By Rachel Pieh Jones
We are an American family living in Djibouti and my kids attend a French school. Their first days of preschool were the first days they spent entirely and only surrounded by the French language.
I am not a teacher. I think I might explode, or implode, if I were a teacher. I don’t have all the skills I want my kids to inherit, few parents do. That’s why we need teachers and these are just a few of the skills our teachers have given, alongside an academic education:
At my first parent-teacher meeting, the teacher told all the parents that our children had to ask permission, in polite French, before using the toilet. Then she looked at me.
“Except Lucy,” she said. Lucy was allowed to grab herself, bite her lip, and do a little dance. “Until she learns the words.”
I loved the teacher immediately.
Lucy’s class was going to march in a school costume parade. She had volunteered to dress up as a wolf, they were representing Little Red Riding Hood, La Petite Chaperone Rouge. She had been so excited about her costume until she got to school and saw some of her friends dressed in cute red dresses, carrying baskets of flowers. She had a fuzzy brown mask and a dull orange costume. She started to cry.
Her teacher understood the problem right away and within minutes, she designed a red cape, skirt, and handkerchief for Lucy’s head. She manufactured a basket and pulled flowers from a bougainvillea bush outside the classroom. Voila, the wolf transformed into a smiling, damp-cheeked Little Red Riding Hood.
First Grade: Pride
We spent this year in the United States. Lucy went to a French-immersion school in the Minnesota public school system. She didn’t know how to ride the bus or how to work things out in the school cafeteria or how to play the American games at recess. But she was now a rock star in the classroom, her French far beyond the levels of the other students.
The teacher helped Lucy navigate the culture of the American classroom while celebrating her Djiboutian experiences. Lucy sobbed on the last day of school, primarily because she loved her teacher so much.
Second Grade: Compassion
Back to Djibouti and this year, my older two children started attending a boarding school. Lucy has now gone through several huge transitions. An international move and learning to be the only child left at home, missing her older siblings.
One day at school, Lucy had a total meltdown. She was sobbing and couldn’t stop. The more she cried, the more embarrassed she became and the angrier she became and the more she cried. She didn’t remember later what she was crying about. The teacher asked her to step outside until she calmed down. The next day, Lucy apologized. The teacher was not upset and didn’t make her feel embarrassed, but welcome. He let her be who she was, intense emotions and all.
Third Grade: Empowerment
This year we maintained the status quo. Tried to keep things steady – no big moves, no major changes in our family situation. And this year, Lucy got to be the rock star again. There were two new girls who only spoke English. They needed someone to help them navigate the school culture and to translate what was going on in class. The teacher put Lucy on the case and this year, Lucy learned how to be both servant and leader. And she made two new best friends.
Fourth Grade: Creativity
Oh, fourth grade! We adored this teacher. She initiated after school craft days (we don’t have many extra curricular activities) during which the kids learned calligraphy, dance, and origami.
The students learned how to put together a five-minute presentation. Lucy did hers on K’naan, the Somali-Canadian singer whose song, “Wavin’ Flag” was the official song of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Lucy (with my help) tweeted K’naan that an American girl in Djibouti was doing a presentation on his music. She asked what his favorite song was. He tweeted back that they were all his favorite and best of luck on the presentation. Lucy was so excited to share her presentation that when her turn came, she leaped up and down in the classroom.
At the end of the school year performance, her class performed a wavin’ flag dance to that song and the teacher personally made each child’s costume.
Fifth Grade: Courage
This year Lucy has the same teacher she had in second grade. He consistently encourages her to be creative, to work hard, and to enjoy and explore Djibouti. He is one of the rare expatriates who love this country and he passes that affection on to the students.
It isn’t easy to be a foreign family, to move across the globe, to say hello and goodbye to friends, family, teachers, and schools. And it certainly isn’t easy to be a teacher in these kinds of cross-cultural, melting pot locations.
Dear teachers, my kids have thrived around the world because of you. Between the three of them, they have attended school in five different countries on three continents and each time, you helped this new place become a home. It can’t be easy, to have a non-native speaker in your classroom and to have their bumbling parents sending notes filled with grammatical errors or who don’t quite understand how to do the homework. But you have never made us feel like a burden. You have taken delight in our kids and encouraged them to love learning. We are forever grateful.
Rachel Pieh Jones is a contributing blogger for Brain, Child. She lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children: 14-year old twins and a 9-year old who feel most at home when they are in Africa. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, FamilyFun, Babble, and Running Times. Visit her at: Djibouti Jones, her Facebook page or on Twitter @rachelpiehjones.