When planning this adventure of ours, American friends asked me what school is like in New Zealand. I told them I had no idea. It had been too long for me to have any frame of reference. I remember my primary school days being full of fun and knucklebones and elastics at lunch time and that one scary teacher in Standard 3 that spoke mainly Russian…
2 years ago, I set up a meeting with the principal of my old primary school. It went very well and she was lovely but the school had grown to a very large size. I wasn’t looking for little house on the prairie small, just small enough that my children might see each other on the play ground at lunchtime and give or receive a hug if needed. Once back in the States, I began researching my options. I found a school with a very good reputation, in a suburb very close to the city, that I had absolutely no familiarity with. I contacted the office and was told that they would be happy to accept my children as long as we lived ‘in the zone’.
It has been very interesting to observe the many differences between our school in Nashville and our school here. The most obvious difference is the amount of schooling. Here in New Zealand, school starts at 9am and ends at 3pm compared with our school in Nashville which starts at 8am and ends at 3pm. Although the school day doesn’t begin until 9am, kids are allowed to get to to school early and play on the playground. My kids like to get to school at 8:30 so they have 30 minutes of playing on the playground and scootering with their friends. Everything is far more relaxed. From what other parents have told me, New Zealand and Australia have purposely implemented a less is more attitude towards homework. My kids just do not have much homework. Poppy has to read a small book each night and Emma and Tate are encouraged to read also. No hours and hours of worksheets and projects.
School work is done…at school. Before coming to New Zealand, I admit that I was a one of those parents that never complained about homework. If that was what it takes to get ahead then pile it on. Within reason of course. Watching my kids grow and prosper over the last 5 months has changed my perspective on school and the role that it plays in my young children’s lives. In Nashville, tests were heavily prepared for and scores were emphasized as paramount. Here, skills such as problem solving and critical thinking are what is valued more than the number at the top of your paper.
One of the most glaring differences was made apparent during our first term (the New Zealand school year is divided in to 4 terms from early February to December). Parent-teacher conferences. Kids were asked to attend which was a first for us. Emma’s conference was first. I showed up, with a few non urgent questions in hand. Emma’s teacher who is well respected in the school asked me to have a seat. Then I watched as he consulted with Emma about her learning to date and how she was feeling. Then he asked her to come up with some goals for the rest of the term. They spent the next 20 minutes articulating those goals. Then she was asked to sign her goal sheet.
Tate and Poppy’s conferences followed suit (yes even 5 year old Poppy had to come up with her own goals). As we all walked home that night, I was struck by the fact that I had barely asked any questions. The conferences were merely a chance for teacher and student to collaborate on goals and expectations for the coming weeks. Not for parents (like me) to ask repetitive questions that I probably knew the answers to and stroke my ego a little. It makes far more sense to involve the students in these conferences. Give them some buy in. I was impressed.
Back in the States, my kids lunch times are staggered throughout the day to accommodate seating everyone in the cafeteria. That means some kids eat lunch at 10:30 in the morning with a small snack at their desk in the afternoon. Kids get 10 minutes to eat silently and then 10 minutes to converse with friends before they can go outside and play. Structure served with a side of more structure. The amount of time allocated for Morning Tea time and lunch time is comparable to our experience in the US. The time is just used differently. In decent weather, kids eat their morning tea and lunch outside. There are not any allocated areas for lunch, just wherever the student would like to sit. It is up to them how much lunch they eat before running off to play. Again, I was happily surprised with the amount of freedom my kids have during their days here.
At my children’s school here, they have composite classes. This means that half of the class are doing Year 5 work and the other half are doing Year 6 work. Perhaps because I have lived in the land of structure for so long but I still can’t comprehend how the teachers can teach effectively. But they do. The truth is that I am quite removed from their day to day learning. Kids are allowed to be kids here. Traits such as independence and thinking outside the box are strongly encouraged. Field trips include ballets and plays and taking the kids on hikes.
I don’t want to give the impression that things have been perfect. Two weeks after the second term started, one of my children started complaining of stomach aches and didn’t want to go to school. Their appetite and activity level were normal so I kept sending them to school. When I got a call from their school telling me that my child wanted to come home but seemed fine, I knew something else was going on. It turns out that my child was being bullied (please refer to Instagram post with a photo of me chugging champagne from the bottle). I would love to say that one meeting with the teacher and the issue was sorted but things got a lot worse. My child started staying that they wanted to leave New Zealand. I went to war or so it felt. I called meeting after meeting with the teacher and the principal. Without a job or a husband, I had time. I wanted action. They were focused on feelings. I am sad to say that the schools response was very 2016. They were far too soft and far too concerned with political correctness. I finally met with the Mother face to face and the bullying stopped. In those 3 weeks, the end of the day couldn’t come soon enough. Jeff was as helpful as he could be on the other side of the world. But it was up to me to handle, and it was exhausting.
When Emma and Tate arrived here, their teachers immediately moved them up to the next year level. In week 3, Emma stood up in front of her class and taught them computer coding. Poppy had the opposite experience. In New Zealand, most children start school either on their 5th birthday or the Monday after they turn 5. When Poppy started school here in Wellington, she was 5 years and 5 months old. Her teacher assumed she would be reading. She wasn’t. I didn’t know for the first term of the year that she was in a reading group by herself. She didn’t complain, she just kept working at it.
So if someone were to ask me the same question today about the difference in education, I would ask that person to define what they mean by education. I brought my kids to New Zealand to have an educational experience and they certainly have. Ask them and they can tell you what Matariki is and they can sing you several songs in our native Maori language. Ask them about our native Kiwi and what a kangaroo smells like or what an Afghan biscuit tastes like just out of the oven. But perhaps what is most important is that you can now ask my children about their family here. They will tell you about their cousins and they will tell you about their Grandad who was so much fun when he came to visit and they will tell you about their Nana, who spoils them with milky bars and most importantly, love.
Just don’t ask them about saying goodbye.