Friday, October 10, 2014

Belgian Warm Fuzzies

Education is a worldwide phenomenon yet the philosophy and approach to teaching, educating and disciplining children is as varied as the countries spanning the globe. Everyone thinks their approach, or the approach they are accustomed to, is the right one and anyone who doesn't abide by it is simply put, harming their children. But that obviously isn't the case since educational systems around the globe are putting out smart, educated and well adjusted students who haven't been permanently scarred by their experiences in school. Where you sit depends upon where you stand and when two cultures and philosophies collide, it isn't always pretty or comfortable.

We are in our second year of Sidney attending a Belgian school. We had done our homework prior to enrolling him and knew that the Belgian approach to education, even at the pre-school level, was different than American norms but we were accepting of that. (After all, we are visitors in their country so why should we expect them to follow American educational norms?). In fact, we even embraced the strict yet loving approach to teaching. Students are excepted to arrive at school ready to learn, formal education is supposed to enhance rather than serve as a substitute for learning at home and parents are expected to support teachers rather than be confrontational with them. Respect is expected all around between students and teachers, teachers and students, parents and teachers and teachers and parents. Sidney's Belgian school doesn't put out pleas for parent volunteers yet when our services are needed, we are notified as such. Rather than coddling students Belgians believe in the "band aid" approach of jumping right into a problem rather than letting students dwell on what might come next. Teacher's voices are occasionally raised, in a way that would never happen in American schools without dire consequences. The American in me does bristle at this on occasion. Communication isn't necessarily open and forthcoming but in our case much of that may be attributed to our lack of a solid understanding of the French language. Belgian madams certainly don't coddle their students (there aren't any special snowflakes in the classrooms) yet they are loving and obviously care for their students. This is evidenced by the warm greetings and farewells on the parts of both students and their madame each morning. So entering our second year of school I thought I had adjusted to the quirky--i.e. non-American--way of doing things. In fact I really liked it. Perhaps it is simply our situation but this school year is off to a much better start than last year. Sidney readily jumps out of bed each morning and looks forward to going to school. What more could a parent ask for?

But then things changed. Over the past couple of weeks Sidney has mentioned that one boy in his class is occasionally mean to him. When we asked what this meant he would explain that he liked to grab him by the neck and tug and poke at him. Naturally suspicious we asked Sidney what he was doing to antagonize this boy since any problems Sidney had during the last school year stemmed from him annoying other children. He defended himself and said was just sitting there. This conversation has been ongoing until earlier this week when Sidney calmly informed us that he no longer loved school and he wasn't going back. Further probing revealed that this boy was still up to his old tricks. This surprised me since the school had never mentioned any problems to me. Sidney wanted me to talk to his madame but only by telephone. Eventually he reluctantly agreed to go to school and let me talk to her in person. And this is what I did.

When I approached his madame she immediately knew what I was talking about (which made me feel better) and assured me that it was an ongoing problem with many kids and that they were working on it. She then marched the offending child over to me, introduced me as Sidney's mother and told him that I was angry that he was hurting my son. She told him that if he did it again she would then call his father. I was slightly taken aback but not really surprised, by this confrontational approach. She then told him to apologize to me which he refused to do other than giving me a cocky grin. Next Sidney was pulled into the mix and this boy was yet again told to not touch Sidney and Sidney was reminded to tell madame if he did. I jumped in and reminded Sidney that he was not to touch or do anything to this boy (since I'm still not one hundred percent convinced that my son is a completely innocent party in all of this). The two boys were then told to shake hands and while Sidney stuck out his hand to obey the other boy only did so under the madame's guidance. Only time will tell if this intervention will work.

But this story is just an antidote to some of the differences between the American, and in this case Belgian, approaches to education, learning and school discipline. I'm not sure I completely agree with the approach but who I am to complain or question? This is neither an American, American licensed nor American funded school. If I really don't like what is happening I am free to pull my son from the school at any time. I have no expectation of them changing their ways to appease me, or any other parent for that matter--that is not the Belgian way. (Besides, it seems as though at this school which is attended by students from all NATO countries, only the Americans regularly take issue with what goes on). Although there are uncomfortable moments, and honestly, in what school wouldn't there be, I think the entire Belgian school experience is really good for Sidney. So good, in fact, that we are seriously considering enrolling him in the Belgian elementary school next year instead of the expected American elementary school. Their curriculum is light years ahead of that at the American school and the French immersion alone is a valuable life long lesson. Is it a warm and fuzzy environment? Not really but then again, we don't live in a warm and fuzzy world.

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