Who’s the Student Here?

13 Sep

“These days you don’t know who’s going to school- the child or the parent,” my mother in law would say, tsk-tsking, whenever her neighbor would talk about what she had to be doing for her two kids in school. I wasn’t sure if the tsk-tsking was mostly a social nicety, or if it was just to highlight the differences of the time periods, or if what was expected of parents with school kids really was absurd. At the time, Lucia was still a baby, and it all seemed so far away that I didn’t pay much attention.

Fast forward and pan in on my three year old, and here we are in the big league of obligatory preschool. In Mexico, there are three years of preschool / kindergarten before they start elementary school. If your kid has their birthday between September and December, they won’t even have turned three when they start going to school. This is great for little social butterflies like my child, but I witnessed a little boy in full-blown tantrum / panic mode on the first day of school, refusing to let go of his mother’s leg, and thought, “Maybe 2 is a little young for some kids to start school.” (And a couple of kids in Lucia’s class are still in diapers, which must be a bummer for the teacher.)

Regardless, Conan and I were excited about Lucia having the routine / structure of going to school while I’m at work. The schedule is from 9-1, so when she gets out coincides nicely with my lunch break. It sounded so great for her to get out of the house, to have someone else be in charge of her safety and stimulation for a few hours every day. Little did we know how much work it would entail on our part.

We’d started sending her to the 2 year old, non-official school program at this private school. For that, we’d had to go ahead and buy her two types of uniforms- one for the two days of physical education and one with the khaki skirt and collared pollo shirt. Everyone here wears a uniform to school for their entire education, up to university (and some universities even have uniforms, but not mine, thank goodness). This is probably good since there is so much poverty here that not having uniforms would instantly reflect huge inequalities. It’s weird for me, though, since I was one of those kids who definitively associated my (thrift store-bought, punk rock) clothing with my identity expression. I picked out my high school based on the fact that other “weird” kids went there and you didn’t have to wear a uniform. Here, whether it’s public or private, you wear a uniform- once again, taking options off the table in a way that just doesn’t happen in the US. I imagine it won’t be a big deal for Lucia since there won’t be any other options. She already just takes it for granted that she wears a uniform to school.

Her little uniform...(yes, a white shirt for small children. sigh)

Her little uniform…(yes, a white shirt for small children. sigh)

But buying the little uniforms for my pint-size kiddo was about as seriously as we took the school situation at first. She only went for a couple of months before (the only 5 weeks long) summer break, but it was a nice, easy introduction to school. It might have been misleading for me, though, since now she’s in “real” school and I’m still having a hard time taking it seriously. I mean, what does she really need to learn at this point? She already knows colors and numbers and all that jazz. I figure it’s mostly about social skills and it’ll help her level of Spanish language. If there were a Montessori school around she’d be there instead, and I’d be a bit more impressed, but there’s not Montessori here.

But sending her to school really is serious business! I had no idea how much work and money it costs to ship kids off to someone else for a few hours a day. It almost is like we, the parents, are students, too, getting graded and judged, and getting  lots of homework! My mother in law wasn’t just saying that to be nice!

Don’t get me wrong. I can understand that it’s important to be involved in your child’s education. But where do we draw the line between being a support person and taking over your child’s education?

There’s a lot of stuff that’s a shock to my system but that’s not unreasonable to expect from parents. We need to buy uniforms, books. In a private school there’s the enrollment fee, the monthly tuition, the events fee. If it’s a public school they still ask for / demand money for events, and you have to buy a bunch of supplies that are for the school, not specifically for your kid. Plus you have to go to a ton of meetings and volunteer your time for all kinds of stuff, and if you don’t do it you often get fined. Then there’s all the other stuff that we just didn’t have to think about and incorporate into our agenda in such a strict way. Like making sure her hair looks a bit more tamed every day. Making sure her fingernails are short enough for the school’s standards. Hanging our heads in shame if we forget to send a spoon in her lunchbox for her oatmeal. (Gasp!)

Most of that stuff is within reason, in my opinion. But schools (public schools more than private ones) assume that there is a stay-at-home parent to be full-time involved in school. Mothers (and it’s pretty much always mothers around here) are expected to go to meetings every month or more sometimes. They often have to volunteer to clean the school and put on events. I remember helping a woman I know in Juquila write a play for a Christmas event that groups of moms were going to turn in to the teacher who would pick one to be the Christmas play. And it wasn’t voluntary play-writing, it was mandatory. I don’t know if I’m just being an anti-involvement parent (go ahead and wag your finger at me here) or if my eye rolling is justified. It’s one thing if you volunteer for the PTA and bake your brownies for the bake sale or whatever, but obligatory play-writing seems a bit much. Who has time for all that?

