Decoding school culture and building a community

Changing schools can be tricky in the best of circumstances and doing so because of an international relocation can complicate matters even more. It’s not just the kids who go to school who have to make adjustments and figure out the new lay of the land; parents do too. With a new school, you have a different culture and new expectations, couple that with the fact that you haven’t yet made social connections you can rely on for information exchange and support, and the learning curve for the parents can be pretty steep.

When a child starts a new school, whether in a foreign country or not, there is great focus on making sure it goes as smoothly as possible. As parents we spend time and energy ensuring our kids are ok in their new environment: we aid as best as we can with social connections, see to that they can join in after school activities and we share basic information about our kids with the teacher. Likewise, the school on its end is focused on helping the new child feel welcome and get settled as quickly as possible.

The support system may not be quite as evolved for parents. Once you have gotten your child enrolled, you are typically left to your own devices to figure out how to get to know other parents and learn what the school culture is.

The well-known African proverb states “It takes a village to raise a child” and with a little bit of luck, and some work, school is definitely one of the places where that village is created. Knowing the school staff and other parents enhances your child’s experience at school and it aids your own. It’s important from a perspective of safety and wellbeing. A network of parents who know and look out for each other’s children is a resource that can’t be underestimated. This extends beyond the schoolyard into the community at large.

There is no one right way to build a network, and sometimes what works as a charm in one place won’t make a dent in another. So, it’s quite possible you’ll have to experiment a little and try a few different methods.

If you have the good fortune of switching schools at the beginning of the school year, you’ll typically be able to catch back-to-school night, or a teacher meet-and-greet. These are great opportunities to introduce yourself to your child’s teacher and to make connections with other parents. Additionally, this is also the time when a teacher spells out how you can expect the school year to unfold: what volunteering opportunities there are, what the homework policies look like and preferred communication methods.

Arriving mid-year can be tougher for all involved and may require a little more direct communication with the teacher and also some bold moves to get to know other parents. One thing I always look for is a class list with parents’ contact information; it’s a handy thing to have for a multitude of reasons: setting up playdates, information exchange, learning names…

When my kids were little I found chatting in the schoolyard at pick-up to be a great way to make connections with parents, some of the people I met are my good friends today. However, this is clearly not a viable strategy for all parents and it’s certainly not the only way to make connections. Field trips offer great opportunities. Not only can they be fun and interesting, but you also get to spend extended time with the teacher and other parents. Best of all, you’ll be able to see your child interact within the class environment. Joining the parent-teacher association is yet another way to connect with parents, as well as an excellent way of staying clued in on school issues.

Whether you are staying long or short term in your new place, putting some effort into the school community can be worth a whole lot, to you, your kids and the community at large. Give it a shot!

By: Felicia Shermis

Third culture kids going off to college
Is online learning for you?
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