By Ann Zeise
This article was originally written for the American Foreign Service Association Journal, who later decided not to publish it. The editor had wanted me to recommend school-at-home options, not understanding the true nature of homeschooling. I hope that Embassy people everywhere can make some use of this article as a way to truly “unschool” your children abroad. At least choose an eclectic approach, choosing from options that will best work for your family.
The desire to remain closer as a family has not escaped those who work for theAmerican Foreign Service. While the lure of glossy advertisements in the American Foreign Service Association Journal to send their children to private boarding schools stateside may provoke some with their promise of attaining high academic skills, others are noting that students taught within the family setting have been garnering many recognized achievements.
This trend of teaching your own is called homeschooling or home education. Parents have decided to take prime responsibility for the day-to-day education of their children. If a tutor is needed for specific learning skills, they might hire one, just as a business person might hire a consultant to come in for a specific job. An example might be a piano teacher or a college student willing to tutor a foreign language. But, by definition, homeschool parents, often with the children having much input, control the curriculum. The “curriculum” may or may not look like anything used in schools.
Now, I’m not in the Foreign Service, but when we started to homeschool seven years ago, my techie husband had a contract about 200 miles from our home. Just far enough that he could only come home on weekends, or I could drive up for a spell. It was not easy having a marriage at a distance, and homeschooling our son gave us more time to be together.
Foreign Service families also face this dilemma: should only the one parent employed by the Foreign Service go abroad and the other stay in the States with the children? Should the whole family go and hope there’s a good American school for the children to attend? Should the teenagers return to a boarding school so they’ll have something resembling a typical American teen experience?
While I can certainly see a negative argument to having your children with you in some countries plagued by terrorists or real plagues like malaria, the dangers of life in many countries must be weighed against the dangers of leaving a teenager alone in the United States. Is the temptation to turn to drugs any less in an expensive boarding school or are the drugs just higher priced? Is the likelihood of being a victim of a street crime any worse? Wouldn’t safety be increased with vigilant parents nearby rather than several continents and oceans away?
From what I gather, American schools abroad are considered to be quite good, at least through the eighth grade. But what if your child’s learning style just doesn’t fit in, and he’s falling through the cracks; showing it by misbehavior or tuning out entirely? What if she has a special talent, but the small school just doesn’t have a program to meet the needs to nurture that talent? What if a child is just too depressed by moving so much and you feel they would thrive with more consistency in their lives?
Perhaps homeschooling would be the answer.
Foreign Service personnel have an advantage most others who chose to homeschool don’t have: diplomatic immunity. This means that you do not have to concern yourself with local compulsory education laws wherever you may be posted. Stateside truancy bureaucracies are unlikely to harass you, and besides: which state’s laws would you be required to follow? The United States as a whole has no homeschool education policy, so legally you are free to teach your own as you please.
Freedom has its pitfalls, of course. There may be social constraints within the diplomatic community unfamiliar with homeschooling. Until your co-workers are comfortable with you not sending your children to the “fine American school” or exporting them to boarding schools like they do, dearest friends may feel you consider them “bad parents” for making a different choice. A good way to handle this is just to say, “We thought about this real hard, and this was the best choice for our family. I’m sure you’ve done the same.” Leave it at that.
There are as many styles of homeschooling as there are homeschooling families. (Close to 2 million in the United States.) While many like to start out with a “one size fits all” curriculum in a box from a distance learning program, many soon wary of the constraints, finding that customizing each child’s education to their learning styles and the means of the family work best. With the internet, many free or low-cost educational resources can be found.
When I told my 16 year old about this writing assignment, I asked him to imagine homeschooling in a foreign country. (He’s already looked on the internet and found a good deal on a flight to Europe. Can we go any time soon?) He imagines learning the languages, immersing himself in the culture rather than learning from books and media. He loves to be outdoors, biking or hiking around. He’d be poking into all the interesting spots, learning history on the fly, geography and culture by being there. He’d be finding like-minding teens and helping them set up networked computers so they could play multiplayer games. He’d be eating everything in sight and having definite opinions on the local cuisine. He’d probably spend about 2-3 hours a day doing anything resembling school work, but the other waking hours he would be filling his soul. He’ll have the freedom to listen to his heart and figure out what he really wants to do and what he’s good at. He’ll be picking up his social skills primarily from adults; his nurturing skills by his friendly contact with younger children and the elderly. Because he’d be picking up these skills from a multitude of cultures, this may make him seem more mature and different from American teenagers. But to me, this is just fine. All teens feel “different.” What else is new?