When the Cultural/Social Value Outweighs the Academic Value


Education is a part of life for all of us. We all have educational goals for ourselves and our children. For many WorldTowners, it is a driving force for entering this lifestyle, and assessing your educational, cultural and social goals factors into how you structure your WorldTowning journey and what hometown destinations you choose. For us, our goals for our children’s education play a big role in our parenting decisions.

Our academic goals for our children are to create in them a love for learning, foster positive thinking and mindfulness, teach them to respect and learn from differences, give them a global education, build leadership qualities, and encourage them to think differently and outside the box. We are not looking for perfect test-takers who only focus on the end result (the grade), kids who memorize and regurgitate facts, or teachers who use fear and shame to motivate. We want teachers who inspire, encourage and support independent thinking.

What happens when these academic goals are overshadowed by cultural and social goals, however?

We experienced this two years ago at La Condamine French school in Quito, Ecuador. This school was our third international French private school and our worst academic experience to date. Previously, the kids attended ISB in Boston and the Franco in Costa Rica. The kids have also been worldschooled, attended language schools and been enrolled in the public education system in the U.S. Our mission with WorldTowning is to share information not only to help guide other slow travelers, but also to expand knowledge to anyone interested in gaining a more global perspective.

Academic vs. Social/Cultural Value – Our Experience at La Condamine

Before we moved to Quito, Ecuador, we made many attempts to get information about La Condamine, fill out the necessary paperwork ahead of time and set up our initial meeting upon arrival. We wanted to be prepared and make the transition for our familly as seamless as possible. Of all the schools we have attended, this one clearly lacked communication and responsiveness. We received no forms to fill out after numerous requests. We requested a meeting time to coincide with our arrival. We were told to just show up. When I showed up, the director was unavailable. I had to kill time for several hours. This was a great inconvenience, as I had arrived in the country the day before alone with the two kids. (Will was working in Hong Kong at the time.)

I looked past my first impressions, killed some time and headed back to meet the director later in the day. Largo was with me to help with the language barrier. Even so, my time in his office was quick, uninformative and felt like a waste of time. I had hoped to get some papers explaining the school, procedures, community, culture, etc,, but I did not.

After meeting with the director, I met with the woman who was to register Largo. To be honest, she was rude and seemed annoyed to be talking to someone who didn’t speak the language, despite my resourcefulness and ability to get by. It didn’t matter that I had Largo with me, who is able to communicate in three different languages, if needed. I left that first day feeling unwelcome, and doubting if this elitist and uncaring school was a good fit for our travel family.

The next day, we arrived at the school ready to begin Largo’s new adventure and ready to turn over a new leaf. The director quickly grabbed Largo and I, and ushered us off to a line of kids. I was introduced to his teacher. She said bonjour and then proceeded to ask Largo in French how long we planned to stay. There was no warmth, no time for me to say goodbye, no invitation into the classroom to ensure that Largo was acclimated—all of which I had previously encountered when changing schools. As fast as we were introduced, Largo was taken into the classroom, and I was left to stand there and wonder what had just happened.

For the next several weeks, Largo would come home saying he had no homework and school was good. When I did not hear from the teacher after weeks, I requested a meeting. During that time, my list of unanswered questions grew:

  • Why was my son required to bring every single book home with him even though he never used them?
  • Why was his earthquake kit in his backpack and not left at school?
  • Why was there no lunch and should I be packing extra for snacks?
  • Why was there no art education?
  • Was homework listed on a website?
  • Was there more homework than he let on about?

A couple days before Fall break, Largo’s secondary French teacher (who speaks English) approached me at pick up and introduced herself. I conveyed my happiness to finally meet her. I took the opportunity to ask about Largo’s heavy backpack. She claimed that it was unnecessary for everything to come home, and they were working on this in the classroom, but apparently he had not been paying attention. She asked Largo if he had been daydreaming during class, violating one of our overarching values of not using shame as a motivator. I then took the opportunity to inform her of my disappointment of the lack of communication and introduction, being that we were new to the school. I was also very calm, but clearly disturbed, when she told me Largo had not been doing his homework. It seemed there was no regard for communicating this information to me, meeting with me, or taking into account that Largo was transitioning to a new country, culture and school. I moved the meeting to an earlier time and anticipated a helpful discussion about classroom procedures and more with the lead teacher. I was wrong.