Even stay-at-home moms don’t really have time for all that, because they’re too busy doing their kids’ homework and delivering lunches at the precise time each day. Imagine dropping off your kid at 9AM and going back home. Then you return at 10 or 10:30 bearing their lunch (preferably good and hot, too, since almuerzo is a big meal at midmorning after a light breakfast when you first get up). Then you go back home after you drop off lunch. Then you go back to pick them up at 12 or 1. And if you’ve got them in different schools- one in preschool, one in elementary school, for example- then you’re on double duty! It’s crazy. All the moms who do it think it’s super stressful, but they still do it. Some schools won’t let you send a packed lunch, so the other option is for your kid to buy lunch at school from a private vendor (which might be another mom or group of moms at some schools). But that option is not usually as healthy and it’s more expensive. There’s not a cafeteria where they make some kind of effort to provide a nutritious meal, and it’s definitely not free for anybody.

At private schools, they are more likely to have an on-site vendor who sells food, with cost and quality varying. At Lucia’s school parents are actually discouraged from bringing almuerzo, for which I am eternally grateful. Instead, parents can either send a packed lunch or buy on site. That eliminates one absurdity from our lives, but there’s still the homework issue.

I occasionally give homework to my university students. Mostly I don’t bother, because they’ve already got enough to do and half the time they just copy off of their friends anyway. But for me, when I do, it’s because I want to really, really encourage some extra practice with whatever we’ve been doing in class.
For three year olds, who can’t even read to see what the homework assignment is, I’m really not sure what the point is. It does seem like homework for parents rather than students. I’ve been reading articles lately, too, on this precise thing producing helpless adults in the US- where parents are still, like, filling out their kid’s college applications for them. In Mexico, in many ways, people tend to raise much more independent children, so I’m a bit baffled by this kind of homework thing.

Lucia just got her first couple of homework assignments, and I don’t really understand. The first one was to paste pictures of her immediate family members and label their relationship (mama, papa, brother, etc.). This one kind of pissed me off because 1) getting pictures printed here is expensive, and who has extra pictures of individual family members just laying around that they want to ruin by pasting them into their kid’s notebook? It’s not like we had time in that afternoon to run out and get some extras printed, either. 2) This is totally homework for the parent to do. There was pretty much zero participation for Lucia. I had to go find spare pictures. I had to tape them in because we didn’t have a glue stick (Lucia helped push down on them once they were taped- what an educational feat). I had to write the family relationship because my three year old can’t write yet! What was the purpose of this? Are there 3 year olds who can’t yet recognize their mom and dad?

The second assignment was from English class. While I’m really pleased that they already have English class in preschool, I’m not sure why they had homework in it since they can’t read to see what the assignment is. It was a picture where they were supposed to color one part green and one part red. But if they can’t read what they’re supposed to do, that means parents need to tell them. And what happens if parents don’t know enough English to tell them what to do? Then parents have to go find someone to help them (the parents) translate their kids homework so they can then tell them what to color. Then for kids who haven’t learned colors well enough in English, they’re going to end up just being told in Spanish what to do. And if they’ve already got it down, why do they need homework in that? Is this really helping their kid learn English? It seems unlikely to me.

Parents and teachers, please weigh in here. Save me from being an eye-rolling, uninvolved parent! Give me some research or reasons to buy into this stuff. I’ve seen some research that early education might help with future educational success, but I don’t think it applies here. Unfortunately, despite 3 years of obligatory preschool, Mexico has some of the worst educational outcomes compared to other countries worldwide, and our state ranks worst in the country. So help a mama out here. How do you cope with a much-less-than-ideal educational system? What do you do about homework that’s more for you than your kid? How do you support your child’s education without taking it over for them?

2 Responses to “Who’s the Student Here?”

  1. holly September 13, 2015 at 9:01 pm #

    That’s insane. My kindergartener doesn’t have any homework, and there is zero mandatory participation. Why do they assume you have nothing to do?

    • exiletomexico September 14, 2015 at 8:19 am #

      I suspect that, in part, they assume you have “nothing to do” because most or all of the expectation is on moms, not dads, and it’s kind of assumed that housewives don’t really do anything. Even though many moms are part of the labor force as well, AND many “housewives” bring in money via more unofficial channels, there’s still that really sexist attitude that women’s work isn’t real work, so of course they have time for all this…. Just my theory!

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