Within the school walls, they learn to coexist and even flourish together, but without the school environment, they might never get that chance. My second objection to homeschooling is much more personal. As a trained teacher, I feel that I would call a plumber to fix my leaky sink and an accountant to do my taxes, not just try to muddle through myself with no formal (or informal) training, even with the best of intentions. (Who knew I had this much to say about homeschooling?!)

Q: Do you have any advice for parents of kids about to enter the public school system (hehem, me)? How we should interact with the school (PTA, teacher gifts, etc.)? What are the markers of a good school and red flags of a bad one?

A: Oh my! Do I have any advice? I think it’s pretty clear from the novel I wrote above that yes, indeed I do! It’s been really interesting teaching in an international school for the past two years as the different cultures approach learning and school so differently, with a different set of expectations and dependency. Kids even from the age of five or six come in with ideas about school that they have inherited through their culture and families. In any situation, starting school for the first time can be a traumatizing experience, but mostly for parents! Kids usually love it and wonder, “Where has this place been all my life?!” That being said, your children will feed off whatever vibes you are putting out. If you are worried or overwhelmingly sad about them starting school, they can see that and their feelings might start to reflect that, which isn’t the way you want them to start off their educational career. Relax and know that children are usually more resilient than we adults give them credit for! So when the time comes to drop them off that first day, give them a kiss, tell them you love them and have the courage to turn and walk away. Go around the corner with a group of moms and cry your eyes out over coffee, and then be ready to hear all the amazing thing your child has to say when you pick them up.

You can always look at indicators like test scores and awards to pinpoint the “best” school around, but I’m not sure if that is always the way to go. Sure, those things matter, but to me it’s about the people involved. I would look for schools that allow parents, administrators and teachers to work together to make sure children are thriving and that children have a sense of belonging. No one’s school experience is going to be perfect, but having people that can work through the problems and obstacles, with you and your child, teaches them not only subject content but life lessons. At the risk of sounding like a 90-year-old, I feel like sometimes common sense and basic manners have gone out the window in some school today, so it’s always good to look for a school that makes sense with how you are bringing up your kids. Look for schools that have teachers who are there for the long haul, and don’t have constant turn over with their faculty. Having teachers that stay and want to be a part of things is a clear indication that a school is doing something right for all parties.

If you are just starting your journey into public school and have the time, volunteer for a few things at the school, but don’t go overboard. Try not to get sucked into doing everything all at once thinking that you child is going to somehow be left behind or damaged because they aren’t going to twelve activities after school. Supporting what the kids are doing at school helps your child to understand that parents and teachers are on the same page and want to see them succeed, but they also need to be independent to get their groove going on their own too.

Oh, since you asked, when it comes to teacher gifts, gift cards are always appreciated! If you want to get a more personal gift, find out what they are into outside of school and get them something along those lines. Gifts to avoid would be anything with an apple on it or something you happen to have laying around that you don’t want anymore. Believe me, your little darling will tell us that it has been sitting on the counter since Christmas whether you want them to or not! If your budget is a little tight, we totally understand that too. A simple heartfelt thank you note is a lovely way to express yourself to a teacher.


Thanks to Jenny for her open and honest portrayal of a teacher’s life. I think we can’t underestimate the role teachers play in shaping our children’s character and destiny, so I am grateful to intelligent, intrepid people like Jenny who take the plunge.

Did Jenny’s answers resonate with you? I read through her responses many times and jotted notes, and my guess is I’ll be going back to her with even more questions soon. If you are a teacher or homeschooling parent and have more to say on the subject, I’d love to hear it! Drop me a line (lonehomeranger {at} gmail {dot} com), and I’ll see about making a series out of this topic. That is, if there’s reader interest. Is there reader interest? Hallo, out there!

Editor’s note: This post is part ofThe Homestead Barn HopSimple Lives Thursday, and Seasonal Celebration Sunday