In hindsight, I see this was a local school with relatively few new students from other cultures arriving annually; however, I believe the need for and giving of compassion is universal.

I met with the two French teachers several days later. The director was busy. The meeting started 20 minutes late. We moved from the location downstairs up to the classroom. Despite my disappointments thus far, I was excited and optimistic about venturing into Largo’s school world.

I had my list of questions ready to go, but, before I could even open my mouth, the primary teacher—communicating with me through the secondary teacher—began to share her concerns over Largo’s performance. There were no niceties.

The primary teacher pulled two tests out of a neatly prepared folder. The other teacher reviewed the results. She said that he did well on the numeration. This was refuted by the first teacher.
On further investigation from Largo that evening I found out the following.

  • He was not given time to finish the exam.
  • It was given to him right before recess.
  • He was in a noisy classroom compared to his classmates who took it at the beginning of the year in a quiet room.
  • When he asked the teacher to ask him his dictee (spelling) she was too busy to listen, but she proceeded to mark it all wrong when grading it.
  • When he asked a question about one section, she told him to forget it and never let him complete the rest of the questions in that section.

Really, how was he suppose to do well under these circumstances?

The negativity continued through the entire meeting. I was perplexed. This was a French school, required to adhere to the French Ministry of Education standards. Because of this, I anticipated consistency from school to school. At the end of the meeting, the teachers suggested holding Largo back a grade level. This was inconsistent with anything ever suggested before.

I had a decision to make. It was not an easy one. As much as I wanted to pull Largo from the school, he was actually enjoying his cultural/social experience at the school. And for that reason, I did not withdraw him.

I informed the teachers that we take education very seriously. I told them I would get a tutor to help with the gaps in his French language skills, and I would work with him on the math. His math skills were just fine after only one week. His French tutor informed me that she would continue to work with him, but she assured me that he knew what he needed to know.

I began asking around about the school. After discussions with local Ecuadorians, French expats and local tutors, I learned that this school was known for its rigorous academics (by way of shame and instilling fear), but it lacked teaching leadership, out-of-the-box thinking and joy in learning.

We decided to keep Largo at the school as long as he was happy, and if we saw any damage to his his self-esteem, leadership prowess or independent thinking, we would immediately remove him.

And, Largo was happy there, he enjoyed his friends, speaking Spanish on the playground and the shorter days; school dismissed at 1 p.m. Because of this, Largo was home by 1:15 and he was free to take online classes, participate in a local theatre group, join a skating team, read, create and play with his sister. Our afternoons were often spent at the park, checking out books at the French library or dreaming up art projects. What he was losing academically at school, he was gaining in creativity and out-of-the-box thinking at home.

Moreover, the families and children of La Condamine were incredibly welcoming to us. They invited us into their homes, they shared their traditions and they became lifelong friends. These were the reasons Largo decided to stay when given a choice.

In looking back over this experience, what really saddens and confuses me is that it seemed as if the primary teacher actually wanted Largo to fail. True that every teacher is different and styles vary, but don’t teachers want to encourage students to succeed and learn?

So, what did we learn through this experience and what do I recommend both to adults or children enrolling in educational classes in a new location?

Meet with the teachers before you enroll

This school had a very different education philosophy, and, while this worked for some, it did not work for us. Shame and fear and the damage they cause overshadow any benefit in learning. But, sometimes, you make choices, because the positives outweigh the negatives.

If you are wondering if the year got any better, it improved, and though the academics never quite became what we wanted, we gained a lot of experience, and Largo proceeded to move on to his new school in France at grade level and thrive.

Go Adventure,

p.s. I have heard that they have since replaced several administrators and the primary teacher left. Hopefully this will be an improvement.

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