Now that my first kid is on the way, I’m wading further into the murky waters of parenthood. Not willingly. It’s just something that happens, I guess, as soon as you get knocked up. It’s then you realize that you know nothing about being a parent or caring for a kid.
Everyone else must know this about first time parents too. At seven months pregnant, I’m knee-deep into many topics that passionate parents love to bend a newly pregnant woman’s ear about — from the best birthing position to breast versus bottle feeding. Everyone has an opinion. Everyone loves to give advice. It makes you wonder if these everyones forgot what it was like to be pregnant for the first time. Because, let me tell you, all these voices can pull you into the undertow if you let them. I too am opinionated, if not somewhat judgy. The difference is that I’m pretty good about keeping my thoughts to myself. My motto is:
This smirk was plastered on my face as I sat across from enthusiastic administrators spouting off educational philosophies at international schools in Qingdao this summer. Ever the skeptic, I didn’t want to ask too many questions or poke too many holes into any of their lofty-sounding sales pitches. No, I was not there scoping out schools for my still unborn child. I was tagging along with a friend who actually has school-age kids in need of a Western education with native English-speaking teachers and classmates.
I’m thankful that I only have to deal with other people’s opinions about whether I should have my kid in China or the U.S. Or whether plastic or glass bottles are better. Or whether I should start eating meat again or not. The highly contested topic of education is years away for me, though I’m already learning just how important it is to parents. I understand why, I do. Everyone wants their kid to be smart and successful and, most importantly, to fly the coop for good once they turn 18. But unlike when I was a kid when you either went to public or private (ahem, Catholic) school, there are now more options to consider like charter, Montessori, or International Baccalaureate (IB) schools.
What’s an IB school? I wondered the same thing until I encountered a very enthusiastic proponent at the Qingdao Amerasia International School (QAIS), which also offers a Montessori program for toddlers. The administrator did his best to impress us, his captive audience, with his buzzword bingo. The school was all about “student-driven learning” that took a “whole child approach” to education. They don’t believe in “teaching to the test” and instead emphasize team work and presentations over long-winded papers. All of which sounds great.
QAIS aims to create “outside the box thinkers and leaders” who will turn into the next Steve Jobs and Bill Gates of the world. With yearly tuition ranging from 119,000-166,000 RMB ($18,700-26,700), they better be, especially when fees for transportation, lunches, uniforms, etc. aren’t factored in.* I left impressed but still skeptical. I couldn’t help but wonder how in the world this educational approach could prepare the average kid for life in their average job in the average workplace. Or, even before that, life in their average classroom in their average school back in their average home town that they would one day return to. Obviously, I sound pessimistic, like a crusher of young students’ hopes and dreams ’round the world. I’m a realist.
The school library at QAIS
We heard variations of the QAIS spiel at the next three schools we visited. Student-driven or student-directed learning, it seems, is all the rage these days. A heavy emphasis on producing culturally aware or “internationally minded” kids is another common theme, which seems like an unnecessary selling point to make to expat parents and kids.
The Hong Kong-founded Yew Chung International School (YCIS) really drove this point home, and to a laughable degree. A blue-eyed, blonde-haired gentile administrator from the American south told us that the curriculum took an “east meets west” approach. His delivery and good looks must charm Korean parents given the school’s student body makeup. A hearty cackle threatened to break through my solid smirk as I listened to this empty, overused statement. When he couldn’t better articulate what set YCIS apart from the other international schools we visited, my friend and I quickly agreed that there was no way this school was worth the staggering 127,000-178,000 RMB yearly tuition ($20,400-28,709).
Roaming the colorful halls at YCIS
Standing apart from the crowd, was the International School of Qingdao (ISQ), which had the friendliest, most engaging staff we came across. (For as much as these schools charge and considering they’re run by Westerners, you’d think the customer service would be a lot better than what it is.) I, for one, appreciated the administrator’s candor about the similarities and differences among the international schools in Qingdao. Perhaps it was the inner Christian in her, but instead of explaining the differences or advantages between the schools, she admitted that any would capably prepare kids for college in their home countries no matter their approach or philosophy.
ISQ certainly may have a unique appeal to Christian parents. I wasn’t joking about the kind administrator. All teachers must be Christian, even if most of the students aren’t. That may appeal to some parents. Even so, I don’t see how any parent could get past the school’s crumbling state. Dehumidifiers running at full speed couldn’t mask the moldy smell seeping from the school’s decaying concrete structure. I bit my tongue and kept the smirk firmly in place when I found myself wanting to suggest to this very nice woman that perhaps a portion of each students’ 102,000-197,000 RMB tuition ($16,400-31,700) be diverted to a building maintenance and improvement fund.
An elementary classroom at ICS
Somehow, we saved the best all-around international school for last, without even knowing it. As Chinese-sounding as it is, the Qingdao No. 1 International School of Shandong Province is aptly named. The curriculum incorporates some principles from the IB approach, while still following normal American school standards. Call me crazy, but for American parents and kids, who call Qingdao home for only a few short years, this is the best fit.
Its affiliation with the local government bodies has given it a competitive edge when it comes to facilities. It is situated on a spacious, beautiful campus that features a track, soccer field, outdoor basketball and tennis courts, and an indoor pool and gym. Natural light floods its hallways and classrooms, which are airy and decked out with smart boards. All of which made it somewhat hard to smirk at the yearly 123,300-169,500 RMB tuition ($19,800-27,300) and its 30,000 RMB application fee ($4,800).
The grounds at QISS
The choices parents make when it comes to getting their kids educated are no doubt difficult. No matter where they live. I’ve known people back in the U.S. who try to secure spots in the “best” day cares before their kid even pops out. Others are worried about Common Core standards and their long-term impact on their kids’ minds. It’s no different for expat parents around the world. But, with a big BUT. This will come in the form of a PSA.
Getting your kids properly educated can be especially hard for those of us living in remote locations like Haiyang. Since there are no English-language schools locally, parents have no choice but to send their kids to school in Qingdao. Typically, these families live apart during the week. For some reason, no parent seems up for a four-hour commute Monday-Friday. I’m not sure why?
Then there are the financial burdens. The days of the all-encompassing expat packages are over. Not all companies are willing to shoulder the expensive burden of international tuition. Most only pay for the full tuition of one child and then pay on a gradually decreasing scale for each additional kid. Families in remote locations also have to account for the extra costs required to split their time and lives between two homes.
Tackling educational decisions makes some of the pregnancy issues I’m dealing with seem, well, pretty infantile. But, seriously, I’ve realized over these last seven months that dealing with the issues and opinions that surround parenthood is a lot like dealing with those surrounding expats. A lot of people can’t understand why we chose to move to rural China. Most of those same people won’t get why we’re having a kid here. One day, if we’re still expats, they may question our decision to raise and educate our kid abroad. Whatever. People will always have opinions. I know they’ll be more than willing to share them with me. That’s fine. I’ve got my smirk. It’s my umbrella.
*Tuition for each school differs depending on the child’s grade level, with full day kindergarten being on the lower end and high school on the higher. Some schools also have more additional fees than others.